We found the economy car efficiency, the tight build quality, and the odd body style all appealing on the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT. But once we started looking at the details, we realized it was a Toyota. The hard flooring in the cargo area and the shape of the instrument cluster perfectly matched what we had just seen on the 2009 Toyota Matrix, and the similarities don't stop there. Both cars had the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which someone on staff suggested might be GM's most advanced engine.
However, there are differences, most notably in an area we pay special attention to, the car's head unit. Where the Toyota Matrix can be had with an in-dash navigation system, the Pontiac Vibe just has a little blue OnStar button that connects you with a nice person who can tell you how to get where you are going. In the Matrix, you can opt for a nine-speaker stereo system if you don't get navigation, but the Vibe GT comes standard with a seven-speaker audio system, and you still get the little blue button. The Vibe/Matrix represents an extreme in customer choice, where you can not only choose from myriad options and power trains, but also even what badge your car will wear.
Test the tech: A small car on a long trip
Some masochistic urge led us to take the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which meant a good 12 hours of seat time. At least we were well set for music, as our Vibe GT had XM satellite radio, a stereo that could read our MP3 CDs, and an auxiliary jack for our MP3 player. We set out on a sunny Monday afternoon, driving south on Highway 101.
This big subwoofer added depth to the audio experience.
For this first leg of the trip we had plenty of traffic, and spent a lot of time working the five-speed manual transmission. We liked the solid feel of this shifter, which took away some of the frustration of stop-and-go traffic. We put an MP3 CD on random and turned up the volume to appreciate the 320 watts from this Monsoon audio system. During this trip, we had plenty of time to evaluate the audio quality. The amp for this system helps the quality a lot, but the system's downfall are its speakers. There's a big subwoofer in back, which gives music a lot of depth, but the tweeters and woofers are merely good. They reproduce highs and mids well, but they don't contribute to a broad audio experience.
In the hills south of San Jose and on the Grapevine leading into Los Angeles, we tested out the engine's power. In fifth and even fourth gear, there's no real passing power--you have to drop it down to third if you need to get moving in a hurry. But climbing the hills we could maintain speed easily in third, holding at 60 mph or 70 mph. The handling was effortless, with the car's responsive steering helping us keep to our lane. We could also make quick lane shifts easily, as long as we were geared down far enough.
We crossed over to Interstate 5 at Paso Robles, and hit the blue button so we could ask for directions to our Los Angeles destination. We told the nice man who answered the address we wanted, and he asked us if we had someone else in the car who could write down the directions he was about to give us. That sounded very quaint to our tech-focused ears, but that was the only option, as the Vibe GT didn't support downloadable turn-by-turn directions we've seen in other GM cars, such as the Saturn Aura Green Line. As we didn't have someone else in the car, the OnStar representative read out the directions and had OnStar record his recitation so we could access it from the car at any time. This kind of navigation help just doesn't stand up to a GPS system with maps.
The blue OnStar button connects you to an OnStar operator, while the telephone button activates the OnStar phone service, if you have it.
While talking to the nice man from OnStar, we had some difficulty hearing and being heard, as there was plenty of road noise while we careened at 80 mph down the freeway. During this trip, we crossed every manner of road surface, and got to hear each one's distinct song. We found it particularly rough where the paving crews at work on the freeway left gaps between new asphalt and the old. In these places, the Vibe GT would nearly take flight.
We concluded at the end of the trip that while the Vibe wasn't particularly comfortable for such a long trip, but we were able to make good time. Especially in the long, flat sections, we were able to set the pace for the cars around us. Best of all, though, we got an average of 28.18 mpg, topping the Vibe GT's 28 mpg highway rating. We got this fuel economy despite time spent in San Francisco and Los Angeles traffic along with many hours traveling more than 70 mph.
In the cabin
We were lucky to have the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT as opposed to the lesser trim Vibe 1.8L, Vibe 2.4L, and Vibe AWD. None of the other trims get or have the option for the Monsoon audio system, instead being stuck with a four speaker system. We mentioned a few criticisms of the Monsoon system above, but we're sure it sounds far better than the base system.
Tabs at the bottom of the display let you choose categories from XM satellite radio.
The in-dash head unit includes a single CD slot that can read MP3 CDs, and there is an auxiliary input right on the faceplate. The stereo interface is well-designed, with a very usable tab structure that you can manipulate using the preset buttons. Although we don't care for the look of the electrofluorescent display, we like that you can use the tabs to select categories from XM or folders on an MP3 CD.
We mentioned OnStar's poor substitute for navigation above. OnStar also provides a variety of other services, as long as your subscription is up to date. You can get phone service through OnStar, although that means a separate phone number for your car, which isn't useful if everyone is calling you on your cell phone. The only other notable tech feature in the Vibe GT is the AC outlet. We tested that outlet in the Toyota Matrix, and were able to recharge a laptop and a media player in the same amount of time it would take to recharge them from a wall socket.
Under the hood
The 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT, along with the 2.4L and AWD trims, comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine producing 158 horsepower and 162 foot-pounds of torque. It's plenty of engine for this size of a car, giving adequate power to get the Vibe moving. The car can also be had with a 1.8-liter four cylinder engine, a power plant we recently tested in the Toyota Corolla. From our experience in the Corolla, the 1.8-liter Vibe probably performs pretty well. As mentioned above, the five-speed manual transmission felt solid, and we enjoyed using the shifter. But you can also get the Vibe GT with a five-speed automatic transmission that has a manual shift option.
We like the solid feel of the five-speed manual transmission's shifter.
As the GT version of the Vibe, Pontiac includes a stabilizer bar mounted at the top of the front shock points. While this bar added some rigidity, the Vibe GT wasn't a car we really wanted to thrash around. The body style gives it a higher center of gravity than a Honda Civic Si or a Mini Cooper, either of which we would prefer over the Vibe GT for sport driving.
For mileage, the EPA rates the 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Our average, with an emphasis on high-speed freeway driving, came in at 28.18 mpg, and impressive number. As of this review, the emissions rating wasn't available for the Vibe GT.
The 2009 Pontiac Vibe GT has a base price of $19,310. As our only option, we had a $700 sunroof. With the $585 destination charge, the total for our test car came in at $20,595. Included in the price is XM satellite radio with three months of service, and OnStar with one year of the Safe and Sound plan. Stability and traction control, along with a tire pressure monitor, are all standard.
Although OnStar offers some of the services you would get from a navigation system and Bluetooth integration, it falls short of the actual cabin gadgets, hurting the Vibe GT's cabin tech score. The stereo is good, but not great, which helps a little. Overall, it's not much of a tech car in the cabin. For engine performance, we are impressed by its fuel economy. We also like the way the five-speed manual transmission shifts. It is an easy car to drive, but the ride can be harsh and it's not particularly fast.