Who doesn’t love private label goods? Whether a great deal on laundry detergent or a set of otherwise-expensive speakers sold at a discount, we can all appreciate getting a deal, and that can extend to cars too. Today, we’re discussing a car that Automobile once described as “far and away the best small car from General Motors.” So what is it? No, it’s not the fantastically stingy Geo Metro, or even the excellent Chevrolet Prizm. It’s actually a car that, as the great David Tracy put it, we’re all underestimating. You already know what’s going on: A Pontiac Vibe check. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we have a crack at the great claw machine that was pre-bankruptcy GM product planning in search of greatness.
To understand the Vibe, we must go back to early-1980s California, where malaise at GM’s Fremont plant was running high. As the man in charge of Fremont Union Local 364 at the time, Bruce Lee (no, not that one), told This American Life, “It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well-earned.” Ouch. Allegations of working under the influence, gambling on-site, sexual activity while on the clock, and absenteeism plagued the plant, and eventually, GM had enough. In 1982, the automaker fired everyone at Fremont and shut the facility down.
While the Fremont fracas was going on, General Motors wasn’t exactly at the top of the small car game. At the same time that Toyota had Tercel, Corolla, and Camry, GM had Chevette, Cavalier [Editor’s Note: I had a girlfriend with one of these. What a heap. She eventually hit a deer and totaled it, and got a ’70s Dodge Duster as a replacement. It was so much better, and it was also garbage. It was also the only car I ever towed in my Beetle. – JT] , and Citation. It shouldn’t be surprising that shoppers found the reliable, well-built Toyotas more appealing, and in the wake of the oil crisis, Toyota gained significant market share. So much market share, in fact, that the influx of Japanese cars scared the American automakers and government, leading to voluntary import restrictions.
Then came the lightbulb moment: By repurposing the Fremont plant as a joint venture, Toyota could build cars in America to bypass import restrictions without having to build a plant from scratch, and GM could pick up some captive imports while learning all about the Toyota Production System, a lean way of manufacturing that was taking the world by storm. A deal was struck, and a new company was created: The New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI for short.
In 1984, NUMMI opened its doors as a great experiment in automotive manufacturing. Adding a dose of trepidation, This American Life reports that many employees were the exact same people who were fired from Fremont under GM. It seems like a bold strategy when taken at face value, but Fremont was still a United Auto Workers unionized plant and the gamble was that power structures were at fault for Fremont’s reputation, not the workers themselves. By prioritizing collaboration and fairness, Toyota believed it could pull this once-notorious plant out of the muck.
By 1986, NUMMI’s product quality was near or at the level of Toyota’s Takaoka, Japan plant, scoring 3.6 to 3.8 in the Consumer Reports Reliability Index while Takaoka products scored 3.8 to 4.0. That’s an astonishing feat, especially when you learn that products built in GM’s Framingham, Mass. plant in 1986 scored between 2.1 and 3.0 on the same scale. It was an incredibly smart idea for GM to team up with Toyota, although decades of tradition and labor tensions made it difficult to implement the Toyota Production System in other GM plants.
After several hits like the Chevrolet Nova (a Toyota Corolla), the Geo Prizm (a Toyota Corolla), and the Chevrolet Prizm (also a Toyota Corolla), NUMMI started up production of its best GM-badged product for 2003 — the original Pontiac Vibe. I’ve racked up literally thousands of miles on these and their Toyota Matrix sister cars, and to this day, they fill the compact and practical niche better than almost anything else.
Despite its Japanese underpinnings, the first-generation Pontiac Vibe was an extremely American car. Its standard engine came from Virginia, its panels were pressed on-site, plastics were molded in NUMMI’s on-site plastic facility, and everything came together in a unionized plant. Sure, some of the parts may have said Denso on them, but the Vibe was like driving a slice of apple pie.
