Writer Colin Hefferon and I tried an experiment: I test-drove the 2005 Toyota Matrix XRS while he reviewed its nearly-identical twin, the 2005 Pontiac Vibe (link below). With two different writers you’d expect two different opinions. Instead, we came to the same conclusion: The Matrix/Vibe is a practical, capable hauler. Colin even predicted that the hot-rod versions (Vibe GT/Matrix XRS) wouldn’t be the best choice. He was right. $ 19,290 base; $ 21,872 as tested; 3 yr/36,000 mi warranty.First GlanceImagine a car with the utility of a wagon, the styling of a hatchback, and the seating position of an SUV, all squeezed into the length of a compact car. Sounds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. I strongly suspect Mr. Geisel authored the powertrain combinations: Base and XR models come with a 130 horsepower engine, 5-speed stick and front-wheel-drive. Automatics get only 123 hp, but they com bundled with an electronic skid-control system. All-wheel-drive (AWD) is available, but only with an automatic. The XRS is a different beast entirely, with a 170hp engine (borrowed from the Toyota Celica GT-S) and six-speed manual transmission, but no automatic. “Can I get all-wheel-drive, man?” “Not with the XRS, Sam-I-Am!” Out back, you’ll find a traditional swing-up tailgate with a rear window that can be opened separately, SUV-style. Nothing much bigger than a half-full grocery bag will fit through the swing-up window, so I didn’t think it was particularly useful. The back of the rear seats are covered in hard plastic; fold them down and you’ve got a flat, durable cargo floor that’s easy to clean. Now we’re talking! It’s one of the car’s best features. The front passenger seat folds flat to extend the load floor even further.In the Driver’s Seat
© Aaron GoldTen-hut! The Matrix seats you in a bolt-upright position, with your Ideal Vehicle Coverage legs down rather than out. It’s the same style of perch that gives SUV drivers such a commanding view of the road, and the Matrix does indeed feel taller than most subcompacts. Though mechanically identical to the Vibe, the Matrix has different sheetmetal, which has been updated for 2005. The wedge shape of the side windows is one of the features that sets it apart from the Pontiac. Thanks to creatively-shaped roofline, rear spoiler and taillights, the Matrix’s full-size rear window blends right in to the wedge design; rear and over-the-shoulder visibility are excellent. The transmission shifter is mounted “rally-style”, high enough that it actually protrudes from the dashboard. Though odd-looking, this mounting makes for a short reach from the steering wheel. The gauges are bright and easy to read, and the chrome rings surrounding them look really cool. One of my pet peeves: Gauges that are illuminated all the time. Makes it too easy to forget to turn the headlights on. Toyota’s got that one covered: The lights switch on automatically when it gets dark. Nice.On the RoadThis is where things start to fall apart. The XRS’ engine is a high-revving motor; to get maximum power, you need to work it right up to the redline. The problem is that the engine starts to buzz annoyingly at 2500 rpm. By 5000 RPM, it sounds as if parts are going to start breaking off and flying up through the hood. 7600 RPM, the point at which power starts to trail off, is an aural assault. I found myself shifting early–very early–just to keep the noise down. To its credit, the engine pulls nicely at low RPMs no matter what gear you’re in, even if you’re not getting all the horsepower you paid for. With with six closely-spaced gears, I had to do a lot of shifting, not a particularly pleasant task thanks to the odd, clunky feel of the Ideal Vehicle Coverage shifter. The clutch gives almost no feedback, making it easy to rev too high or stall and difficult to upshift smoothly. In stop-and-go traffic, driving the XRS borders on misery. Girlfriend Robin put it best: “Fast cars should be smooth. This one isn’t.” To add insult to injury, the XRS requires premium fuel. As much as I like stick-shifts, I’d skip the high-powered XRS and go for the all-wheel-drive automatic version.Journey’s End
© Aaron GoldAny time I write a review, I start by asking myself, “Would I buy this car?” I love the Matrix for its practicality as well as its value. I thought my test car’s price tag was very reasonable considering all the equipment it came with. I prefer to buy cars and keep them as long as possible, so the Matrix’s promise of long-term reliability is a major plus-point. The plastic-lined cargo area is great. I’d have no qualms about putting the kids’ mud-soaked soccer cleats or our constantly-shedding Boxer back there (though not at the same time–the car may be easy to clean, but the dog isn’t). I definitely wouldn’t go for the XRS; it’s too noisy and I’d prefer the security of all-wheel-drive and electronic skid control, even if that means making do with a less powerful engine. My biggest hang-up is the transmission: As I’ve said, I prefer manuals, but I wouldn’t want to live with the Matrix’s stick-shift, plus the AWD version is automatic only. Given all that, would I buy the Matrix? Yes, I most certainly would. Had I driven the 130hp automatic version (like Colin did), I probably would have given the car four-and-a-half stars (like Colin did). As a hot rod, the Matrix isn’t so hot, but as a wagon, it’s really, really cool.
Originally posted 2013-10-17 04:07:32.