GM has often struggled in its quest to develop new and innovative products people want. The need to differentiate its many nameplates and product lines only complicates the issue; the pending phase-out of Oldsmobile is proof enough. Product types are blurring, too, as people demand vehicles that drive like sports cars, work like trucks, go anywhere, carry lots of stuff, and offer all their favorite amenities-at an affordable price.

One potential answer is the Pontiac Vibe. You know, short for vibration. As in "good vibes." Which is what GM hopes you'll feel for its newest joint venture with Toyota.

The Vibe marks a new direction for Pontiac, a signal that forces are trying to break GM from its habit of car design by clinic and committee (maybe it's time to give the process back to the car guys-and gals). Even the name is a new style for Pontiac: urban and cool, it's what you get when you put the right tunes in the Vibe's optional 200 watt-plus remote six-disc CD changer/DVD/nav system and crank up the volume.

The Vibe, which goes on sale in January 2002 as an '03 model, shares its platform and Toyota engines with the upcoming '03 Toyota Matrix (see sidebar). The standard model is powered by a 1.8L/130-hp DOHC four; the sportier GT version packs a 1.8L/180-hp four, which employs Toyota's variable-valve timing and lift (VVT-i) and boasts a six-speed manual transmission. This high-revving powerplant is the same as in Toyota's decidedly sporty Celica GT-S. All-wheel drive will be optional on the 130-hp version, but the higher-output GT will be front-drive only.

Execution of the Pontiac-designed interior is almost identical for both the Vibe and Matrix, but the exteriors were styled independently. Both have a 63-in. overall height, although the Vibe has a slightly higher beltline. We feel the Vibe just flat-out wallops the Matrix in the looks department-it's a design victory for an automaker that desperately needs one. Funny, the Vibe's nose, with its familial honeycomb meshed split grille and lower intake, contains the same design elements as the Aztek's. Yet the look is wholly more satisfying. Just goes to show you, it's all about proportion.

Those proportions suggest a direct competitor for this year's hot-selling segment-buster, the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Vibe is a bit longer than the PT (171.8 in. versus 168.8 in.), but with the same overall height and nearly the same wheelbase (103 in. for the PT, 102.4 in. for the Vibe).

Just as Chrysler did with the Cruiser, Pontiac has designed the Vibe's interior to be ultra-flexible. The front passenger seat folds forward with the flip of a lever. Its 60/40 split rear seats fold forward and flat without having to first flip the rear-seat bottoms-very handy. With all passenger seats folded, the Vibe neatly holds an eight-foot ladder. Interestingly, no leather interior option will be offered, at least at launch.

The gearshift, whether automatic or manual, sits far forward, nearly in the dash, to create a bit more floor space. There's a neat little storage area for your cell-phone between the cupholders and console storage bin. The Vibe doesn't have the PT Cruiser's removable rear seats and false load floor, which means it's not going to be EPA-classified as a truck. But there are two tracks built into the rugged, hard-plastic floor that can accommodate special interior bike racks or a slide-out picnic table-designers and marketing people are working out these details as we speak. Add that special bike rack, and Pontiac says you can fit 21-in. mountain bikes in the back (standing up, front wheels removed).

The Vibe's cabin contains eight tie-down anchors and 16 anchor tie-down points, plus storage nets and plastic storage trays in the spare-tire well. A roof rack, which follows the roof's downward slope from the B-pillar back, is standard. The Vibe's rear liftgate has a standard wiper and defogger, even on the basest of base models, and the glass may be opened separately from the gate. Practicality was an obvious goal from the very beginning of the design process.

Particular attention was paid to the Vibe's tail end in order to avoid an overly chunky, minivan look. Pontiac's stylists placed the rear license-plate frame in the tailgate, instead of the rear bumper. All Vibes will come with charcoal-colored lower-body cladding, although Pontiac will offer a body-colored cladding and trim package on both the base and GT models. Fortunately, it's not the seriously over-cladded theme Pontiac relies on all too often. As you would expect, the base model looks a bit less aggressive. Some staffers actually prefer its lower level of adornment, and we suspect certain buyers will, too.

Base models get standard 16-in. wheels and tires, GTs are equipped with Z-rated 17-in. rolling stock, which is optional on the standard Vibe (warning for those who live in mountain communities: Chains will not fit over the 17-inchers). The 130-hp base model comes with air conditioning, but not power windows (though they will be offered as part of a package) and should start at about $16,000.

Versatile as all the crossover-like interior features are, it's the 180-hp six-speed-only GT that will appeal to driving enthusiasts. Expect it to base for just under $20,000, including standard four-wheel disc brakes and ABS; the latter is optional on base models, but not the rear discs.

While we love the yellow hue of the prototype car pictured in this article, the Vibe will actually be available only in the following eight colors: Abyss (black), Satellite (silver), Shadow (dark grey), Frosty (white), Lava (red), Salsa (dark red), Neptune (blue), and Envy (green). See them for yourself at Pontiac's What Color is Your Vibe? Web page.

The Vibe adds up to one helluva neat package: We feel it has the potential of being GM's first uniquely fresh, and seriously competitive, small car-albeit with considerable help from Toyota. It combines excellent packaging, youth-oriented good looks, considerable practicality, and aggressive pricing. And the 180-horse GT should run with the new crop of high-horsepower four-cylinder pocket-rockets, so there's a performance element, too. All in all, it's a significant piece of work.

Can you feel the beat?

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