Pontiac Vibe vs. Toyota Matrix: Six of one, a half-dozen of the other?

Let's get something out of the way right now: the Vibe and the Matrix are two non-identical twins whose only differences, their bodies aside, are in the details of their equipment. The majority of their mechanical and structural components come from Toyota, just like the various elements that make up the passenger compartment. Toyota buyers who stubbornly believe that the Vibe is less fuel-efficient, less reliable and less durable have no idea what they are talking about.

The Vibe was born from a decades-old partnership between GM and Toyota. GM has long provided Toyota with various technologies that are applied to numerous models worldwide, while Toyota produces a compact car for the American giant. Remember the last Chevrolet Nova (1986-1987) cloned from the Corolla? That was the beginning of their alliance.  

Despite a strong resemblance, these two cars do not necessarily attract the same clientele.  Some buyers dislike Japanese brands, while others would never dare be seen behind the wheel of an “American” car.  Personally, I think that in this market segment, cost is always the primary concern. You want the most features for the money spent, you don't want to end up with astronomical maintenance bills, and you want your car to maintain good market value.

With this in mind, I decided to put these vehicles head-to-head so as to find out which of the two really offers the buyer more. And if this exercise seems unnecessary to you, you should know that we receive a tremendous amount of questions about these two cars. GM invites you to do the same on their website, which puts Toyota at an obvious disadvantage! So this is a chance to answer buyers’ countless questions.

Quiet evolution

Before stating the differences between these two cars, first let me give you my impressions.  Launched for the first time in 2003, they each helped their respective brands regain clientele that had previously been lost. Fuel-efficient, practical and very well made, these vehicles quickly forged a good reputation for themselves, even at Pontiac.

Now, with the introduction of significant changes, I wouldn't say that I am awed by what the engineers have done.  The car’s interior is no more spacious than before, and its features are no more versatile. And the design has certainly not been improved, neither with the Toyota nor the Pontiac. As for the dashboard, you would really have to put the new one next to the old one to notice the differences.

Be that as it may, these two cars are both compact and practical and remain excellent little wagons. They have more loading capacity than a Mazda3 Sport or an Impreza, they are very well manufactured and they come in a wide array of models at a reasonable price.

It seems less roomy behind the wheel, and the driver feels more closed in than before. The seats are comfortable and supportive, but the telescopic steering wheel does not have a wide enough adjustment to be truly efficient, much like the armrest, which is too low. Fortunately, the ergonomics of the dashboard are flawless and the presentation is meticulous. The rear passengers will be pampered with all of the space back there and with the comfort of the bench.

More guts…

The versions that we tested were equipped with the what will undoubtedly be the most popular powertrain, the four-cylinder 1.8-litre multivalve with 132 hp coupled with a four-speed automatic transmission. Surprisingly, this configuration helps get completely respectable performances that are far superior to those of their predecessors. It goes from 0-100 km/h in 10 seconds and accelerates from 80 to 120 km/h in about 9 seconds. Granted, the engine, which is also used in the Corolla, growls somewhat at high gear, but the calm that follows that storm will make you think you’re in a library. However, the best part is that the Vibe and the Matrix still consume between 7.5 and 8 litres per 100 kilometres, a result that is quite frankly exceptional.

GM and Toyota also offer a Toyota-made 2.4-litre, 158-horsepower four-cylinder engine in their more lavish versions, which can be paired with all-wheel drive. But in this case, you must opt for the five-speed automatic transmission. With this equipment, your ride will offer even better performances, but with fuel consumption that is more akin to that of a Suzuki SX4. Expect about 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres.

These two cars earn points for offering top-notch vehicle handling for the first time. Obviously, the versions with 17-inch rims are even better, but there is a marked improvement over the previous models. The car is quieter, slightly more comfortable and features superior braking thanks mainly to factory-standard ABS brakes. Only its steering remains sluggish and it prevents good contact with the road.


Base model vs. base model (AJAC results)
The versions that we tested were also those that were evaluated for Car of the Year by the AJAC (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada) and were relatively basic versions except for the automatic transmission, climate control and power package. The Vibe emerged victorious over the Matrix in its category after AJAC testing, mainly due to its more abundant safety equipment. Although the Vibe features a retail price of $20,405 (versus $19,460 for the Matrix), Pontiac takes the pole position because of its electronic stability control, traction control and OnStar In-Vehicle Communications Service, all factory-standard.

