The world champion topped Q2 then absolutely dominated Q3. Vettel's initial 1m12.268s effort put him a quarter of a second clear of the pack, and he then improved to 1m11.918s with his final attempt.
Mark Webber made it an all-Red Bull front row, winning a battle with McLaren's Q1 pacesetter Jenson Button as the Briton ended a run of Interlagos qualifying disasters to take third. Button had looked like he might manage to hang on to a front row slot until Webber came through with a 1m12.099s on his second run.
Lewis Hamilton was back in fourth in the other McLaren.
The Ferraris took fifth and seventh - Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa split by Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, who had been a surprise second in Q2. Rosberg's team-mate Michael Schumacher did not attempt a final lap in Q3 so will start 10th.
Adrian Sutil took eighth in the leading Force India, ahead of Bruno Senna, who impressed on home ground to deliver a now rare Q3 appearance for a Renault.
Outside the top 10, Rubens Barrichello produced a strong performance to get his Williams up to 12th for what may be his last grand prix start.
Paul di Resta (Force India) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) could not match their respective team-mates and will start 11th and 16th. The Toro Rossos will share row seven, while the Saubers made up the tail of the Q2 pack.
Pastor Maldonado was half a second down on Williams team-mate Rubens Barrichello as he ended up on the wrong side of the Q1 cut-off in 18th.
Lotus' new rear wing did not bring the hoped-for Q2 progress, but the team did move a further step closer to those ahead, with Heikki Kovalainen within half a second of Toro Rosso, Sauber and Williams pace.