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Car Memories: 2003 Pontiac Vibe

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Car Memories: 2003 Pontiac Vibe

Bill Crittenden
March 26, 2012

2003 Pontiac Vibe 2003 Pontiac Vibe 2003 Pontiac Vibe 2003 Pontiac Vibe 2003 Pontiac Vibe 2003 Pontiac Vibe

What kind of car is it?

2003 Pontiac Vibe all wheel drive in silver.

Why did you buy it?  When did you get it?

It was originally my wife's car.  We bought it in 2002 when the model had first come out.  It was just one of those cars you fall in love with, and the PT Cruiser we had at the time had brake troubles that made Heidi lose confidence in the car.

What did you think of the car when you had it?  Likes and dislikes?

First of all, I still have it.  Normally I write these after the car is gone, but I've had it almost 10 years and I don't anticipate getting rid of it, so I'm writing this now.

The most important thing to know about the car, mechanically, is that it's a Toyota underneath.  Built in California's NUMMI plant co-owned by GM and Toyota, it's GM's version of the Toyota Matrix.  Which, at the time, said "Toyota Corolla Matrix" on the vehicle sticker.  So it was an all-wheel drive Corolla wagon with Pontiac style and a GM rebate.  Not a bad deal at the time.

That deal got better as gas prices went up, too.  It got about 35 miles per gallon at its peak, although now it's a bit worn out at over 154,000 miles.  With the wagon back and the all wheel drive it doesn't get as good of fuel mileage as an original Corolla, but then thanks to the AWD I've only ever once got the thing stuck, and that was trying to leave my house after the Chicago area got hit with enough snow to pretty much shut down the northern part of the state on Groundhog Day 2011.

Was there anything you found really interesting about the car?

It's a Pontiac.  When we bought it, that didn't matter much, but over the years it has become very important to me and the car.  Although mechanically it's a Toyota, I've only found one Toyota logo on the car, and that's on the gas cap.  Everything else, down to the orange glow dashboard, is Pontiac style.  Since the marque died, that has become a point of interest for the car.  I went to the Indian Uprising All Pontiac Show in St. Charles for a couple of years, and even without driving the car it came up in conversations and other Pontiac owners were very welcoming, they said I should bring the car down!  In a big field with hundreds of GTOs, Le Manses, Tempests, and occasionally the new Pontiac in the form of new GTOs or G8s, I expected noses to be turned up at my little Corolla wagon Pontiac, but with no new Pontiacs coming out in the foreseeable future (aside from a few custom Chevrolets given Pontiac bodywork), anyone was a welcome part of the family.  This carries over online into Facebook pages like Pontiac Pickers.  The Pontiac community has been a contributing factor in my conversion to a Pontiac fan in recent years.  Oh, sure, I still can find a reason to like a car from just about any company if it's interesting, but Pontiac feels closer to my heart now.

The fact that it comes with a 120-volt outlet in the dashboard is pretty damn cool.  Not only do I not need 2 phone chargers, but I could also run a laptop from the back tray of the fold-flat passenger seat powered off of the car.  I imagine that a lot of businesses could have found that very useful in the pre-iPad days.

Did you have any problems with the car?

In the grand scheme of things, the problems have all been very minor.  Mostly problems with the door locks.  The drivers side rear door no longer locks and unlocks with the electronic push buttons, it has to be done manually now.  The driver door lock stuck shut for a while once before, and unable to access the locking mechanism with the door shut I had to get into and out of my car through the window, NASCAR-style.  Somehow it fixed itself because it started working again and hasn't been a problem since, but if it happened again I still don't know how to fix it.

One very annoying problem some Vibe owners have, which I do as well, is that the catalytic converter heat shield bolt breaks, allowing the heat shield to rest on the exhaust and cause a rattling noise when driving.  Unfortunately, to repair it properly, it requires taking out part of the rear suspension on an all-wheel drive car to move the driveshaft out of the way, and that's (from estimates I've heard) a $1,000 labor job.  For a 50-cent bolt on a sheet of aluminum.  I'll live with the rattle until I can get it on a lift and clamp the shield back in place.  But for someone who doesn't at least work a little on cars and wants to trade in their Vibe, that annoying little rattle is going to be a trade-in depreciating monster sucking the value out of the car at the dealership.

Also, my car has the common Vibe clicking noise from the heater control box.  Just leave it in recirculate and all will be quiet.  Considering how loud I play the radio (Moon & Tunes package, 200W stereo factory stock), it's hardly ever a problem anyway.

What do you think of the car now?

This thing has been with me to hell and back, not quite in distance traveled but it's kept me going through some really rough times.  The spare tire has been on 3 corners of the car for a total of about a year and a half's worth of driving when I couldn't afford a new tire and still hasn't popped.  The battery is still original from 2002.  It's gone low on just about every fluid imaginable at some point and kept going when I was counting out quarters to buy enough gas to get to work and back.  That driving has included ten Chicago winters, 48 miles a day commuting for most of its life, and now over 154,000 miles.  Now, it's being treated much better, not only out of preservation (I still can't afford a new car) but out of appreciation.

I'm not one to name a car and refer to a car by that name, but if I did it would be Serenity because my Vibe reminds me of a line from Firefly.  Simon lists all the things going wrong on the ship to Mal, and he says in response, "we're still flying." Simon replies, "that's not much," to which Mal says, "it's enough."  I drove the car with rattles, clicks, broken door locks, a year-old spare tire sputtering from gas station to gas station.  But I was still driving.  It's not much.  But sometimes, it's enough.

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