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Toyota Matrix XRS and XR car reviews

The Toyota Matrix XRS is an unusual vehicle in many ways. Based on the comfortable, reliable, but not especially exciting Toyota Corolla, it totally loses the Corolla's personality and ends up feeling more like a Celica. That's apt, since the Matrix XRS uses the Celica's 180 horsepower engine (the ordinary Matrix uses the Corolla engines, with an exhaust tuned for more exciting noises. The two engines are similar, differing mainly in the head design and valve technology).

The Matrix is a crossover vehicle, designed to attract younger buyers to Toyota, which it has been doing with some success. Indeed, younger people tended to think the station wagon design was truly cool, while older people tended to like the utility of the fold-flat rear seats and easy access to the cargo area. The Matrix has four doors in addition to the traditional rear gate, with room for five in a pinch. The cargo area, while not immense, is larger than that of the Golf or Protege 5, and if you fold down the rear seats and the front passenger seat, you can shove in an eight foot long object - which is more than you can do in a Ford Escape or Mazda Tribute.

Speaking of SUVs, we would like the Matrix to attract a few potential SUV buyers, because the gas mileage is quite good. Rated at 29 city, 36 highway with its base engine, the Matrix easily beats any SUV and quite a few small cars. The Matrix XRS cuts mileage down to 25 city, 30 highway, which still beats any SUV we've seen. All wheel drive, available with a base price of $20,100, may help SUV lovers to get used to the idea of a nimble, sporty car.

For most people, we would actually recommend the XR or base models, because the extra power of the XRS only comes at very high engine speeds, which research shows that few drivers use. Enthusiasts will like the burst of power. Even with that, the Matrix XRS is only about as fast as a Dodge Neon, while the XR, despite its loud racy noises, checks in with the Civic EX and Corolla. That's enough acceleration for most people.

The Matrix XRS is aimed at providing the entire range with a sporty, youthful image. The 1.8 liter engine manages to get 100 horsepower per liter, and is hooked up to a six-speed manual transmission to convey an image of speed and sophistication. Handling is generally very good, though the car feels twitchy at highway speeds, and there is some torque steer and loss of traction on takeoff (not present on the XR). The tires do not seem well suited to wet roads, but dry-road braking is very good.

The Matrix XR, which has the sharp looks and sounds of the XRS without the actual horsepower, has good handling and feels solid and stable on the road, while still cushioning most shocks. The tires tend to squeal easily on wet roads. The engine feels somewhat sluggish when you first start out, picking up power rather suddenly at around 4,000 rpm as the valves go into a new program. The simple Dodge Neon has been able to make more power and torque with less fuss for quite some time, so we don't understand why this engine seems to need to run so fast.

The exhaust system on both the XR and XRS are tuned for exciting power noises at both low and high rpm, so that just negotiating a supermarket parking lot makes it seem clear that you have a powerful, sporty engine.

The XRS' Celica engine is fast, but it needs to be revved high for full effect. Rather than resorting to a turbocharger, Toyota set up a high-performance cam and valve timing which takes effect at 6,000 rpm, and continues through an unusually high redline at 8,200 rpm. The engine has considerably less than 180 horsepower until you suddenly hit this sweet spot, and get a sudden, exciting surge of power. The end result, though, is that in regular driving you do not have the full potential of the engine - even less so than with turbo vehicles - and when you do tap it, which normally requires a downshift, it is very noisy. Most drivers should try out the base engine as well, since it's better suited to day-to-day driving and is much more fuel-efficient, even though it theoretically adds a second or two to zero-to-sixty times (assuming the XRS is driven by a skilled driver who takes it up to redline). Note that the XRS requires premium fuel, while base models take regular.

Even the base engines need to be revved high to get power, in stark contrast to the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a similarly configured (if completely differently styled) vehicle with roughly the same acceleration - a bit less base-to-base, a lot more turbo-to-xrs.

The six-speed manual shifts well, but it has a relatively low top gear, so it is still noisy on the highway. It beeps loudly when in reverse (within the car), which is annoying and distracting. Reverse is off to the left, in the European pattern.

The five-speed manual also shifts well, but the gearing seems more appropriate, and reverse is in the Japanese position of back-and-right. There is no reverse-beeping.

Overall, the clutch and stick are easy to work smoothly on either transmission. The placement of the stick is somewhat odd, but easy to get used to: it grows out of an extension of the dashboard's center stack. Strange but easy to use, and it doesn't normally block the fan control or electric outlet.

Visibility is surprisingly good, given the overstyled body. There are minor blind spots from the large rear pillars, and the rear headrests can get in the way if you're backing up, but overall, visibility is better than most competitors. Headlights are unusually bright and well focused.

