COAL: 2005 Pontiac Vibe – A Conditional Love.

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2005 Pontiac Vibe.In 2013 it became obvious that the minivan era is over for our family. The boys have their own wheels and one of them has moved out, the other one had temporarily moved in again. Still, there was no need for a vehicle this large even though the family expanded by one English Springer Spaniel.

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For some peculiar reason I was never asked if I wanted a dog in our house. Everybody knew my answer would be: “No!” I knew exactly how this is going to work out. It was supposed to be our younger son’s dog and teach him all that responsibility. I supposed to have no work with the dog. Within about 3 months I was walking the dog, taking him to the vet, buying the food, picking up his poop and teaching him a few commands. I made her (the African-American Queen) pay the vet, groomer and kennel bills.

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’04 Lincoln LS V8

I was looking forward being coddled with a smooth ride by an entry level luxury car. My excursions with the BMWs in Atlanta were fresh in my mind. I also toyed with the idea of getting a Lincoln LS V8. I drove two of these and they were very much to my liking. I also sampled a ’10 Chevrolet Malibu, an ’08 Mercury Milan and an ’07 Kia Amanti. All of them lacked one major requirement: a special compartment for the dog. I do not like SUV’s or Crossovers. I needed a wagon.

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Interior of an ’07 Kia Amanti

Wagons were just about impossible to find or German, Swedish or complicated by 4 wheel drive. I entered my criteria in a query at TrueDelta.com and hoped to get some useful suggestions. Among the replies were the Dodge Magnum, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix and Kia Rondo. The Dodge Magnum that were in my price range had the infamous 2.7L engine. Hyundai Elantra Touring were completely absent in our region. Toyota Matrix were rare and seemed over-priced. A used car dealer wanted $7000 for one with over 200,000 miles on the clock. A Pontiac Vibe was available about 2 hours away and a Kia Rondo was close by. That was in Spring 2014.

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I decided to check out that Rondo at a Ford dealer in the Des Moines area. They ran an event where they would evaluate anyone’s car for trade in. I gave them the keys to the Windstar and asked for a ride in the Rondo even though it was out of my budget. It was  a decent enough car but I was not impressed. It felt and looked too much like 7/8 of a minivan.

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Pissed off by high pressure sales tactics.

The salesman turned the ride into a rather displeasing encounter. First he was telling me which route to take rather than letting me choose. The route included some interstate from on-ramp to the next off-ramp and smooth four lane roads. There was no sampling of a bad road at all. Back at the office they insulted me with a below the belt line trade-in value for the Windstar and when I declined their offer they came back with a senior salesman to twist my arm. When he tried to talk me into a Ford Escape I said: “I think I have to leave.” And I left. The whole encounter left such a bad taste in my mouth I was pissed for days. At the used car dealer that had the Amanti I was treated with respect, they just didn’t have the right vehicle.

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Photo from the Craigslist ad.

The following Monday an ad for an ’05 Pontiac Vibe appeared in Craigslist. It was for a private sale and only one mile from my place. It was Salsa red, black interior, it had the Moon & Tunes package (moon roof and 7 speaker stereo including a sub-woofer). I drove it the same night in stormy weather. It rode alright even though the tires were noisy. The steering wheel was a smidgen off center and the car pulled slightly to the side. I was sure an alignment would take care of that. The owner pointed out that this is a Pontiac and therefore quite firm in the suspension. At this point I did not care anymore. It looked like a decent deal and buying it would stop the agony of the search. I offered $5600 for the 9 year old car with 89,000 miles on the clock. He accepted and I picked it up the next day.

Three tires were worn, one was new. I knew that and it suited me fine. I like to choose my own tires anyway. Within a week I had all tires replaced with Michelin Defender and had the alignment done. These tires are very quiet and the alignment was now spot on, including the steering wheel.

Yogi after a swim (small)

Yogi took a swim in the South Skunk River.

As first thing I fabricated a pet barrier so the Springer Spaniel will be safe in the back. He got used to it really quick because I went to the river bottom, let him run free and take a swim.

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Shaping a piece of foam for lumbar support.

But something wasn’t right with the seat. I couldn’t find a really comfortable position. After about 30 minutes my lower back started to hurt. Lumbar support was non existing. At JoAnn’s Fabric I bought a piece of foam and whittled it down with a  kitchen knife so it would fit behind my back on the seat. I kept cutting it until the support was just about right. Then I placed it under the seat’s fabric. You would never know it’s there. When my son took the seat he went: “ahhhhhh!”

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Grant Wood Scenic Byway

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 The National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa had familiar bike on display: BMW R 26

I immediately started looking for rims and winter tires. In June I found a set of MSW rims with General Altimax Arctic tires that were used on a Toyota Prius for 3 years for only $250.00. I took a day of vacation to go to Cedar Rapids to pick them up and combined it with a visit to the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa  and a few miles on the Grant Wood Scenic Byway.

