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.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Matrix XRS (shown) offers utility, performance, and boy-racer looks. At the heart of the XRS is the same 1.8L DOHC I-4 that Yamaha builds for the Celica GT-S. It produces 180 hp, but only 5 lb-ft more torque (for a total of 130). Like the base engine, this one features variable valve timing, but it adds variable valve lift. One cam lobe operates under 6000 rpm, and the high-lift lobe comes into play above 6000 rpm. (All this high-tech gadgetry makes for more powerful, vocal, and fuel-efficient engines, though we wonder: For a vehicle designed to move lots of people and stuff, wouldn't a torquier, small-displacement V-6 be a better step-up offering?) With this hell-raiser of an engine, you'd also want all-wheel drive, right? Can't have it. Apparently, the AWD system can't cope with the power of the 180-hp engine. But the XRS does have a battery of upgrades and enhancements that make it quite attractive, including rear disc brakes, a six-speed manual transmission, ABS, front and rear spoilers, body side skirts, foglamps, and the aforementioned 115-volt power outlet. In addition, such options as 17-in. wheels, in-dash six-CD changer, DVD navigation, front side airbags, and a sunroof are a la carte.

If you want the race-inspired look of the XRS, but don't want to spend the money for the extra power, the mid-level Matrix XR is a good compromise and probably the purest of all Matrixes. It combines the base model engine and transmissions with the XRS' sporty body kit. Standard features include front drive, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, and the 115-volt power outlet. Options include the 17-in. wheels from the XRS, sunroof, AWD (again, only with the automatic transmission), nav system, six-CD changer, and ABS.

On the road, all the Matrixes have quick steering, a firm brake feel, and taut but supple suspension. Because the shocks and springs are the same on all FWD cars, handling was only slightly better in the XRS than in the standard model, due to the 17-in. tires. The AWD cars do feel better, thanks to the more able twin-control-arm rear suspension. Overall, the vehicle is quite capable in aggressive corners, more than one might expect from an entry-level Toyota for high-Corolla money.

Toyota has once again produced a rock-solid interior with well-placed functions and a good mix of materials. Rear-seat room is more than adequate, especially above the shoulders, with tens of gallons of hat room available.

The Matrix is a perfectly good car with all the right ingredients, but it seems it'll take Toyota a few recipe revisions to get it tasting just right. Specifically, a Matrix with the 180-hp engine, all-wheel drive, and six-speed manual should be on the menu. As it stands, the Matrix doesn"t create an alternative to the Subaru WRX, a 227-hp turbocharged all-wheel-drive beast that only costs a thousand or two more.

This new-age Toyota goes on sale in February, and they hope to sell 75,000 units per year, of which only about 7500 will be XRS models. Most buyers should see the purity of a front-drive XR with a five-speed manual and sporty body kit. Prices have yet to be revealed, but sources say the Matrix will mirror the RAV4--$17,500 base and around $23,000 loaded. The only problem with the Matrix might just be its status--if it claims to be a sports car, wagon, and SUV, it'll have to fight that ever-expanding spectrum of choices. For now, it's a step in the right direction.

FIRST DRIVE: PONTIAC VIBE
For Pontiac enthusiasts, the story is largely the same in every way. Pontiac hopes the Vibe, as sister vehicle to the Matrix, will also help it capture buyers in the highly prized 18-30-year-old category. GM designed the Vibe's body, and everything from powertrains to suspension to overall package was designed by Toyota and approved by GM with almost no editing. Engine choices and front- and all-wheel-drive options are identical to the Matrix. Pontiac buyers will enjoy an American car with a Japanese level of quality--something domestic manufacturers have been attempting for years.

As one would expect from nearly identical cars, the Vibe drives like a Toyota, combined with GM's growing understanding of world-class dynamics. A quick taste of the Vibe on smooth, mildly twisty Nevada roads revealed minimal body roll on light-g turns, good damping, and a bit of pivot in the left-right-left transitions. Like the Matrix, the 130-hp five-speed manual, front-drive Vibe has just enough power to get by, but nothing to sing about.

Upgrade to the 180-hp Vibe GT, with its six-speed box, and you get more, but peaky, power: good for quick spurts of acceleration between calm cruising, plus a raspier exhaust note. All-wheel drive is optional only with the 130-hp engine.

Toyota and GM have collaborated before, but this appears to be the best result to date from the relationship between these two giants. It works and each car should sell well.

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