COAL: 2003 Pontiac Vibe – Who the Hell Buys a GM Car Without a Rebate?

For someone who’s a devout fan of hatchbacks, the turn of the millennium was a dark time.  What was an ubiquitous body style less than 20 years before was now a niche offering.  It seems that most Americans had associated the hatchback with either cheap, entry-level transportation (Chevette) or unmitigated garbage (Citation).  Note: I’m not saying that GM killed the hatchback market, but they bear some responsibility.  Toyota made this abundantly clear with the Echo.  Instead of the cute hatchback available in other markets, including Canada, we were offered probably the ugliest 2- and 4-door sedans to ever grace our shores.  So, if you were in the market for a hatchback back then, your choices could be counted on one hand.

The event that put us in the situation of car shopping at this time was being told by my mechanic that Ed, our 1986 Chevrolet Nova was no longer worth fixing.  I was insistent that Ed’s replacement not be another sedan.  My wife acquiesced, but she insisted that it have four doors and an automatic, as she had grown tired of driving a stick.  I was amenable to that, since we still had the Sentra.

In early 2000, if you wanted a compact (not sub-compact) 4-door hatchback, you could choose a new VW Golf or a used car.  Seriously, that was it.  While the Subaru Impreza wagon looked kind of like a hatchback, it was still too “wagonish” to sell to my station-wagon-hating wife.  Fortunately, unlike personal luxury coupes, hatchbacks started to make a comeback.  Chrysler got the ball rolling with the stunning PT Cruiser.  Hyundai and Mazda brought over the Elantra GT and the Protege5, and Ford introduced the 5-door Focus.  The ones that really grabbed our attention, however, were the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe.  At the 2002 Virginia auto show in Richmond, Pontiac had a white one up on a stand.  “I want to sit in that one,” said my wife, who also hates white cars, as she pointed to the Vibe.  Unfortunately, it was roped off, but I took her over to a Matrix which was on the floor with the rest of Toyota’s lineup.

The Matrix and Vibe were hatchback versions of the new 2003 Corolla, with all three being introduced around February 2002.  Interestingly, neither car resembled the Corolla nor each other.  They were also assembled in different factories, with the Matrix coming out of Toyota’s Cambridge, Ontario plant and the Vibe from the GM/Toyota NUMMI joint-venture in Fremont, CA, replacing the Chevrolet Prizm.  Coincidentally, Ed came from that same factory!

While the Matrix skewed more toward the boy-racer Fast & Furious crowd, the Vibe, in base trim, looked like a mini-SUV with its roof rack and lower body-side cladding.  In all-wheel drive form, it was more of a spiritual descendant of the late, great Corolla All-Trac than the Matrix.  Attractive Pontiac styling and Toyota reliability.  Does it get any better than this?

There was only one problem – I didn’t know how to buy a new car.  Yes, I did accompany Dad on a few purchases, but that was a long time ago.  Since he had passed away, I couldn’t exactly call him for advice.  While doing some research on the internet, I came across, which had all of the information I was looking for.  Most importantly, there was a downloadable spreadsheet which could be used to determine the appropriate price to pay.  The one aspect of buying a new car that I recalled definitely not liking was after the price of the car was agreed upon, the dealer then added several fees that they claimed were required (“Advertising Fee,” anybody?), which opened up a new round of negotiations.  I discovered that the founder of the site, Jeff Ostroff, was also from South Florida and had attended my alma mater a few years before me.  I e-mailed him asking what he thought about negotiating an “out-the-door” price?  He said as long as both sides agree on the meaning, there was nothing wrong with it.  I then modified his spreadsheet to account for the sales taxes and all of the fees required by the State of Virginia, which I found on the web.  I was now fully armed and ready for war!

Although I found the Vibe to be much better looking than the Matrix, being a new model, there were no rebates.  Furthermore, the invoice price and MSRP were close together and provided little room for negotiation.  Who the hell buys a GM car without a rebate?  Focusing my attention on the Matrix in XR trim, which had a much wider spread between invoice and MSRP, I e-mailed several Toyota dealers to tell them what I was looking for and willing to pay.  Some dealers didn’t respond at all, a few told me that we needed to come to the dealer to discuss price, but one salesman said he had exactly what I was looking for and asked me to call him.  “You need to understand, the Matrix is really hot right now, and we’re selling every one we can get our hands on at full sticker.”  Yeah, right.  Uh huh.  Have a nice day.

I knew that my local auto mall had a base, front-wheel drive Vibe in “Satellite” on their lot.  After a brief internal struggle (Who the hell buys a GM car without a rebate???), I worked up my spreadsheet, and we went to take a look.  Another nifty tip I learned was that the sales representative does not need to accompany you on a test drive, nor does the test drive need to be a quick ’round-the-block jaunt that tells you next to nothing about the car.  After informing Kevin, our salesman, that he would be staying behind, we took the Vibe on a 50-mile trek on all kinds of different roads.  Afterward, we got down to business.  It was mostly painless, with the only memorable line from Kevin being, “If you negotiate an out-the-door price, then the actual sales price of the car won’t be an even number!”  Whaaaaaaaaa?  Apparently, this is important to some people.