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An oversized nut serves as a 10  mm spacer…

Front mounting points shimmed by 10 mm

…and makes this relaxed hand position possible.

On this trip my lumbar support proved to be very effective. Still, I was not happy with the ergonomics. Somehow the triangle from pedals to the steering wheel and the hips was odd. I found that I needed to raise the seat so my hands could rest on my thighs while holding the wheel. That was impossible to achieve with the seat’s height adjustment and the wheel’s tilt. I resorted to shimming the front mounting points of the seat by about 10 mm and that did the trick. Now it is much better.

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Tearing out the carpet was surprisingly easy.

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Here it is hanging out to dry.

The Pontiac Vibe is an economy car. In fact it is a variation of the Toyota Corolla. Economy cars are noisy. I wanted it quiet. I pulled the interior out, added brush-on sound deadener and carpet padding. I also cleaned the carpet really well with the garden hose and a Bissell Carpet and Upholstery cleaner. I found lots of Golden Retriever hair, sand, and happy meal toys.

Adding Peel & Seal rubber membrane from the home improvement store for the door skins and carpet padding under the door panel helped damping noises and enhanced speaker performance. The sub-woofer received a layer of quilt padding inside in order to eliminate standing sound waves. Now I can hear notes in my favorite songs that I never heard before. In fact I had to dial the bass down and lower the volume.

GM sent me a recall note for the ECU. The new ECU made the engine and transmission cooperate much smoother. Another recall was issued for the the passenger side air bag, but no parts were available yet. Several weeks later they came in and the recall was completed. I don’t think any Takata brass has been put in jail for their malfeasance, but they should!

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He wouldn’t mind if it were like this year round.

Vibe a la mode, feb1 2015

Intake manifold gasket

The intake manifold gasket was distorted and leaking.

In the winter of ’14 I noticed some hesitation when the engine was cold. It was very reminiscing of the way the Ford Windstar acted with a vacuum leak.  During the summer of ’15 I replaced the intake manifold gasket and cleaned the throttle body. That fixed the issue.

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Carpet in the trunk area was well worth the effort.

The cargo area is plain plastic material and does not provide any traction for the dog or cargo. I bought some cheap runner off the reel at the home improvement store, plastic fasteners from NAPA and lined the cargo area. Not only is it more comfortable for the dog, it further reduced noise coming from the back. Beyond that I did basic maintenance: spark plugs, air filter, cabin air filter, oil changes and a transmission service. And I fixed a loose piece of cladding on the passenger door.

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Junkyard upgrade: dual tone horn.

The horn was embarrassingly feeble. I replaced it with Fiamm dual tone horns from the junkyard. Now I can effectively harass those folks who fool around with their phones while driving.

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Vibe in Kansas City, KS

The miles racked up quicker than I expected. We went to Kansas City, North Carolina, Minneapolis, Iowa City, Omaha NE, and did a tour of West Bend, Clear Lake  and Mason City in Iowa. I found the Vibe utterly reliable, easy to maintain, and giving 28.5 mpg vs 17 to the Ford Windstar. Of course when I had the Windstar fuel prices made historic highs and now as I drive the econobox fuel prices make historic lows.

The Vibe is nimble in town and corners very well. Not long ago we spent a week in Las Vegas were I took a few laps in a Porsche Cayman with Exotics Racing. The instructor taught me a new trick and I encourage you to try it out yourself. The typical driver in the daily grind will  steer into a corner while still riding the brake. He or she will also accelerate out of a corner before the car is straightened out. That puts the tires in a double tasking mode: steer and brake, steer and accelerate. However tires perform much better if they do only one thing at a time.

The instructor made me brake while the car went straight, then get off the pedals and turn the steering wheel, complete the corner without touching any pedals (“balance the car”), straighten the steering wheel and only now hit the accelerator. Of course by now the car is agonizingly slow. This felt so odd. But soon I entered the corners at a much higher speed. I started to make this a habit even in the daily grind. It is amazing how well the car corners using this technique.

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Monroe Quick Struts have longer springs than the original KYB struts.

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The rear struts will settle after a while.

On the other hand the Vibe is underwhelming on long distances. Don’t get me wrong, it is not bad. Yet, I still prefer a more comfortable ride. To that effect I replaced all struts with Monroe Quick-Strut assemblies. I found that the springs are not much softer than the originals. The suspension is still hard but no longer punishing. Putting the struts in was easy too. I had the alignment checked at the next oil change and it was within specifications. This was in preparation for a trip to San Antonio, TX.

