The Smell of the Matrix

The Toyota Matrix keeps growing on me. Initially I wrote it off completely as aimed a little too young for my taste. As I dig deeper into the idea of a sporty wagon, however, I find myself back at the Matrix, still feeling a bit squeamish about the rakish lines but ultimately realizing that it's a perfectly fine car that gets outstanding mileage with a price that starts down near Ford Focus territory if you go for the base model. Maybe I'm a bit younger at heart than I realized.

Actually, the turning point came when I first sat in Mr. K's 2003 Matrix—he let us test drive it to avoid a dealer trip—and realized that the Matrix probably has some automotive genes in common with our 1986 Toyota Tercel 4WD. We kinda like that old Toyota, and we've already been seen driving it, so what could we lose by tooling around in the Matrix? What we gain is a fairly comfortable and tall, if narrow, front cabin. The center console is an armrest you'll likely fight over—the doors aren't really designed for low-elbow comfort, although I imagine you could roll down a window and prop your arm up in the sun. (In the Tercel, we call that "air conditioning.") The Matrix's filtered air blows cold, so you'll often want that window rolled up. Controls for the AC are well placed below the stereo; cubbyholes abound on the dash and underneath the center console, where a second power socket hides out. Overall, the interior does a good job of making you feel more like you're in a sporty ride than an economical wagon. If you buy up to the Matrix XR package, you get a bona fide two-prong household socket in the dashboard, perfect for "making sure you never again take a break from work," as Ms. D. cynically pointed out.

Ms. D. was particularly pleased with the plug-in essential oil diffuser that she found of Mr. K.'s in the Matrix's front cigarette-lighter socket. She was no less deterred from her admiration when she learned that the diffuser was made by The Body Shop and not Toyota. She insisted that were we to buy a Matrix, we would need to stop by The Body Shop on the way home from the dealer.

She was more disturbed, later, by the revelation that the Matrix has a transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine. I blame some of her fear on Mr. K's cavalier description of the engine arrangement, when he pointed under the hood and declared, "The engine is mounted sideways."

Ms. D. screwed up her brow and gave a furtive glance, saying that it sounded like that mistake on the part of the manufacturer might cause serious problems down the road.

Mr. K's Matrix is an automatic, which has fine pick-up, using its 130-horsepower to scoot around town with no troubles. I'd opt for a manual transmission, as it lowers the price and raises the pep. If you opt for regular door locks and crank-down windows, the basic Matrix is $15,155; the XR package, which includes power windows and doors, a household power socket and some appearance highlights, raises the price to $16,705 before you start adding roof racks, sunroofs and other such accessories. The Matrix is also made in the XRS package, which offers a 6-speed manual transmission and a 180-horsepower engine; optionally, in the Matrix and Matrix XR models you can also opt for a 4x4 model, although doing so requires an automatic and raising the price a bit.

The Matrix is made to be handy and practical in the way that cars aimed at the young generally are these days. The split, flat-folding rear seats take the cargo bay from 22 cubic feet to about 53 cubic feet, and the entire rear cargo area is covered in durable plastic with tie-downs all over the place, so you can clean it easily and worry less about mess. The passenger seat folds flat for a full eight feet of cargo area. Again, the rear section is overwhelmed with cubbyhole areas, and the cargo floor offers hooks, rails, and all sorts of help for tying and organizing your stuff. For what we do—deliver magazines, grab groceries and run around to outdoor events—the Matrix would be as handy as they come.

And then there's the mileage: 36 miles per gallon on the highway with a standard transmission, 29 in town. Very nice. Until the new hybrid Toyota Prius shows up later this year—restyled to be much more interesting than its predecessor—the Matrix will reign as a champion sporty gas sipper and deserve recognition for it.

As for the styling, it's definitely an issue of personal taste. I didn't like the Matrix at first and might still be more likely to drive a Pontiac Vibe, which is the Matrix's twin in most inward details. The Vibe looks a bit more like a scaled-down SUV, while the Matrix looks more like it came from a Future-O-Cars display, suggesting what sporty, practical wagons will look like in the wacky far-off year of Two Thousand and Three. That's true all the way down to the day-glow orange gauges in the cockpit.

But I'm getting more used to the styling. Ms. D was charitable. "I think it looks like it's trying a bit too hard," she scoffed, but then allowed, "but it's better than most of the crap on the road today." I asked if she could see herself driving the Matrix.

"Actually, I could see myself driving our own car over to The Body Shop," she replied, grabbing her keys.


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