Shortly after e-mailing the Toyota salesman to thank him for pointing me toward the Vibe, we took “Shadow” on his first road trip.  I had read a long time ago about a man who owned a Camaro with 250,000 miles, and he attributed its longevity to breaking in the engine via a cross-country trek.  Who was I to argue success?  We didn’t have the time to drive cross country, but we did drive him nearly 500 miles to Cincinnati, OH, stopping in Charleston, WV, to drop off Ed at the Good News Mountaineer Garage.  We met up with my sister, who drove down from Manhattan, and visited all of the houses we lived in during our time there.  The best part of the trip was celebrating the season opening of King’s Island (Trivia question:  Which popular family television show from the early seventies prominently featured King’s Island in one episode?)

We found Shadow to be a fun, efficient and thoughtfully designed car.  Besides the stylish Pontiac split grille, the Vibe was one of the first, if not the first, modern hatchback to feature the canted, half-moon-like rear quarter windows.  Over the next 15 years, many hatchbacks and compact crossovers would copy this design.  Another neat feature was the glass window in the rear hatch could be opened separately to make it easier to carry longer items or to retrieve something when there wasn’t enough room to open the hatch.

Inside, the steering wheel was the only hint that the car was related to the Corolla.  It’s my understanding that Pontiac designed the interior of both the Vibe and Matrix, but Toyota must have provided the materials because it didn’t look or feel as cheap as full-GM Pontiacs.  The sporty, deep-set, permanently back-lit, red instrumentation with chrome trim rings was accompanied by automatic on/off head lamps.  Personally, I believe every car that has permanently back-lit instrumentation should have this feature and is why you see so many cars driving around at night without lights on.  In the Sentra, for example, I always knew it was time to turn on the lights when it was too dark to see the gauges.  Also included were a two-prong household-style outlet, cell-phone slot in the console, several storage compartments, and rugged yet comfortable seat fabric.  A lot of those features are common today, but were quite novel in 2002.

Most impressive was the cargo area.  From the brochure, “Vibe’s innovative built-in rear adjustable cargo system…features chrome hooks and eight tie-down anchors, which easily slide forward or back, accommodating loads of various sizes.”  With fold-flat rear and front-passenger seats, you could carry quite a bit in the Vibe.  As much as I liked the retro-cool look of the PT Cruiser, the Vibe was not only far more fuel efficient (26 city/32 highway vs. 19/25), it also had more cargo room.  To keep cargo from sliding around, we put a laundry basket back there and secured it with bungee cords to the chrome hooks.  Worked like a charm.

Downsides were few.  The biggest issue was engine and road noise, as there didn’t appear to be a lot of sound deadening material.  In addition, while handling was great even with the base 16-inch wheels, the Vibe crashed over bumps and potholes.  Another issue was that even with the adjustable steering column in its lowest position, the steering wheel was still too high and too far away for a fully comfortable driving position.  Finally, in that first year when most people were still unfamiliar with the Vibe, we kept getting asked, “Is that an Aztek?”

Shadow was my wife’s daily driver for the first 10.5 years we owned him, then became mine for the last year and a half.  Looking at his service history, we really didn’t have any issues until that 10th year.  First, an oil leak necessitated the replacement of the timing- and valve-cover gaskets.  Shortly thereafter, the air conditioning condenser crapped out.  In total, we paid a relatively small $8,142.35 for regular maintenance, tires (including snow tires) and repairs over 12 years, or just under eight cents per mile for the 104,000 we drove him, with all servicing performed by the dealer.

Late in the eleventh year, I was side-swiped by a Sequoia-driving idiot who didn’t understand that when there are two left-turn lanes, you can’t jump lanes mid-turn.  As you can see in the photo above, the damage appeared minimal, but the impact beam had been hit and necessitated the replacement of the door.  Since the lower body cladding had faded, all of the cladding – including the bumpers – needed to be replaced to look uniform.  Therefore, the other driver’s insurance company handed me a check for over $3,000, more than half the value of the car, for damage that could probably just be ignored.

However, I was never fully comfortable driving the Vibe, especially since it had been my wife’s for so long, and had tired of the noise and harsh ride.  We also had a family member who was coming home shortly from 30 months in…um…a “safe” place…and would be in need of transportation.  We thought Shadow would be perfect for him, and we’d put the insurance money toward a new car.  Unfortunately, before going away, he had been leasing new cars every 3 years and really felt he deserved better than an old Pontoyota.  After two years of neglect, the engine seized one night on his way home from work.  According to him, as he was standing there in the silent evening waiting for the tow truck, he swore he heard someone, or something, say, “You never liked me.”

The most important lesson I learned from Shadow, aside from letting family members handle their own transportation needs, is that when you hold onto a car, it’s far more important to get one you can love than to focus on how much money is on the hood.  So, yes, I am the person who buys a GM car without a rebate.