This was a replacement car for my wife's 94 Mazda Protege. After a lot of test driving various cars/SUVs/wagons such as the Mazda3, Mazda Protege5, Mazda Tribute, Ford Escape, Volvo S40, Toyota Matrix, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Saturn ION, she decided she liked being up a little higher than in a standard car/sedan. However, she was not sure about a full-fledged SUV so we narrowed the search to crossovers. We had always liked the look of the Matrix when it first came out, but weren't ready for a new car at the time. So, we test drove the Matrix this year and she really liked it and felt this was the car for her. Since she is only 5' 4", she really liked being able to crank the driver's seat up for better visibility. Unfortunately, Toyota wasn't offering as good of incentives that Pontiac was so we ended up with the Vibe. (I just found out this year they are essentially the same vehicle, save for a few body line differences and a few features.)
Well, we ended up at Pontiac that was offering $2,000 cash back. We test drove the GT for the heck of it knowing that it was a few thousand more than the base. (I wasn't impressed with the power of the Matrix base so I wanted to try more power.) Wow! The GT really goes. That was it. We were sold.
Our GT is fully loaded with moon roof, 200 watt 6 disc Monsoon stereo (unbelievable!!), ABS, front and side air bags (safety was important), cargo organizer, 2 cargo nets, emergency kit and chrome muffler. We opted for the 6 speed manual since it's a lot more fun to drive than an automatic and you get better mileage. We have added a front mask (bra) and rear mud guards so far.
The flexibility is fantastic with this vehicle. We wanted a hatchback to haul things easily. The fact that the back is a hard plastic was appealing for clean up purposes when making those runs to Home Depot for soil, plants, lumber, etc. With the passenger seat folded down flat, you can also fit 8' long objects in the back with the door closed. The tie down tracks are also a plus although we haven't had an occasion to use them yet. This car has the most storage compartments than any other vehicle we've had as well.
Engine/transmission: The 1.8 liter 173 HP with VVTL-i engine is fantastic. The only downside that my wife and I noticed rather quickly was the noise factor when switching gears, but we decided that all the pluses of this car outweighed that minuses. Plus with the awesome stereo, it drowns out the engine noise. I also noticed the gear shift is a little clunky when changing gears, but other than that there is nothing negative about the transmission so far. Oh, one more slightly negative thing about the GT engine is that it requires premium gasoline. It really hurts when gas prices are high.
One of the main reasons we went semi-American on this car was the fact that the engine and transmission are Toyota. It is zippy for only a 1.8 liter, but not nearly as fast as the Mazda3's 2.3 liter 160 HP engine for the same price range, but the Mazda3 is a different type of vehicle on the other hand (targeted at the sporty end of the spectrum in every way).
Ride quality: In terms of comfort, the seats are very comfortable on long rides of 6 hours or more (a true test). The interior is very spacious and when people get in the back seat they always comment on how roomy it is back there (the mini-van influence). Since I am only 5' 10", I have plenty of head room, but a 6' footer would definitely fit well in there with room to spare. Since this car does not have fully independent suspesion in the rear, the ride is a little rough, but, again, the positives outweigh the negatives. The steering is very smooth and it has a very tight turning radius, which surprisingly beats my 2002 Mazda Protege ES. However, my Protege takes corners like a BMW, but it also sits lower than the Vibe. I did have to admit to my wife that I also like sitting up a little higher in this car since the visibility is great in front. You do lose a little visibility in the rear as the backseat head rests slightly obscure the small rear window, but it does have large rear view mirrors.
Interior: The dash is setup for ease-of-use. There are not a lot of small buttons or knobs you see in many cars. The HVAC knobs are big and easy to find. The guages are always lit during the day so you don't have to squint to see the speedometer or fuel gauge as the guages are recessed. The lights also come on automatically when the sensor reads low-light outside, which is really a cool feature. In general, the interior looks very modern with faux brushed aluminum on the console and faux polished chrome accents sprinkled about, which is seen in most vehicles these days anyway. The mesh-like cloth seats are also neat looking.
Overall, this is an awesome "crossover" vehicle that is fun to drive, gets fairly good gas mileage (28/32), has very high safety ratings (very important to us), rides high like a mini-van and offers the flexibility of a hatchback. I can't say too much on reliability yet since it only has 4,300 miles on it, but since it's Toyota on the inside, I'm sure it won't give us any unexpected surprises. Great vehicle. Highly recommended.