My MINI Cooper S has been in the bodyshop since some time before Christmas and hopefully I will be back behind the wheel later on today.
My ‘Rental Car’ this time around is a Pontiac Vibe.
The Vibe was a joint venture between Toyota and Pontiac, with Toyota selling the Matrix and Pontiac the Vibe.
A number of years ago we had a Matrix and I loved it. It was roomy, comfortable, economical, practical and it even handled fairly well. It was fast enough to earn me a speeding ticket in Arizona (96mph) and apart from an odd issue with the ignition barrel it was very reliable. I often regret selling it.
The Pontiac Vibe was the same car. Except it was ‘adjusted’ to make it less Japanese and more appealing to mainstream America. The first version of the Vibe had truly hideous plastic cladding and a roof rack, plus gaudy chrome-look wheel trims. The suspension settings where softened and the ride height increased.
It sold pretty poorly.
The second generation Vibe was less ‘Americanized’ and was the version that I have just spent 1220 miles driving.
First impressions count for a lot.
Mine were almost entirely bad. It is not helped that the MINI is low to the ground (on coilovers), has seats that grip you and a small fat steering wheel that feels superglued to the road.
The Vibe has none of these. The ride-height is set to ‘giraffe’, the seats are flat and wide and set high and the steering is plain nasty. The wheel is thin and made from hard plastic and there is almost no association between the road and the wheel. But you have to hold it tight to make almost constant corrections. On the freeway it ‘fidgets’ and needs a firm hand, which is offensive given the design of the wheel.
The seating position is terrible too – the seat does not seem to go up and down, it sort of rocks on an axis just behind your knees, the back/forward slider seems to change the height too, but the designers assumed either really short legs or hugely long arms. Sadly my long legs and long arms are a fundamental mismatch.
The ride height and soft suspension with engineered in ‘terminal understeer’ means that the most excitement you are going to get out of the drive it of the ‘OMG we are going to die’ feelings every time a minor bend in the road appears.
The throttle is fierce, combined with a relatively low first gear and a ‘tuned for torque’ engine of indeterminate size means that leaving the lights the car fairly leaps forwards. Obviously this excitement is too much for it and the power drops off fast and the gearbox selects the next gear as soon as it can, using the ‘manual’ shift ability reveals that there is no point at all holding onto revs as there is no power beyonds 5K.
Once on the move the engine is fairly quiet. Or more accurately you can barely hear the engine over the rest of the noises, wind noise dominates, aided and abetted by tire roar and then rattles from the rear end.
Those seats are horribly uncomfortable after a few miles and no amount of adjustment seems to get them any better. Most of the interior surfaces are nasty too, everything that you interact with is hard, coarse plastic that plain feels bad to touch. I would suspect that it is all easy to wipe down though. Probably the ideal car to had a food fight in.
The coarse and gutless engine also managed to drink gas at a scary rate, returning a little under 17mpg over my average use. The MINI averages 24 and is driven with considerable enthusiasm.
The one good things about the car though is the space inside. It was cavernous with the rear seats folded down. A trip to the recyclers to drop off bottles and cans netted over $20 and a trip to the charity store to drop off old clothes etc filled two boxes. I have no figures for the load capacity beyond ‘huge’. It was a very useful vehicle for that purpose.
Overall I am struggling to understand who would buy this car. The convenience features scream ‘family’, but a minivan is a way better choice. The Size and price scream ‘commuter’ but the seats are horrible and the gas mileage is worse than my rather thirsty MINI – which has very comfortable seats too.
Pretty much everything about it is wrong.
Fix the seats, firm up the suspension and lower it a way, re-tune the engine for a little less low-end grunt and use nicer materials inside and it would be a great car. But then I have just described the Matrix that we owned a few years ago.
Which is really strange. Pontiac took the Matrix and cheapened it, turning it into something that took away all of the best bits and then wondered why it did not sell.
No wonder the old GM is dead…..