2003-2008 Pontiac Vibe / Toyota Matrix (35.5 MPG)

by Rick Harrell on June 19, 2008


Gen-I Matrix/Vibe:

+ FE vs. Cargo and Passenger Capacity
+ Fun to Drive (especially handling)
+ Added Feature Content

– Uncomfortable Driving Position
– Hodgepodge of Toyota and GM Parts
– Spartan Interior

“New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.” or NUMMI is printed on stickers under the hood. What’s up with that?

That’s the name given the to the GM/Toyota joint venture in Fremont, CA. The unique situation is the History of a UAW manufacturing agreement between General Motors and Toyota, at a facility that has produced Union-made vehicles, such as the:

Chevy Nova (1984-1988)
Geo/Chevy Prizm / Toyota Corolla (1998-2002)
Pontiac Vibe / Toyota Matrix (2003-Present)
…and other vehicles exported abroad.

Background: The Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix were introduced in 2003 as a compact wagon to provide an answer to those looking for a performance-oriented Corolla Wagon, or a domestically-nameplated, small utility vehicle. The secret? Essentially a tall, extended Corolla with GM parts (radio, miscellaneous parts, etc.) + great FE to boot.  Now, a 2009 variant is available with a sleek makeover.  This review examines the Pontiac Vibe, along with the Toyota Matrix.  The latter is available with different outward styling and a near-identical interior, in the 2003-2008 model run.

2008 Toyota Matrix

The First Generation model was introduced about 6 model-years ago. The problem is this: I rented several of both variants over the course, and the FE wasn’t stellar.

Confession: Hypermiling rehab is a slow and steady process. I used to set the cruise for 6-7 MPH over the limit. That ended up being 77 in a 70. With the A/C running in the summer, the transmission was quick to downshift on modest hills, and was quite erratic. The FE suffered terribly. I gave it a shot at the speed limit and no more…

This was the only 4-cylinder vehicle available on the rental lot this week (mid-week slim-pickins). I hopped-in and gave it another try. Nowadays, I set the cruise for the limit and just let it ride. That made all the difference in the World.


On the Inside: The vehicle accomplishes so much in its totality, that I refuse to stress minor inconsistencies. The interior trim is basic and plasticky, but who cares? The look and substance exudes durability, and the FE seals the deal.

Feature content includes a 115V inverter to plug-in AC items (for me — perfect: I’m too cheap to buy an i-Pod, so I use my laptop as an MP3 player and pipe the sound through the speakers through an FM transmitter). Some vehicle models offer an auxiliary input (not in this case).  But hey, rock on…

The cargo area is where this vehicle shines brightly. The rear seats fold flat (including the front passenger seat) to allow the transport of long items. It’s a true wagon, so expect that sort of utility (and appearance).


From the driver’s seat, expect a “love it or hate it” Corolla-like seating position, and a 4-pod dash.   Rear seat passengers may find the legroom cramped if adults are passengers. If kids are the ride-alongs, then it’s perfect — no worries.

On the Outside: The Toyota is more streamlined and Sporty, while the Pontiac displays durability and simple functionality. My test model offered foglamps, a rear wiper, and side skirts. Just speculation: later models seem to offer better aero than previous.

The Drive: Seating position is perhaps the weakest link. Think: SUV height and feel. I had no problem setting the seat to a higher height, moved the seat back and adjusted the tilt wheel. The problem is, some drivers may find this uncomfortable. I’m not at all tall, at 5′ 9″, with short legs. The position wasn’t too bad — although the ideal setup prohibited viewing the top of the instrument cluster through the wheel top (duck-n-view). If you’re unsure of this seat, visit a dealer and give it a shot (the Corolla is very similar).

2003 Pontiac Vibe

Cubbies and cupholders abound. Handling is sprite, as is throttle response and acceleration. If you keep the speed down, downshifts are infrequent, and the FE total will thank you. At 60, the engine turns at about 2500. Road noise is adequate, and blind-spots minimal.

Features: The Toyota is more “upscale” in outward appearance. A 5-speed or 6-speed manual is available, as is a higher horsepower 1.8L and/or AWD (up to 2007).  The Pontiac has similar amenities available.

Used Analysis: A 2003 Vibe 5-speed can be picked-up for $8K, on upwards to a fully loaded ’08 Matrix XRS for 22K. The vehicle essentially hasn’t changed since its inception, so you can get the same feature content at a reduced price when purchasing used. In addition, Edmunds.com rated the Matrix/Vibe a “Used Car Best Bet” for reliability, etc.

Vehicle Specs as Tested:

Latest Model: 2008 Toyota Matirix / Pontiac Vibe
Trim: Base
Class Size: Compact Wagon
Transmission: 4-speed automatic with lock-up torque converter (5-speed Manual Available)
Engine: Toyota 1.8L DOHC, 16-Valve, I-4 with Variable Valve Timing
Rating: 126 hp at 6000 RPM and 122 lb-ft torque at 4200
Drivetrain: FWD (AWD available)
Seating Capacity: 5 (very snug) at 2+3 or 4 more comfortably at 2+2
Price as Tested: $17,000 USD (April, 2008)
Curb Weight: 2700 lbs.
EPA: 21/31
EPA Average Fuel Cost per Year: $1554

Raw Data — Stats:
EcoModder Tested Mileage: 35.5 MPG
Average Speed: 57 MPH
Distance Driven: 455 Miles
Engine RPM @ 60 MPH: 2500
Route: Kansas City – Wichita, KS – Kansas City (hit rush hour on the return)
Temp: 40F – 55F
Wind Speed vs. Heading: NW @ 5 MPH. Course 1 = SSW; Return = NNE
2009: Complete Re-design

Conclusion: Brilliant!

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