The new Toyota Matrix isn't an SUV, a wagon, or a minivan. It"s all three: a role player that plays pickle between the highly configurable Chrysler PT Cruiser and the high-output Subaru WRX. The Matrix is therefore, in many ways, the automotive equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. To that end, it's a fine tool, though we think the blade could use a bit more sharpening.
Take the Mazda Protegé5, any of the Subaru wagons, the PT Cruiser, this new model from Toyota, and pick the best one. Not easy, is it? Some have dozens of nifty seat configurations, some are faster, and some are more stable over slippery road surfaces. And no two look alike.
The head of Toyota's U.S. operations, Don Esmond, is betting the Matrix will fulfill everything young buyers want: "a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality." Toyota calls its Matrix a CUV, or crossover utility vehicle, which makes us cringe. The world needs another automotive segment name like it needs another hole-in-the-head cliché. But call it whatever you want, the Matrix is also a manufacturing crossover, as it steals almost everything from the soon-to-be-introduced '03 Toyota Corolla and shares DNA coding with its American cousin, the Pontiac Vibe (see sidebar, page three).
Like the PT Cruiser, the Matrix comes with a highly flexible interior setup that allows for many ways to fill it with too much stuff. The rear features a 60/40 split folding seat, a flat-folding front-passenger seat to allow long items to be carried (or for an open laptop to sit, plugged into the handy 115-volt outlet in the dashboard), and a rear glass hatch that opens separately from the main hatch.
The Matrix is actually three very capable vehicles in one: two engines and three levels of body trim, plus front- and all-wheel-drive setups that further custom-tailor the package. Toyota salespeople should be able to convince just about any prospective buyer that a Matrix is the perfect car. Or SUV. Or minivan. Or whatever.
The standard (and least-expensive) model is powered by a 1.8L/130-hp DOHC I-4 (from the '03 Corolla). It comes with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. This base version also offers the option of an all-wheel-drive system, using a viscous coupler to the rear differential. Torque goes to the front wheels under normal conditions, but in the event of front-tire slippage, up to 50 percent of the torque can go to the rear wheels. Unfortunately, the benefits of AWD come at a high cost in performance. The system must be teamed with this smaller engine and only with the four-speed automatic. No up-power, manual-box, all-wheel-drivers allowed. This engine, with its 125 lb-ft of torque, working through the automatic and with the heavy AWD hardware on its back, feels bog slow and self-conscious.
Front-drive models get a twist-beam rear suspension and no ABS, while AWD cars get ABS standard and use an upper and lower control arm system (similar to the Celica GT-S rear suspension) to accommodate the rear differential. Air-conditioning, power windows and locks, and side airbags are all optional on the base model. Think basic family transportation.