When is a Pontiac not really a Pontiac? When it's a Toyota in drag. General Motors' California-based joint venture with Toyota has some new life, or maybe just some botox, injected into it for the 2009 model year with a full redesign of the Pontiac Vibe and its kissing-cousin Toyota Matrix.

What is it?

The Vibe is Pontiac's economical, compact wagon. This wagon with the red arrow is basically a Toyota Matrix with uniquely sculpted sheet metal that makes it a Pontiac. It also has moderately different suspension and steering tuning than its Toyota counterpart.

The Vibe comes in four flavors; Vibe 1.8L, Vibe 2.4L, Vibe 2.4L AWD, and Vibe 2.4L GT. The 1.8-liter and the 2.4-liter inline-fours are both products of Toyota engineers, with the 1.8-liter seeing duty in the Corolla and the 2.4-liter pulled from the Camry and RAV4.

What's it up against

In the compact wagon, crossover, utility, cute-ute, hatchback, five passenger, et cetera, et cetera market, the Vibe is mainly looking to steal from the Dodge Caliber, Mazda Mazda3 and the Suzuki SX4. Of course GM would certainly rather see you leave the lot in a Vibe than a Matrix, as well.

Any breakthroughs?

Uh, no.

If you're looking for nifty gadgets and technologies, this base level Pontiac Vibe will leave you more disappointed than "Chinese Democracy."

How does it look?

Much better, thanks. Design-wise, the Pontiac actually is now more of a long-lost brother to the Toyota Matrix instead of a twin. The Vibe's front end is aggressive and sports two chrome-ringed grills with inspiration from Pontiac's G8. The rising beltline, and character lines in the doors, lead you to a pair of properly funky, clear taillights at the rear. Overall, it's a quirky look with a bit of attitude and it works. Quirkitude.

And inside?

Here's where things start to go wrong. Yes, this is an $18,000 car, so I'm not expecting brushed aluminum. However, I want the trim pieces to be fitted to the console properly. Some pieces on this Vibe weren't. These trim parts moved around at the slightest touch. Gaps around trim were not consistent and a bit on the wide side. Looking around the cabin further, the plastic used for the dash is quite hard, but more importantly, not pleasing to look at and mars easily. Giving hard plastic a nice, grained look is not tough to pull off. Just ask Honda - they do it all the time.

On the plus side, it's nice to see a gauge cluster staring back at me that, for once, does not consist of three, chrome-ringed circles. The Vibe's two circles and a rounded off rectangle make for a nice visual along with easy-to-read displays.

Cramped is not something I want to feel when I'm in the driver's seat and the Vibe leaves me feeling just that. With the seats as far back as they will go, which is not far, my knees feel too far forward. While any potential back seat passengers will be thrilled to see the limited movement of the driver's seat, people over 6 feet are probably not going to enjoy being behind the wheel for extended stints. The seats also felt more narrow than most and might cause problems for bigger people.

This Vibe also had some plumbing issues. Turn on the heat, set it to blow from the console vents and it does just that. Set it to defrost and it will also blow out the console vent next to the driver's door. Set it to the floor and it will also blow out the console vent next to the driver's door. Set it to the floor, plus defrost, and it will also blow out the console vent next to the driver's door.

Poor HVAC venting? Vacuum leak? Hard to say. It wasn't just a little air leaking through the system either.

But does it go?

The Vibe 1.8L has the pulling power of three caged parakeets. I'm not sure who deserves more blame here: Toyota for making such a gutless wonder, or GM for not using its own, superior Ecotec motor.

If you're going to drive the base level Pontiac Vibe, you need to be resigned to several things. First, you're going to have to rev the motor past 4,000 rpm to get much out of it. Second, if you have the five-speed manual transmission, the only usable gears are one, two and three. Fourth and fifth are really only there to increase your fuel economy. Shifting through those gears is an easy task, but the extremely light clutch pedal takes some getting used to.

Another thing you'll need to be ready for is not going around corners with any sort of speed. Normal, around the town driving should present you no problems. But, take that off ramp a little too quickly or goose the throttle even a little going around any corner and the understeer pops up pretty quickly. Add in the Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires that have a grip rating of "suck," and things can get very exciting. Exciting like sliding into the opposing lane with a Dodge Ram bearing down on you.

In the positive column, the Vibe does not suffer from any noticeable torque steer. Mostly because there is no torque. Zero steering feel is also par for the course.

The four wheel anti-lock disc brakes feel solid, but under simulated emergency stopping, the Vibe's front end was unsettled, pulling somewhat to the right.

With mixed driving during the week, the Vibe averaged just under 28 mpg.

Why you would buy it:

Honestly, I don't know. The Vibe with the 2.4L motor is only $400 more, and it's definitely the one you want if you're buying a Vibe. Sure the 1.8L will sip a little less fuel, but in this case, it just isn't worth it.

Why you wouldn't:

See above.

2009 Pontiac Vibe 1.8L base price, $15,310. As tested, $17,940.

Preferred package, $945; Air conditioning, $950; AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, $150; Destination, $585.

Words and photos by Chris Doane.