What’s more, the Vibe was actually better than its Toyota Matrix counterpart. Pontiac wanted this little wagon to be a feature-rich vehicle, so even the base model was comprehensively equipped. I’m talking about air conditioning with a cabin filter, fog lamps, a 115-volt outlet to run small appliances, and an adjustable roof rack. Sure, power windows and power door locks were still part of an option package, but Toyota was so cheap that a base Matrix didn’t even come with decals to black out its B-pillars.
Open the Vibe’s hatch and you’ll find the entire cargo area lined in durable, hardwearing, stain-resistant plastic. Sure, anything damp would turn the whole thing into a Slip-N-Slide, but anything dirty would just wipe off. Plus, the front passenger seat folded flat and was plastic-backed, meaning Vibe owners could pick up lumber without renting a truck. Owner could even lift just the rear glass to accommodate long, slim loads or easily drop shopping into the cargo area without opening the hatch. Granted, the struts on said rear glass can wear out quickly if you cheap out on replacements, but experience with quality units suggests they should last several years. Under the cargo area sat an enormous plastic organizer for everything from jumper leads to bandages, whatever you might need on the road. It’s an impressive piece of tiered storage that doesn’t really have a modern equivalent.
Pop all the seats back up and you’ll find a surprisingly low driving position somewhat at odds with the Vibe’s tall silhouette. It’s a car you sit in rather than on, which is good because an enthusiastic driver can invoke near-nautical body roll in particularly spirited cornering. Dial things down a notch and you’ll find enough passenger space for four fully-grown adults to peacefully coexist on a road trip, and enough headroom for each occupant to wear a 50-gallon hat. Sure, the steering wheel sits a bit too close to the dashboard for most drivers, but for the Vibe’s era and sub-$20,000 price tag when new, that’s not the worst trade-off.
Look past the steering wheel and you’ll find fancy electroluminescent gauges buried deep in the instrument binnacle. Admittedly, the team messed up a bit for the 2003 model year when it decided that everything on every gauge face should be red, but that got fixed in 2004 with white numeric increments to enhance legibility. Speaking of user-friendliness, all center stack controls from the head unit to the HVAC panel sit high on the dashboard within easy reach of the driver, handy for minimizing distraction.
Although the Vibe is fairly utilitarian, it’s easy to forget how nice its cabin was by the standards of the day. Keep in mind, modern soft-touch plastics hadn’t yet proliferated the small car market in 2003, but that didn’t mean a life of grey boredom. Splashes of silver plastic and chrome adorned the dashboard and door cards, while fabric trim also did its part to liven up an entry-level interior. Sure, the plastics on the dashboard and door cards were hard, but the graining was tighter than a wingwalker’s harness and the coloring dark, ensuring a nice look. The Vibe is still a textbook example of how hardwearing materials can still look good with a little bit of thought and care.
Springing beyond the basics of the interior, the Vibe’s options list generally consisted of stuff you’d never expect to find in a small car of the time. A 200-watt audio system isn’t immensely powerful by today’s standards but was leagues better than most tinny systems of the time, and you could even pair it with the luxury audio feature of the era, XM satellite radio. Side airbags, a six-disc CD changer, and a DVD navigation system were also on the options list, and aside from heated seats, who could really want more than that?
So what was the Vibe like to drive? Well, it depends on which Vibe you bought. The base model with the economy-minded low-output 1ZZ-FE engine was adequate. Sure, the engine sounded strained like it was pushing out an enormous number two when attempting a charge to redline, but the Vibe would get you wherever you wanted to go no problem. Ride quality from the standard MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension was very good for the segment and the time, steering was quick if numb, and fuel economy was pretty average. However, if you wanted a little more excitement, the Vibe GT was eager to please.