The interior is tastefully executed, with a black and silver motif that works better than it does in the Audi TT. The center stack has a dull silver finish, while the rings around the gauges, the stick-shift, and some other trim is bright chrome. Overall, it works well, without being a distraction. Some of the controls are less than ideal, but nothing stands out as being nonsensical, just counterintuitive or more complex than needed. The cruise control is straight out of Toyota's parts bin, and is the best design we've seen, sitting on its own convenient stalk. Air vents are easy to close and redirect.

The gauges themselves are totally black when the car is off, in deeply recessed circles. As soon as you turn the key to RUN, they become backlit with a bright red color. The backlighting is a little uneven, seeming to come from bulbs, but the effect is snazzy. We'd just as soon have amber instead of red, which makes it harder to see the emergency warning lights (e.g. for brake failure), but red is the favorite of the younger generation.

The lighting system combines daytime running lights from General Motors with automatic headlights, and no option to shut the headlights off entirely. You can leave them on all the time, though. Unlike past Corollas, the automatic headlights will go on instantly at night when you start the car (in the past, they took 15 seconds), but the 15 second delay remains in effect after you start the car to avoid having the headlights blink on and off every time you go under an overpass or tree.

While the climate control is clear and easy to understand, with a relatively quiet fan, the navigation system / stereo (optional) is another story. While a nav system is unusual in a car of this price range, operating the radio takes too much attention with the system. Some of the buttons do double duty, and the enter/move button is hard to work, requiring your full attention. You also can't play a CD while the map DVD is in place. It also requires you to agree to drive safely each and every time you start the car before it'll show you a simple map.

There are zoom in and out controls for the map, along with many other options for setting the appearance. Destinations can be set by address, point of interest, or scrolling the map and picking a point. It's very flexible, and when the system is shut off, it defaults to a digital clock. You can also shut off the display entirely.

On the lighter side, you can get vocal directions, and the system simply creates a new route if you skip an exit or turn. The navigation system can be surprisingly helpful, but be sure to stop the car before programming it. Seriously.

The standard stereo has good sound and is moderately easy to use, though audio fine-tuning takes too much attention due to the button-and-knob system.

Other somewhat unusual features are built-in air filtration, a power outlet in the covered center console, and a 115 volt AC outlet, with a standard plug, in the dashboard. This can be turned on or shut off with a neighboring button, and can be useful for powering a laptop or small appliance that takes up to 100 watts. The small center console has an upper and lower area to help with organization. There are also a pair of small but deep (stable) cupholders, a pair of hidden, hinged storage areas (one under the stickshift, one under the light/mirror controls), and a couple of storage areas built into the center console. The coin holder is essentially useless, but the deep cup holders work well on appropriately sized cups. There are also map pockets built into the front doors.

Passenger space is good in front and back. The cargo area is not especially deep, but it is tall, with movable hooks built into several surfaces. Lift up a plastic cover, and you find the spare tire - under another cover for its own protection - with a jack and assorted paraphernalia, and places for your own tools and clutter. It's a surprisingly good design. Likewise, if you need to fold the rear seats, they easily slide into place so that you get a perfectly flat loading surface.

The Matrix is offered in three grade levels, Standard, XR, and XRS. Buyers of the Standard and XR grades are offered a choice of either front- or full-time four-wheel drive systems. Both Standard and XR grades are powered by the Corolla's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing (VVT-i); front wheel drive versions are ultra low emission vehicles (ULEV) with 130 hp, while four-wheelers are low emission vehicles (LEV) with 123 hosrepower. For comparison to Hondas, which tend to have low torque, the front-wheelers have 125 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm; all-wheel-drive models have 118 lb-ft of torque. (The XRS is, as we've noted, 180 horsepower at 7,600 rpm, with 130 lb-ft of torque at 6,800 rpm).

Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard equipment on four-wheel drive Standard and XR models and on the XRS, and optional with front-wheel drive.

The base Matrix is reasonably priced, but you have to pay a premium for the XRS model - though it is still not bad when compared to many competitors, and any comparable SUV. The Toyota Matrix is a good entry into the SUV-replacement market, with a practical shape, efficient engines, good handling, and styling that appeals to younger buyers. However, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, whose quality has been nearly up to Toyota levels, has much higher levels of refinement, while the Subaru WRX has much higher performance and more refinement. There are lots of alternatives, many of which may be more desirable.

The Toyota Matrix tries to have it both ways. You get SUV styling with car handling, braking, and gas mileage; you get Toyota reliability from a car built in North America; and you get sports car noises with economy car practicality. That works for us.

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