So you want a car to tool around the city in, preferably something small to spare you the bulk and expense of an SUV. You're young, or more importantly, young at heart, which means you're looking for something with a dash of sporty flavor. You don't have a whole lot of cash, which means you'd like something on the economical side. Every once in a while you spend more than you should at Target or for oversize plastic playthings at Toys "R" Us, meaning that you need more than just the conventional trunk that a sedan offers.
So what kind of car would you get? We'd highly suggest a compact wagon. Carmakers are realizing the usefulness of four-door cars with the addition of what is essentially a really big trunk. Wagons are on the rebound from their homely, dowdy image of the past few decades and are hip again, thanks to a slight backlash from the SUV glut. People are realizing that they can have a ride with almost as much cargo capacity but without the headaches associated with a truck-based vehicle, namely a rough ride, poor gas mileage and more mass than necessary.
An influx of sport wagons as rendered by luxury carmakers started the "cool wagon" trend: consider the Lexus IS 300 SportCross, the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 325i Sport Wagon and Mercedes-Benz C320 Sport Wagon. Well, the vast majority of consumers can't afford these fancy brands, so other carmakers are offering a number of fun, fast and easy-on-the-wallet wagons to carry you, your brood and your belongings to your destination.
The cars assembled here have all the functionality of a station wagon along with the personality of a sporty compact car. The group included the 2002 Ford Focus ZX5, 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser Limited, 2002 Mazda Protegé5, 2002 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, 2002 Suzuki Aerio SX and the 2003 Toyota Matrix XR FWD to compete in this comparison test.
As with other comparison tests we conduct, we asked our ever-willing editors to determine which car is the best. Each car was evaluated based on price, feature content, performance, a 23-point evaluation and subjective ratings which cars our editors would put in their own garages and which ones they would recommend to others.
We drove them around town and on highways, up curvy mountain roads and around tight parking lots. We clambered aboard to see which offered the most rear-seat comfort, and judged which would allow the most thrills should you find a nicely banked decreasing-radius freeway on-ramp on your daily commute.
So sit back and allow us to take you on an enjoyable ride through the environs of Southern California in these stylish, affordable machines.
Sixth Place - 2002 Suzuki Aerio SX
The Aerio is a recent addition to Suzuki's lineup. It debuted for 2002 as a replacement for the Esteem economy sedan. The SX is the wagon version. For consumers on a strict budget, this might be a car to consider; the SX starts at just $14,999 and our test car was the least expensive of the six hatchbacks in the test. However, the Aerio comes up short in many other areas, and we felt the other cars were better overall choices.
With 141 horsepower from its 2.0-liter inline four (that figure goes up to 145 for 2003 models), the Aerio boasted the second-highest power output of the test. At the track, our Aerio went from zero to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds, just a tenth slower than the fastest vehicles in the test. The five-speed manual transmission of our test car was easy to shift, and overall, the Aerio earned the best editor-assigned scores for engine and transmission performance.
Unfortunately, our test car lacked ABS, and this hurt its ability to stop quickly. The shortest distance our driver could obtain when stopping from 60 mph was 156 feet, considerably longer than all the other cars in the test. If you're purchasing an Aerio, we recommend paying extra to get the antilock brakes.
Given the vehicle's tall profile, the Aerio does a reasonable job of controlling body roll when cornering. In terms of driving enjoyment, it is well off the pace of the Focus and Protegé5, but it isn't any worse than the Matrix or the PT Cruiser, the top vehicles of this comparison test. We didn't like the Aerio's steering, however. It has too much resistance to driver inputs, kicks back over bumps and occasionally feels twitchy when driving on the highway.
Inside, the Aerio offers up a distinctive dash design. The audio head unit is mounted up high for easy access and the traditional gauge cluster has been replaced with a small electronic display. Though similar in concept to the one used in the Honda S2000 roadster, we found the tachometer, fuel and coolant temperature gauges hard to read.
In terms of interior materials, the Aerio earned the lowest score of the six vehicles. There is very little in terms of soft-touch surfaces, and the door-mounted armrests lack padding for comfort. As one of our editors noted, "The Aerio's feeling and appearance of quality is less than any of the others. The dash is hollow-sounding when rapped upon and many of the controls have a chintzy feel to them."
Another problem was the Aerio's lack of interior storage space. There isn't a center console bin and the door pockets are slim and shallow. Unless you use the cupholders, there isn't any convenient space to place small items such as cell phones or keys.
