- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Given manufacturers' penchant for secrecy and the fact that it takes at least a couple of years often longer to bring a new car to market, the bandwagon effect sometimes is nothing short of amazing.
The bandwagon everybody seems to be jumping on these days is the return of the four-door hatchback, though no promoter would dare call it that because of past consumer rejection. Instead, this new crop of vehicles goes by a variety of assumed names, most of which have the word "crossover" somewhere in the nomenclature.
Among them: The Mazda Protege5, Pontiac Vibe, Suzuki Aerio, Ford Focus ZX5, Subaru Impreza Sport Wagon and the subject here, the Toyota Matrix.
Its full given name is the Toyota Corolla Matrix, likely so the Toyota folks can count its sales with those of the Corolla to boost its standing. Except for styling, it is virtually identical to the Pontiac Vibe. Though basically Toyotas, the vehicles are built together in a Toyota-General Motors joint venture.
The overriding theme of the crossovers is youthful practicality. With some exceptions, they mimic sport utility vehicles because they're taller than sedans, offer all-wheel drive and offer superior load-carrying capabilities. They occupy a niche somewhere between traditional station wagons and four-door hatchbacks, though closer to the latter.
They're not totally new. Volkswagen never abandoned the four-door hatchback, and has continued to sell its four-door Golf model. All it would have to do to compete in this new category would be to jack up the Golf by giving it bigger wheels and tires, and call it a crossover.
The bottom line is the manufacturers want to sell their wares to younger buyers who might not be able to afford a traditional SUV but like the idea of being able to haul friends and stuff to the beach or wherever.
The Toyota Matrix fills the bill, though it's not as inexpensive as you might expect. That halo goes to the Italian-designed Suzuki Aerio, which looks something like a smaller Honda Odyssey minivan, but boasts a 141-horsepower engine and a price tag of just $15,000, fully equipped.
Two versions of the Matrix were tested for this review, and curiously came within a few dollars of each other, though they were vastly different in character.
One was the XR model with full-time four-wheel drive, a 123-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission, which had a base price of $18,930 and, with options most buyers likely would order, came to $21,132. The other was an XRS model with front-wheel drive, a 180-horsepower engine (also a 1.8-liter four) and a six-speed manual transmission, which started at $19,235 and, with options, came to $21,455.
Obviously, the XRS is the hot-rod model, with anti-lock disc brakes on all four wheels, electronic brake-assist, a more tightly snubbed suspension system and a harsher ride, alloy wheels, and a higher level of basic equipment. It also carried the optional ($1,750) navigation system with a CD changer.
So customers can opt for something that is slower but more sure-footed in inclement weather or a quicker machine with a more sporting character. Either way, they get midsize passenger and large-car luggage space in a package that is not a knockout visually but fits the crossover theme.
The interior is particularly appealing. A pod that drops down from the dashboard houses the shift lever, just like on Lexus RX 300 or the Toyota Highlander. Seats, in both the front and back, are chair-high and comfortable. The sporty three-spoke steering wheel is covered with leather. There's a built-in inverter to convert the 12-volt electrical system into 115-volt current through an outlet built into the dash, so a musician at a picnic can simply plug in an amplifier and start playing, as long as it doesn't need more than 100 watts.
The back seat, which is accommodating for two but tight for three, folds flat to bump the 22 cubic feet of cargo area to more than 53 cubic feet. But the cargo-area floor is not carpeted. It's made of hard plastic, which means that unless you tie everything down, it bangs around. A rubber floor mat would help.
From a driving standpoint, the less-powerful engine with the four-wheel drive seems adequate until you load it up with passengers and cargo. For a bit more oomph, skip the four-wheel drive. The front-wheel-drive XR has 130 horsepower compared with the four-wheel drive's 123.
The hot number, of course, is the XRS, with the 180-horsepower motor and the six-speed manual, which has a positive though occasionally clunky feel. Clutch action is light and smooth, making this an easy car to drive even for a shifting novice.
Both models have a rather heavy, planted feel, which makes them feel like a larger car or even an SUV. In typical Toyota fashion, the materials have a quality look, and there are few, if any, lapses in the workmanship.


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