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The Toyota Matrix combines the style and fun of a sport coupe with the utility of a small sport utility at the price of a compact. Matrix was designed for people who want a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality.
We found the Matrix offers peppy acceleration, particularly around town. It corners nicely yet offers a smooth, comfortable ride. Matrix is practical, with a big cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the rear seats. And it's stylish.
While the high-performance XRS model has drawn some attention with its high-revving 180-horsepower engine, we preferred the 130-horsepower models for their more relaxed, more pleasant demeanor. Most popular is the mid-grade Matrix XR.
Minor styling revisions freshen the appearance of the Matrix for 2005. More important, side curtain airbags have been added as optional equipment and come packaged with seat-mounted side-impact airbags ($645). Also optional on 2005 models is Vehicle Stability Control, or VSC, which virtually eliminates skidding. This is in addition to optional anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, designed to help the driver maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation.
Matrix is based on the Toyota Corolla and is built in California at a plant jointly owned with General Motors. Matrix was introduced as a 2003 model. It has proven to be a popular vehicle: Toyota sold more than 67,000 of them during calendar year 2003. Pontiac sold nearly 57,000 Vibe models during that same period.
Toyota Matrix is available in three trim lines: the standard Matrix, XR, and XRS. Front-wheel-drive (2WD) and all-wheel-drive (4WD) versions are available along with a choice of two engines: Matrix and Matrix XR are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower (123 horsepower with four-wheel drive). Matrix XRS is a high-performance model powered by a 180-horsepower version of the 1.8-liter engine.
The base Matrix ($14,760) comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but it's also available with an automatic ($15,560) or all-wheel-drive automatic ($17,295). Air conditioning and an AM/FM radio with CD player come standard along with newly added features including a lever-type seat-height adjuster, sliding sun visor, UV cut glass, and a new audio head unit design with a separate clock display. A Power Package ($480) adds power windows, power door locks, and remote keyless entry.
Matrix XR ($16,240) adds ABS with EBD, power door locks, power windows, and the remote key fob as well as a rear window wiper. It's also available with the automatic ($17,070) or all-wheel drive and automatic ($18,635). A wider range of optional equipment is available for the XR as well. Extra Value Package 1 ($270) includes cruise control, fog lamps, and front and rear spoilers. To this, Extra Value Package 2 ($880) adds 16-inch alloy wheels and power moonroof.
Matrix XRS ($18,750) is available only with front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission. It comes with 16-inch alloy wheels and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution. XRS gets four-wheel disc brakes, preferable to the rear drum brakes found on the other models. A new JBL audio system with CD changer is optional.
The Toyota Matrix shares much in common with the Pontiac Vibe. GM and Toyota developed the vehicles jointly, saving money for both companies and allowing each to offer the vehicles at an affordable price. Matrix and Vibe do not look alike, however, as their styling was designed independently by Toyota and Pontiac. Both are based on the same platform as the Toyota Corolla. That's good because the Corolla is an excellent compact and has good bones, but the Matrix is radically different in appearance and differs in demeanor from the Corolla.
The Matrix is 3 inches taller but 8 inches shorter in length than a Corolla. It uses the same wheelbase but a wider track. These dimensions give the Matrix a unique stance. It reminds us somewhat of the Ford Focus hatchback, which is slightly smaller. It is also similar in size to the Chrysler PT Cruiser, although the Matrix has slightly less interior storage capacity due to its lower roofline.
And it's mainly that roofline that draws the eye. In a reverse wedge shape, the roof slopes down at the back while the belt line along the lower edge of the side windows slopes up, creating a sleek wedge shape to the windows.
The tailgate opens as a liftgate, similar to that of an SUV or minivan, and the frameless backlight (rear window) can be opened separately for quick access.
The 2005 models get a new front bumper and grille that conveys a feeling of aggressiveness. In the rear, new clear lens combination lamps provide a sportier appearance.
The front of the Matrix has a purposeful looking nose with a relatively high hood line accentuated by a big grille. Engine cooling is achieved through a large aperture under the front bumper which features two small foglights.