So the top-shelf sports bus Vibe still has a 1.8-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine. What’s the big deal? Well, the Vibe GT had the Yamaha-codeveloped 2ZZ-GE inline-four, and its party pieces were variable cam lift and a screaming 8,200 rpm redline. For 2003, this engine made a stout 180 horsepower all the way up at 7,600 rpm, and put that power down through a six-speed manual gearbox. Sure, the torque band is way up in the rev range, but hit the cam switchover around 6,000 rpm and it’s like a million furious hornets awaken to the whoosh of induction noise. Hold on all the way to redline to keep it in the power band, grab another gear, and grin from ear-to-ear like your name’s Aphex Twin. How’s that for a way to liven up a commute?
However, what if your commute is up a mountain? What if you drive a snowplough and need a vehicle that can get to the plough before the roads are clear? Fear not, Pontiac did offer an all-wheel-drive Vibe with independent rear suspension, although it came with two caveats: The only engine option was a reduced-output version of the base 1ZZ-FE four-cylinder and the only gearbox available was a four-speed automatic.
In fairness, the Vibe did have two problems, but one was more of an annoyance than a catastrophically expensive issue. Toyota, in its infinite wisdom, decided to cut costs on the gauge cluster and have the odometer max out at 299,999. This was mildly annoying for Americans as it’s not uncommon for these cars to last for 300,000 miles, but it was catastrophic for Canadians because, like the vast majority of the world, measure distance traveled in kilometers. The second issue is reliability of the base five-speed manual gearboxes, primarily in pre-facelift models. Numerous owner complaints have been logged with NHTSA over premature transmission bearing failure, including one that states:
2003 PONTIAC VIBE 5-SPEED. TRANSMISSION BEARINGS FAILED, CAUSING THE TRANSMISSION TO GRIND ITSELF UP AND STRAND THE CAR. FLUID CHANGED EVERY 30K MILES. FIRST TRANSMISSION DIED AT 70K MILES AND THE SECOND ONE NOW DIED AT 110K MILES. THIRD TRANSMISSION GETTING INSTALLED TO CORRECT A FAULTY DESIGN. BUYING A BRAND NEW ONE THIS TIME AND IT HAS COST ME THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS SO FAR. *TR
Odometer and gearbox problems aside, the Pontiac Vibe was so good that Toyota rebadged it as the Voltz and sold it in Japan from July of 2002 until July of 2004. It even made cameos in Gran Turismo 4, Gran Turismo 5, and Gran Turismo 6. GM, with Toyota’s help, built a genuinely world-class compact car at the same time as the General churned out the sad, plasticky 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier. How’s that for astonishing?
In 2008, Pontiac introduced the second-generation Vibe, which sadly converged with its Matrix sibling when it came to equipment. While Pontiac did manage to carve out an extra 0.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, features like air conditioning and fog lamps that came standard on the original Vibe were now optional.
Sadly, things fell apart for the Pontiac Vibe and indeed for NUMMI in GM’s bankruptcy. As part of the restructuring plan, Pontiac was to be shelved altogether, cutting the Vibe’s lifespan short. In June 2009, the New York Times reported that GM pulled out of NUMMI, and Toyota wasn’t going to be left holding the bag for long. On April 1, 2010, Toyota built its last-ever car at NUMMI, a red 2010 Corolla as reported by Motor Trend. Despite the death of the plant and indeed the Vibe, NUMMI’s legacy lives on in a surprising way. In May of 2010, a small Californian start-up manufacturing sports cars bought the facility from Toyota. You may have heard of it, a little company called Tesla.
The Pontiac Vibe was a massive hit, a solid little wagon perfect for day-to-day use. Practical, efficient, well-priced, and well-equipped, it set a standard that few small utility vehicles have lived up to. Even Toyota seems like it can’t make this sort of vehicle again. Thankfully, although it took more than a decade, GM seems to have learned from the success of the Vibe. The new Chevrolet Trax is a near-perfect successor, save for the absence of a few enthusiast-focused items like a manual gearbox or a hi-po engine option. Not that it will tempt many current Vibe owners, of course. When you have a paid-off car that’s this excellent of an all-rounder, why switch it up?
(Photo credits: Pontiac, Chevrolet)
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