DETROIT – General Motors Corp. reveals its ’09 Pontiac Vibe, an extensively redesigned model the auto maker needs to bolster its presence in what is an increasingly important small-car sector.

Although the current-generation car commands a loyal fan base, sales have declined from the levels the Vibe enjoyed at its introduction six years ago. In its first full sales year, Pontiac sold 56,922 Vibes, but last year that total dwindled to 45,221 units, according to Ward’s data. So far this year, sales are down 23.8% to 30,697 units.

Related document: U.S. Light Vehicle Sales - October 2007

Now with gasoline prices above $3 per gallon, more and more consumers are trending toward smaller cars that combine fuel efficiency, performance and utility in a fashionable package. The upper-small segment where the Vibe resides commanded 12.4% of the light-vehicle market in 2006, up from 12.2% in 2005 and 11.9% in 2004, according to Ward’s data.

Related document: U.S. Light Vehicle Sales by Segment, 2002-2006

Whether consumers gravitate to the ’09 Vibe when it arrives at dealers early next year remains to be seen. But with a fresh exterior, a revamped base powertrain, and the revival of all-wheel-drive and GT variants, GM gains a more competitive entry in the segment, says Craig Bierley, marketing manager-Pontiac.

“We think these products stand on their own,” Bierley says of the three models. “The distinctive Pontiac styling is a big advantage. They support the Pontiac position and we think they’ll be very successful.”

GM discontinued the AWD and GT versions with the ’07 model year, mostly because the powertrain combination didn’t meet desired performance levels, says Jerry Gillespie, vehicle line executive-Pontiac Vibe.

“We felt we had to make an improvement in performance and we think we’ve been able to step up and deliver a more credible powertrain for the AWD and GT versions,” he tells Ward’s after a spirited, irreverent unveiling of the new Vibe here.

The auto maker will unveil the ’09 Vibe to the public at this week’s Los Angeles auto show.

GM’s New United Motor Mfg. Inc. joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp. in Fremont, CA, builds the Vibe for GM. All mechanical, electrical and powertrain attributes are shared with the Toyota Matrix, but GM sets performance specifications for the Vibe for such items as steering, suspension and chassis controls.

AWD and GT models now boast a 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. engine that makes 158 hp and 162 lb.-ft. (224 Nm) of torque. The AWD models get a 4-speed automatic as standard, while buyers of the GT or 2.4L base models can choose either a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission with electronic shift control. Previously, GM offered a 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. across the lineup, and while the old GT model offered an impressive 170 hp, the AWD model was rated at just 123 hp.

Fuel economy for the GT stands at an estimated 21/28 mpg (11.2-8.4 L/100 km) city/highway with the 5-speed manual and 21/29 mpg (11.2-8.1L/100 km) with the 5-speed automatic. A 2.8L on the AWD achieves 20/26 mpg (11.8/-9.0 L/100 km).

Base models receive an upgraded 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. engine optimized by variable valve timing and mated to a standard 5-speed manual transmission. The powertrain makes 132-hp, or 10 more than the previous 1.8L, and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) of torque. GM will offer a 4-speed automatic transmission as optional equipment with the 1.8L engine.

But fuel economy with the 1.8L mill and 5-speed manual stays put at 26/32 mpg (9.1-7.4 L/100 km). The automatic transmission draws fuel economy down to 23/31 mpg (10.2-7.6 L/100 km).

Pontiac engineers on hand for the unveiling promise improved ride and handling, as well, although the car retains most of its previous underpinnings. GM focused particularly on improving noise, vibration and harshness attenuation.

“It’s a level of quietness normally reserved for a luxury vehicle,” says Matt Satchell, development engineer-Pontiac Vibe.

All models receive a McPherson strut suspension up front, while base models get a revised torsion beam rear suspension and GT and AWD variants use a more performance-friendly, fully independent double-wishbone setup in the back. In addition, AWD models feature a new electronically controlled viscous coupling that directs torque to the rear wheels more effectively.

“The big advantage is that it’s a pre-emptive system,” says Bob Rooter, chief engineer-Pontiac Vibe. “(It) can direct a certain amount of torque to the rear very quickly if it feels you’re going to need it, or it backs off completely to maximize fuel economy.”

The ’09 Vibe boasts cleaner sheet metal with crisper lines, tighter gaps and a more athletic stance. Although the wheelbase remains unchanged, the track has been widened and wheels were pushed toward the corners to reduce overhangs. Redesigned fender flares have been smoothed out and made more muscular, and the windshield has been raked farther back for a sleeker profile.

Two design cues of particular note include the Vibe’s triangular, rear-quarter-panel daylight opening graphic (DLO) and its center feature line. The DLO serves as a nod to car’s short but distinguished design heritage, says Ron Aselton, chief designer on the Vibe.

“It’s been copied many times by other manufacturers in the segment,” Aselton tells Ward’s.

The center feature line, positioned just below the beltline, pulls your eyes around the car and contributes to the new model’s more contemporary appearance, he says.

“I really like the refined look,” Aselton adds. “It’s the kind of car a guy parks in his garage and before he goes in for the night, he can’t help to turn around for one last look.”

GM distinguishes AWD models with a roof rack, while GT variants receive an exclusive front fascia, rocker moldings, a rear spoiler and bright exhaust tip.

GM makes 16-in. wheels standard on base and AWD models, while 17-in. wheels are optional. The GT comes standard with 18-in. wheels and adds performance rubber.

Also spruced up is the interior, although aside from Pontiac badging it doesn’t depart much from its Matrix platform mate. Enhancements for ’09 include a sports-car-like, driver-focused cockpit, redesigned controls and gauges and an innovative storage organizer in the rear cargo area that’s standard on top-of-the-range models.

GM’s company-wide effort to use higher-quality interior materials is reflected in the low-gloss components, varied grains on the instrument panel and satin-metals accents. Knit-fabric seats add an upscale look, and GT models boast leather-trimmed surfaces, 3-spoke steering wheel and shift knob. Vibe’s bolstered front seats appear to offer plenty of thigh and side support. Rear legroom seems sufficient until the front seats are moved all the way back.

Rear seats are a 60/40 split design and fold flat for 49.4 cu.-ft. (1,399L) of cargo space. On models equipped with a 2.4L engine, the front passenger seat also folds flat to accommodate lengthier items.

A 320-watt Monsoon stereo system with seven speakers and MP3 capability is available and standard on GT models. Base and AWD models receive a 4-speaker Monsoon system as standard.

Four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, tire pressure monitoring and head curtain side airbags highlight the list of standard safety equipment.

jamend@wardsauto.com