- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

It's a scary thought, but here comes the Toyota Matrix a near-twin to Pontiac's Vibe with a feature that seems aimed at the folks who want to shave or watch TV or hit the Internet during their daily commute.

It has a 115-volt outlet on the dash that'll run electrical devices, but not heat-producing ones such as corn poppers or hair dryers, Toyota says.

The one-amp, 115-volt outlet is just one of several things that give the Matrix character, albeit a more conservative one than the Vibe. Execs say one is styled for fun, the other for function, and it's no problem to figure which is which.

It's another example of the automaker alliances that produce basically identical cars with some external and equipment differences to justify the different badging.

In this case, Toyota plays it straight with no strained attempt at flair, while Pontiac tricks up its Vibe with some traditional Pontiac styling cues (the headlamps and grille) and cladding/trim intended to qualify it for membership in "The Fast and Furious" street-race set.

It won't outperform the Matrix because both depend on variations of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine (123-, 130- and 180-horsepower versions offered). Transmissions are either five- or six-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

The test Matrix came in all-out XRS trim (base and XR are the other options), meaning it had the 180-horsepower four-cylinder, a six-speed tranny and a base price of $18,750 pushed to $21,654 by factory and dealer-installed options.

The options included a $1,750 package with navigation system and six-disc CD changer. The navigation system, with its screen high on the center dash, seems a feature that's becoming standard on many vehicles.

Despite appearing to have been bamboozled in the fun/function trade-off, the Matrix, which also shares pieces with the Corolla, still generated looks and questions about its origin, purpose and performance. Perhaps tellingly, a majority of the people intrigued by the Matrix said it reminded them of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, which is similar in size and shape.

The "radiant red" tester was fun to drive and comfortable enough for a car in this class. Maneuvering in traffic and parking was a breeze, and while it was susceptible to real breezes, it was relatively stable most of the time.

The standard 16-inch wheels and tires were replaced by a 17-inch option costing $150, and the four-speaker stereo had enough volume and clarity to offset a lot of external noise.

The major drawback was a shifter that really made it difficult to differentiate between first and reverse. Toyota has addressed this situation by giving reverse a be-aware chime reminiscent of the sound many trucks make while backing. It can be irritating, but it's a real help.

Otherwise, the Matrix is another one of those nifty, not-too-big cars that offer a good choice of options.

And if you wind up sitting in traffic, there are the diversions made possible by the 115-volt outlet.

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