Warranty and maintenance cost

The Pontiac scores points with its warranty, which is superior to that of the Matrix. While Toyota offers a 5-year/100,000 kilometre powertrain warranty, GM has 5 years or 160,000 kilometres of coverage. That’s nothing to sneeze at if you rack up a lot of clicks. However, GM loses ground to Toyota with its much more costly maintenance programs, as well as with the slightly higher average cost of replacement parts.

Cost of replacement parts                 GM                 Toyota

Air filter                                               $10.00           $24.95
Front brake disc                                  $88.15           $100.40
Muffler                                                 $269.00         $408.78
Rear windshield wiper motor              $158.75         $229.50
Front shock                                         $304.00         $177.20
Fuel pump                                           $442.00         $427.80
Front bumper                                      $388.00         $254.40
Total:                                                  $1,659.90      $1,623.03

Occasional maintenance costs            GM                Toyota

Oil and filter change                             $42.45           $36.95
Coolant change                                    $124.95         $76.95
Annual inspection                                 $129.95         $109.95
Automatic transmission fluid change    $99.95           $64.95


Ironically, although it’s the same car, the Pontiac has a higher rate of depreciation. Sure, it isn’t a huge difference, but a four-year-old Vibe with 100,000 kilometres on the odometer could sell for $1,000 less than a Matrix with identical equipment. Proof that a reputation in the industry is worth its weight in gold, whether is it well-founded or not. Once again, you should remember that the Vibe and Matrix are twins and that one is not better than the other.

What about the price?

It should be clear from the get-go that only Toyota offers leasing. If that’s what you’re after, the Toyota is your only option. But if you’re going to go the financing route, GM is clearly in the lead. First, I should remind you that the better equipped Vibe costs $955 more than the Toyota.  Assembled in the US, the Vibe has a slightly higher transport and preparation fee in comparison to that of the Toyota, which brings the difference to $975.

However, when you calculate financing over 60 months, the Vibe (better equipped don’t forget) saves you $1978.80 compared to the Matrix. In fact, in November the Vibe was available at 0% financing, while Toyota was offering 4.9%. As a result, the monthly payments over 60 months were $409.96 for the Vibe, and $442.94 for the Matrix. Multiply the difference between these two prices by the number of monthly instalments, and you come up with a difference of $1,978.80.

Financing terms                                        GM                        Toyota

Manufacturer’s suggested retail                $1,290.00             $1,270.00
Financing rate over 60 months                  0%                        4.9%
Monthly payment                                       $409.96                $442.94
Amount spent after 60 months                 $24,597.60            $26,576.40
Difference                                                  ($1,978.80)           $1,978.80

This significant difference gives a clear advantage to the Vibe buyer who, while saving money, also benefits from several very noticeable safety features. For those who choose to pay for their car in cash, GM offers discounts or savings that could add up to $2,500. Pontiac proves to be the better financial choice in all cases.

Dealerships and plants

It is interesting that the Vibe and the Matrix are not assembled in the same place. The American car is assembled in the city of Fremont, California, while the Japanese car is assembled right here in Canada, in Cambridge, Ontario (where the Corollas destined for the North American market are also assembled). But not to worry, both plants received high marks for the quality of their work, so it doesn’t make the slightest difference...

You might be tempted to think that GM dealerships are more numerous, but that might be an oversimplification. There are more overall, but not if you take only those with the Pontiac banner into account – the number is 211 in Canada, versus 239 Toyota dealerships. You can just as easily bring your Vibe to a GM dealer for maintenance, and you will find that they have a larger number of service points. However, you’ll have to visit a Pontiac dealer to actually purchase the Vibe.

Who has the advantage?

Pontiac? Maybe. After all, the Vibe has the advantage of more lavish standard equipment, a superior powertrain warranty, and clearly more attractive financing options compared to Toyota.  On the other hand, maintenance costs at GM Goodwrench are higher for the Vibe, not to mention for replacement parts. However, as a technical advisor at a Toyota dealership told me that Pontiac Vibe owners often come to Toyota for occasional maintenance. And after this comparison, I can understand why! Depreciation?  Sure, it seems a smidge higher with GM, but the money you save thanks to the lower interest rate nullifies any resale advantage that the Matrix may have had.

This comparison helped prove that you pay a lot for the Toyota name and that it is absolutely wrong to believe the Pontiac is a lesser car. Of course, that is not to discourage you from buying a Matrix. You may prefer its style over the Vibe’s, or you may have a good relationship with a dealership that you wouldn’t want to lose. Several intangibles might lead you to one manufacturer of the other. But right now, considering that both cars are almost identical, reason dictates that the Vibe has a leg up on the Matrix.

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