- Tons of space - a good reason to dump your 2WD SUV.
- Spacious rear seat for a so-called compact car.
- Sporty handling.
- Excellent braking performance.
- Stylish and utilitarian interior.
- Minivan-like exterior styling.
- Weak in the torque department.
- Gets a little pricey with options.
- Odd driving position.
- Noisy high-revving engine.
Press Coverage :
The Matrix, developed in conjunction with Pontiac and styled at Toyota's American design studio, is Toyota's idea of an SUV replacement, in an age defined by rising gas prices and the return of performance cars. What is more confusing is that Toyota is actually pegging this car as a sports car, in the vein of the Celica. The front-wheel-drive Matrix XRS is the sportiest version of the Matrix, powered by the same 180 hp Yamaha-tuned VVT-i engine as the Celica GT-S. The Matrix XRS also shares its chassis with the Corolla and the Celica, thereby confirming its car-based roots. But it sports an inflated body that packs more practicality and utility than either the Corolla or the Celica. In fact, its interior room is so huge that the EPA classifies this car as midsized, not compact. Toyota has created a whole new niche for itself.
The Toyota Matrix is built in Canada, while the Pontiac Vibe is built in the United States. The two cars actually share the same interior, but have different exterior styling. The interior features metal-effect dashboard trim, front driver and passenger airbags, cloth seats with 60/40 split rear seats, power windows, doors and mirrors, stereo with CD player and four cupholders. A "ground effects" kit with rear roof-mounted spoiler is standard on the XRS, as is ABS. A power moonroof and cruise control are optional.
The high-revving 4 cylinder VVT-i engine, re-rated from 180 hp to 164 hp according to new SAE regs, makes for a noisy and frantic driving experience, with constant shifting required to get the best acceleration out of the measly 125 lb-ft of torque. The six-speed manual gearbox helps to a certain extent, but the tall gearing negates any positive effect. The 16 inch wheels are shod in 205/55R16 all-season tires, with 17 inch aluminum wheels with 215/50R17 Firestone Firehawk SZ50 summer tires available as an option. Only the front suspension is fully independent, with a semi-independent torsion beam holding up the rear of this front-wheel-driver, but the sporty tuning ensures fairly good handling for such a tall car. But torque steer is a problem under hard acceleration for this front-wheel-driver. Braking is admirably handled with ABS-assisted single-piston sliding calipers and discs on all four wheels, bringing the car to a halt in less than 120 ft.
One of the features people like about driving or riding in an SUV or a minivan is the enhanced view of the world offered by a higher ride height. While it is obviously difficult to achieve anywhere near the same height in a small car, one does get a similar feel in the Matrix as the seating is fairly upright, providing the driver and passengers with a more commanding view.
The driver will find that the cockpit is unlike that of other Toyota cars. 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 and fake brushed aluminum trim is used to surround switches on the dashboard and door panels. The gearshift is a few inches away from the steering wheel. It's conveniently located more than a foot off the floor in a position that's become fashionable in high-performance rally cars. Behind the front seats is where the Matrix really shines. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds down easily to provide a completely flat floor that is finished in a hard ribbed plastic. It comes with four slots that contain movable hooks that can be used to tie down goods. There are also 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. Thanks to the high roofline there is plenty of headroom, so tall drivers and passengers will be comfortable. Shorter passengers sitting in the rear seats might find the view slightly claustrophobic due to the small side windows, however. One cool feature, which is standard on all but the base model, is a 115-volt power outlet located in the front dashboard alongside a regular 12-volt outlet.
Despite its boxy, almost mini-minivan, looks there is no denying that the Toyota Matrix is a sporty car. For this reason it seemed appropriate to try the Matrix with a manual transmission. Although it might seem that the upright seating position and the high mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, it did not. In fact, the car felt sporty right away. Shifts are smooth and the engine revs nicely. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people. Steering is precise and even if the center of gravity is relatively high there is little body roll. In fact the Matrix feels just like any other small sporty 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.
The power comes from variable valve timing and lift, which comes into play between 6000 rpm and the 8400-rpm redline. At lower revs the engine delivers no more performance than the base 130-horsepower engine, so you need to keep it wound up in the upper part of the rev range to tap into its performance. The engine does not generate much additional power until you rev it to about 6500 rpm.
New Car Test Drive
Matrix fires up with the same subtlety as the Celica and remains docile until its cam switchover at 6000 rpm. Then the transformation from minivan to sport wagon begins in earnest. It's weird at first, like riding a motorcycle for the first time. Nothing is intuitive. Matrix's height and general character asks you to relearn much of what you know about fast driving. Then, slowly, you gain respect for its abilities. It's not as quick as the Celica, nor as composed, but it's not far off. In fact, considering its mass, it's very respectable. Sort of like, well, a fast wagon.
Pound the Matrix through a set of curves and you'll be surprised at its balance. It also stops quickly, thanks to the Celica's binders. Sixty to zero takes only 118 feet--five feet longer than the Celica. Fact is, you'll struggle to find a car this capable with this much cargo space.
Matrix also uses the Celica gearbox with taller tires, which exacerbates the Celica's gear spacing problems even further. Keeping the engine in the powerband is a constant struggle. This is frustrating. Toyota could've built a six-speed gearbox with tighter ratios that keep the engine in its sweet spot on upshifts. As it is, when you roll into the power in second gear from low speed the car doesn't really accelerate until 47 mph--the speed the cam switches over in second gear.
Sport Compact Car
1993-1996 Toyota Corolla DX Wagon
1,780 cc / 105 hp / 110 lb-ft / 2403-2480 lbs / 0-60 mph 10.5 sec.