Along with the rest of the company, the 2009 Pontiac Vibe is not long for this world.

No fault of its own.

Well, maybe a little. While it is entering its second generation as one of Pontiac’s best-sellers, an economy car that sells less than 40,000 units a year probably didn’t help the long-term viability of General Motors’ “excitement” brand. Nevertheless, while soon to be out of business dealers are living up to their names trying to unload stock, now may be the best time to check one out.

From the outside it is easy to overlook the Vibe’s resemblance to the Toyota Matrix, if you don't already know that they are essentially the same car. The designers at Pontiac have done an excellent job chiseling a unique identity for their version of the California-built vehicle. Granted, it looks like a Pontiac trying to be Asian, and lacks any of the muscle of classics such as the Trans Am or GTO, but the shape is clean and slightly sporty from some angles.

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The interior is nearly identical to the one in the Matrix, but the flavor is more Pontiac than Toyota. Playful, but classy, with just enough bulges and silver-colored plastic to make it interesting. The only giveaway that the running gear comes from Japan is the shiny naked gear selector stalk for the automatic transmission that you find in just about every Toyota.

Would someone please put some clothes on that thing already?

While the base version comes with a 132 horsepower 1.8 liter 4-cylinder and 5-speed manual transmission, our test car had that skinny twig connected to a 4-speed automatic delivering power to all of the wheels from a 158 hp 2.4L, also sourced from across the Pacific. You can get the big engine with front-wheel drive and a 5-speed automatic too, but the 4x4s make due with four gears.

Despite advertisements that always make it appear to be traveling at great speed, the Vibe is not a fast car. It is lively, though, and never leaves you wanting as long as you stick to its intended mission: moving five people around in compact confines, or just one and a surprising amount of stuff. Twenty cubic feet of cargo space resides behind the rear seats and folding them down puts nearly 50 at your disposal. Even more is available if you also fold the front passenger seatback forwards.

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I took the Vibe to IKEA to pick up a tall bookcase with dots and circles over all of the vowels in its name (there were no 'i's) and was able to slide the box easlily across the hard plastic that lines the cargo area and backs of the seats. Message to automakers: all cars that have folding rear seats should have a front one that does the same. The added utility opens up a vast new world of allen wrench-assembled furniture to the driver. The Vibe may not have Rat Pack style, but for flat-pack boxes, it does just fine.

Unfortunately, since there is no carpet, or any mats covering the load floor, things tend to slide around. On a different outing, I was nearly driven insane by an umbrella stroller knocking about in the back while my son to whom it belongs was trying to sleep. There is a trick pop-up storage system under the cargo bay floor with bento box-like compartments to hold bags and other small items, but the cubbies weren't big enough to do much good in this case. The options list doesn't include any liners. It should.

There are a couple of features that go above and beyond, however, like a standard three-prong outlet in the center stack and a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, even on the $16,795 base model. I was particularly impressed to find rear seat cupholders that pop out from the center console. Not because there is anything special about them, but because most automakers are content with putting them in the center armrest, making them useless if three people are sitting back there, or a child seat is on the hump. As there is no center armrest in the Vibe, I guess they didn't have a choice.

All the better.

For true pack rats, the Vibe also has something other small wagons like the Honda Fit and Suzuki SX4 don't: a tow rating. Fifteen hundred pounds won't get your Bayliner to the lake, but you can probably swing a Jet Ski, and maneuvering it to the boat launch should be a snap. The Vibe has electric power assisted steering with a light feel that doesn't offer much feedback when you try to drive it like the advertisements suggest you can, but is perfect for parallel parking.

Unless the approach road to the waterfront is dirt, or you prefer snowmobiles to personal watercraft, you can surely live without the added weight and expense of the all-wheel drive system. It is aimed mostly at bad weather, not dry road performance, and the hit you take at the gas pump doesn't seem worth it. The Vibe AWD has an EPA rating of 20 mpg city/26 highway, while the front-driver with the 5-speed automatic gets 21/29. Before you write in to point out how this kind of fuel economy is exactly what's wrong with American cars these days, remember this is in large part a Toyota and the Matrix gets identical mileage when similarly equipped.

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The base model with the 1.8 liter and a manual transmission does manage to deliver 32 mpg on the highway, so if you don't care how long it takes to get to the gas station, but do care how much you have to spend when you get there, that may be the one for you.

Base price on the Vibe AWD is $18,910 and the only 5-door with all-wheel drive that's cheaper is the SX4. That outlay won’t get you power windows, locks, keyless entry, cruise control or intermittent wipers, but a $1,070 option package will.

When I first picked up the Vibe, I expected to hate it, or at best be bored into submission. On paper, there just wasn't much that made it sound very interesting. But once I got to know it, and learn what it is all about, I came to respect it for what it is: a really useful little car. And since it shares so much with the Toyota, you should be doubly-protected against parts shortages after Pontiac fades into history.

Too bad the relationship will be short-lived.


2009 Pontiac Vibe AWD

Base Price: $18,910

As Tested: $20,565

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon

Engine: 2.4L Inline-4

Power: 158 hp, 162 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

MPG: 20 city/26 highway

What do you think of the Vibe?

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