Vibe shows way to test Toyota

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One vehicle carries the badge of the top Japanese carmaker in the U.S.; the other car's parentage can be traced to the largest U.S. domestic automaker. But they share the same platform; to the eye they look like close relatives and they're both targeting young consumers.

That's the challenge facing the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe. Price may not be a big differentiator-both go for about $17,200. That's until you get to the high-performance Vibe GT at $20,655 and its cousin Matrix XRS at $18,750. So what about quality? One car seems to have an edge, and therein potentially lies a surprise.

Vibe outscored Matrix in J.D. Power & Associates' 2004 Initial Quality Study. Vibe had 113 problems per 100 measured, vs. Matrix with 139. Matrix runs 26% higher in problems reported by owners. Statistically, that's quite a gap, analysts say. Despite its similarities to Matrix, Pontiac put the Vibe in the role of a domestic import-fighter with teeth. Two years after the Vibe's introduction, Chris Ayotte, Vibe marketing manager in Detroit talks proudly about three recent "Best Buy" awards from Consumers Digest, Consumer Reports and Consumer Digest. Matrix and Vibe launched in 2002 as 2003 products.

Matrix is built in Ontario, while Vibe comes out of a plant in Fremont, Calif., home of the former Geo line and a GM/Toyota joint venture that dates back to 1983 when the two companies first agreed to build cars together. The vehicles share the same architectural platform but vary on styling, sheet metal and key attributes. Pontiac is positioning Vibe between the Sunfire and Grand Am. It combines sedan, wagon and smaller SUV features. Vibe is "really a cross-utility vehicle with carlike styling and functionality, but with great fuel economy not found in most small SUVs," Mr. Ayotte says.

Mr. Ayotte is charged with helping Vibe carve out its niche in a crowded cross-utility niche now seeing flatliner sales. He remains confident that Vibe is up to the challenge.


"We've listened to what matters most to consumers and adapted Vibe to fit their lifestyles," he says. To attract younger buyers, Vibe print and broadcast creative incorporates "hot, current music with young, diverse consumers and edgy visuals that create a feeling of hip, cool, and confident."

In response, the freshened 2005 Vibe hatchback features options such as side-curtain airbags, Stabilitrak (vehicle stability control system), OnStar navigation, an enhanced Moon and Tunes sound system with integrated sub woofer, and contoured leather seating surfaces.

With all this, and high quality ratings too, it may seem vexing to Pontiac that the rival Matrix can ride on the reputation of dependable Toyota. Joe Ivers, a J.D. Power partner, says if you ask people which vehicle has a better reputation, responses tend to favor Toyota by a wide margin. "In this case, you have a gap between perception and reality," he says. If you ask owners if they have problems, their responses align more to reality, so the Vibe fares better.

Vibe ads from Publicis Groupe's Chemistri, Troy, Mich., use an "action" theme this year in which the brand shares the spotlight with its Pontiac sibling. The crossover Vibe lineup is also taking to city streets for ride-drives, concerts and other events that allow the car to meet and mingle first-hand with potential customers.

Pontiac is betting the four-door hatchback Vibe will capture the hearts and minds of its youthful, 18-to-34-year-old targets. So far, however, the average buyer age is 47, but it's coming down, say Pontiac marketing executives.

Half of Vibe buyers are new to Pontiac. "You can't overstress that. Most [automakers] would be happy with a 30% conquest rate," Mr. Ayotte says.

But in the final tally, Matrix is handily outselling its Pontiac cousin. In 2004, Matrix sold 89,953 units, compared to 87,880 in 2003, up 2.3%, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Vibe sold 58,894 units last year vs. 56,992 the prior year, up 3.6%, Power says.

Matrix's mix of traditional and non-mainstream marketing is effectively reaching target groups, says Teri Hill, Matrix advertising manager in the Toyota Division of Toyota Motor Sales, USA.

She contends that Matrix is pulling in 44% of its youth targets, compared with 39% for Vibe and 29% for the Mazda3. Ms. Hill says her main challenge is to help differentiate Matrix, internally and among chief competitors-from Vibe to Mazda 3 and Ford Focus.

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