Twenty is the new plenty

2009, Pontiac, Vibe

What a time to be shopping for a new car. Unless that is, your old behemoth is costing you an arm and a leg, in which case: What better time to be cutting your losses before your trade-in value shrivels to the dimensions of a sun-dried raisin.

Time was when $20,000 served as a reasonable threshold for separating barely tolerable budget cars from real, adult cars; but no longer. For folks with worthless trade-ins, $20,000 isn't a benchmark but a budget. And since fuel economy is now a crucial issue (what took us so long, America!), no self-respecting commuter would now dare contemplate settling for anything less than 20 mpg in the city.

What follows, then, is a round-up of three twenty-somethings that manage to combine fuel-efficiency with space-efficiency for a target price of $20-grand or less. And the punch-line is: very little lifestyle adjustment is necessary not only to justify significant downsizing but also to achieve that forehead-slapping realization that we shoulda done this years ago, America!

If you're curious to know what a paradigm looks like when it grows up, Pontiac's Vibe GT is your answer. The fraternal twin of Toyota's Matrix, this Pontiac variant was distinctly off-beat, even odd when it first appeared a few years ago. Thanks to a total make-over for 2009, though and with a major assist from global oil and credit markets Pontiac's Vibe makes sense like never before.

Larger than Honda's Fit, the Vibe is nevertheless a four-door hatchback in a super-compact package. If it was quirky once, its exterior is positively racy now; and the 2.4-liter inline-four in the GT model does its best to sustain a sporty reputation. Output is 158 horsepower, and with the standard five-speed manual transmission, mileage is a respectable 21 mpg/city, 28 mpg/highway. Price, as-tested, is $20,595, although a puny-powered base-model Vibe is also available starting at $15,310.

Despite its 18-inch wheels, spoilers and ground-effects bodywork, the extrovert Vibe GT never quite rivals the Honda Fit's fun-factor. It's more plodding through corners, and its transmission is rubbery and less precise. But with cargo space that ranges from 20 to 49 cubic feet, the Vibe is arguably better equipped to handle more permutations of people and their stuff.

In our brave new world of inverted expectations from our vehicles, perhaps the best that can be said about Pontiac's Vibe is that it has moved from the periphery of General Motors' product offerings to the vital center. Affordability, economy and efficiency now give GM a good vibe after all.

Subcompact sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 158 hp/162 ft.-lbs.; 21 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 20-49 cu. ft.; as-tested price, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, XM Radio & OnStar, HVAC, 18-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $20,595

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2009, Pontiac Vibe

2009 Pontiac Vibe
2009 Pontiac Vibe
2008 Nissan Rogue
2008 Nissan Rogue
2008 Honda Fit
2008 Honda Fit