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A once glorious gas station with petrified wood on Old US Hwy 67, Glen Rose, TX.

Our trips have a different feel than they used to do. We don’t have the kids with us. We don’t pursue the task of providing experiences for them. We are building fresh memories together and our own interests are re-emerging. History, art, nature, architecture are the things we seek and enjoy.

George Washington Carver Statue

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these. George Washington Carver.

On the return trip from San Antonio we stopped at the George Washington Carver National Monument near Joplin, MO. It is an idyllic and peaceful place. The visitor center provided excellent information about the life of this extraordinary scientist and humanitarian.

After an hour we continued north and looked for a place to have lunch. Something noteworthy happened at Wendy’s in Carthage, MO. A family of five placed their order prior to us. They took a table and the man of the family waited for the food at the counter. We too ordered and Mrs. W. took a seat at the opposite table, facing that family. However, she was totally engrossed into a most suspenseful part of the romance novel she devoured on her Kindle and thus oblivious to her surroundings. The guy received his tray of food and I got ours. When I turned around I noticed all five white folks sitting there and staring at my wife who was reading the Kindle. Then I stared at the five staring. The guy turned towards me and said: “That’s something.” I countered: “Must be!” That was the extend of our exchange and I sat with my wife. They kept staring right through my back until the irresistible aroma of the never-been-frozen hamburger patties grabbed their attention. I suppose it was a life-altering experience for this family to see a black woman reading a Kindle. What else could it be?

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The Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, MO on Historic Highway 66.

I have to say that my African-American Queen is not excited about the Vibe. For her taste it is too utilitarian and not showy enough. She wondered what people might think about it (her). I said: “I don’t give a hoot what people think. But since you asked: it says that the owners are reasonable and practical folks. Besides, I picked it because of  YOUR DOG! Remember, I could have bought the Kia Amanti for very little more but I cannot imagine letting the dog mess up the pretty interior.”

The Vibe was not love at first sight. Now the Vibe has grown on me, just like the English Springer. Over time I came to appreciate their positive attributes while accepting their negatives. It helps though when the African-American Queen picks up the poop in the back yard. Oh, and I made her pay for the dog food too.

There is something special about the Vibe. Sometimes I even get a friendly nod or wave from other Vibe drivers. Motorcyclists do that, but drivers of econoboxes? Dare I say this is a modern car with character. You will only understand it if you experience it. This car invites the owners to make it their own and it is not all about lowering springs and power adders.

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D-rings help secure bulky cargo.

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It’s rugged enough for the run to the dump…

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….and hauling firewood.

Debbie Stokes laughes as she tries to push "Naruto," her seven month old alpaca into the back of her Pontiac Vibe Thursday after she and the 70 pound animal visited with residents of Alterra Sterling House. Stokes finally got "Naruto" in the car and the animal layed down to enjoy the ride back to their South Vienna farm. Staff photo by Bill Lackey

Debbie Stokes laughs as she tries to push “Naruto,” her seven month old alpaca into the back of her Pontiac Vibe Thursday after she and the 70 pound animal visited with residents of Alterra Sterling House. Stokes finally got “Naruto” in the car and the animal laid down to enjoy the ride back to their South Vienna farm. Staff photo by Bill Lackey, Springfield News-Sun, Springfield, OH.

Some people make a micro RV out of theirs, others go for cosmetic enhancements and some use it like a pickup truck.

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Mom and daughter’s 2nd generation Vibe.

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Vibe owners show their pride on GenVibe.com

And there are families with multiple vibes in the driveway.

An on-line community has sprung up around this car. They are ribbing each other on Facebook and GenVibe.com. They even organize annual meetings. The last one was at the Lane Museum one weekend prior to CC’s get together.

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2004 Mazda 6 Wagon.

Meanwhile I cannot imagine trading it in for another wagon. I checked out an ’04 Mazda 6 wagon. I know I would enjoy its many attributes, in particular the better ergonomics and ride. But I have put too much effort into making this Vibe my Vibe. I would rather keep it and add a comfortable sedan to the fleet for the longer trips. Heck, I know with the Vibe I own a future Curbside Classic.

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Wave when you see this Vibe.

This concludes my Cars Of A Lifetime series. It was a sometimes challenging and thus worthwhile experiment putting the stories of my vehicles and slices of my life in words and pictures.

I like to thank the readers of my COAL articles, in particular those who took time to post comments. I appreciate every one of them. They are like the salt in the soup. I like to acknowledge CC contributor rlplaut whose concurrent COAL series oozed of painstaking honesty in writing. His writing encouraged me to offer a deeper glimpse into my personal life than I would have allowed otherwise. Finally “Thank you, Paul” for providing this excellent platform for such an endeavor.