A wide track, along with generous tires fill the wheel wells nicely, helping give the Matrix an aggressive look. New wheel covers on the XR grade add to the sporty theme. All in all it's a car that looks substantial despite its relatively small size.
Sitting in a Toyota Matrix is somewhat like sitting in an SUV, with upright seating and a commanding view of the road ahead.
The driver will find that the cockpit is unlike that of other Toyota cars. It's all but identical to the Pontiac Vibe, even down to the American Delco radio.
Four pods in front of the steering wheel house deeply set gauges. The gauges glow red at all times, even during the daytime, as insufficient ambient light reaches them. Chrome rims accentuate each pod. Plastic trim designed to look like brushed aluminum surrounds the switches on the dashboard and adorns the door panels. The combined radio and CD player sits directly to the right of the instrument pod, with the heating and ventilation controls immediately below.
The shifter is just a few inches from the steering wheel, conveniently located more than a foot off the floor in a position that's become fashionable in high-performance rally cars as well as the Lexus RX luxury crossover SUV.
There's 15 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. The rear seat is split 60/40 and pressing a button flips the seat down easily to provide a completely flat floor capable of holding 53 cubic feet of cargo. The cargo floor is finished in a hard ribbed plastic designed to offer easy cleanup. An XR 4WD model we drove came with a carpeted cargo mat ($56) that did a much better job of keeping cargo from sliding around, however. The cargo floor features four slots that contain movable hooks that can be used to tie down goods. There are several other tie-downs positioned along the sides. Storage compartments and cargo nets provide owners with maximum utility. All of this makes the interior as versatile as any station wagon and better than most SUVs. Even the front passenger seat can be folded down to provide another flat surface for storage, albeit at a higher level than the rest of the floor.
With its high roofline, the Matrix offers plenty of headroom for tall drivers and passengers. Shorter passengers sitting in the rear seats might find the view slightly claustrophobic due to the small side windows.
One cool feature is the available 115-volt power outlet located in the front dashboard alongside a regular 12-volt outlet. It's a low-power AC plug suitable for powering a laptop computer, but it isn't capable of running power tools.
Despite its boxy looks there is no denying that the Toyota Matrix is a sporty car.
The standard engine revs nicely. Although the Matrix is quite light, the base engine only delivers 130 horsepower. However, for those who enjoy shifting a lot, it's fun to drive when equipped with the manual transmission. Shifting the manual transmission is smooth and easy. Although it might seem that the upright seating position and the high-mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, this is not the case. Equipped with the five-speed manual, the Matrix with the standard engine gets an EPA-estimated 29/35 mpg City/Highway.
Even with the automatic transmission it feels peppy around town. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people.
Steering is precise. And though the center of gravity is relatively high, it doesn't lean much in corners. It feels like a sporty compact car. That's not surprising as it uses many components straight from the sporty Toyota Celica.
In keeping with the car's sporty attributes, the brakes are effective.
We also drove the sporty XRS with the 180-horsepower engine. The power increase comes from improved breathing by using Toyota's variable-valve timing and lift setup. At low revs the engine delivers no more performance than the standard 130-horsepower engine. The real power comes into play between 6000 and 8400 rpm, so you need to keep it wound up in the upper part of the rev range to tap into its performance. The six-speed gearbox comes from the Celica and uses the same gear ratios, but the Matrix uses taller tires effectively giving it taller gears. So you need to wind it up before shifting into the next gear to enjoy good acceleration performance. We quickly grew tired of the high-revving engine, however. We found that the XRS was not nearly as pleasant as the XR. The 130-hp engine seems a better match for the Matrix than the high-strung 180-hp engine.
Four-wheel-drive models are not as sporty as the two-wheel-drive models. As noted, all-wheel drive is only available with an automatic transmission and the 123-hp engine. With more weight (185 pounds) and slightly less power than the front-drive models, plus the friction from the all-wheel-drive system, the 4WD models do not accelerate as quickly. It's still peppy, though, and the all-wheel provides superior traction on snow, ice and slippery pavement. The Matrix XR 4WD automatic is rated 26/31 mpg.
Toyota Matrix is a sporty wagon that offers utility and style at an affordable price. We prefer the base and XR models to the XRS, which features a more powerful engine with a peaky powerband.