In terms of passenger accommodations, the Suzuki offers plenty of headroom for both front and rear passengers thanks to its high roofline. Entry and exit to the backseat are better than most, and the rear seat has a fold-down center armrest with two cupholders (this feature was discontinued for 2003). Farther back, the Aerio's cargo area has a useful under-floor storage system with a huge center tray and a removable bucket.
With the rear seats up, the Suzuki holds 14.6 cubic feet of cargo, less than the other cars in this test. The rear seats don't rest 100-percent flat when folded and the headrests have to be removed in order to avoid interference with the front seats. Also, there are no cargo tie-down points or bag holders, severely curtailing your ability to secure cargo.
You could drive an Aerio for years and be a completely satisfied customer. Its price is attractive, and you can get all-wheel drive as an option. For the majority of buyers, however, we recommend checking out one of the higher-placing vehicles in this test.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
All right, let's just leave the styling out of it. It's not that much fun to pick on the obvious, plus I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who do dig the tall-and-narrow looks of the Aerio. That said, I can pick on other aspects of the vehicle. The engine, while decently powered at 141 horses, delivers them in a coarse manner, especially at higher revs. The manual transmission's shifter will engage willingly enough (aside from the long throws), but the rest of the experience is marred by the mushy brake pedal and the alarming way that the brakes can lock up on you (our test vehicle was not equipped with ABS) and the tires that shrug and give up for dead when asked to perform at any point beyond low-speed city driving.
And the inside? Well, it gets an "A" for effort. Like a Honda S2000, it has digital gauges, but they don't work to the same effect as in that "cooler" car. The lack of faux titanium trim is refreshing, but hard plastics invade almost every surface of the cabin. Unlike the similarly spec'd and lower-priced Hyundai Elantra, you don't feel like you got more than you paid for.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Suzuki Aerio SX
Ranking in Test: Third (tie)
System Score: 6.0
Components: Six speakers and a single-CD player mounted very high in the dash (right where it should be!) are standard in the Aerio SX. Tweeters are housed in a slanted rim of the dash near the bottom of the windshield and stare at the driver. Round woofers are housed in the bottom of the front doors and in the pillars above the rear headrests.
Performance: The superb placement of the tweeters far from the seats creates a spray of crisp tones that expands before it reaches all of the passengers. As an unexpected bonus, the speakers in back are able to provide fill in the front. Bass response is fairly strong, but there's a considerable amount of high-frequency tones seeping in at high volumes and causing distortion. The placement of the head unit is worth mentioning again because the driver's eyes will probably spend less time off the road.
Best Feature: Sniper tweets.
Worst Feature: Woofers suffering an identity crisis.
Conclusion: The Aerio might have beaten the Protegé5 if a CD changer were available. Trevor Reed
Fifth Place - 2002 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport
Despite finishing in fifth place, the Subaru Impreza has a lot going for it. If you were to dismiss it without even taking a test-drive, you'd be doing yourself a disservice.
For this test, we originally wanted to obtain an Impreza TS Sport Wagon with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, we were unable to get one in time for the test. But we decided it was better to have an Impreza rather than none at all, so we took what we could get: an Impreza Outback Sport with an automatic transmission.
The differences are minor between the Outback Sport and TS Sport Wagon. The Outback includes bigger (16-inch) wheels, a two-tone paint scheme, a bit more ground clearance, massive foglights, floor mats and cargo area enhancements like a power point and cargo tie-downs. For this test, however, the less expensive TS Sport Wagon would have been a better fit.
As with all Subaru products, the Outback Sport has a standard all-wheel-drive system. It was the only vehicle in the test to have it, though the Aerio SX and Matrix offer AWD systems as an option. All-wheel drive is certainly a benefit during inclement weather; it provides better traction during acceleration on slick roads and makes climbing ice-covered driveways significantly less nerve-racking.
Power is provided by a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. It makes 165 horsepower, the most in the test. It supplies plenty of torque, especially at low rpm. However, this power advantage was largely canceled out by the reduced drivetrain efficiency of the AWD system and our test car's automatic transmission. Zero to 60 mph took 9.6 seconds, a figure that tied the Subaru with the Ford for last place. The car's speed through the quarter-mile was also the slowest of the bunch.
Exacerbating the Impreza's disappointing performance was the transmission's slow downshift responses and tendency to hunt between gears when the car was climbing hills. Though the vast majority of cars sold today are automatics, getting a manual on the Impreza would greatly improve the driving experience.
When going around corners, the Outback did make up some ground thanks to its sporty suspension tuning. Stiffer than most of the other cars in this test, the Subaru was pleasurable to drive aggressively. In most situations, its ride quality was comfortable, though it sometimes responded rather harshly when driven over broken pavement. Overall, the Subaru tied for second place with the Mazda in the suspension evaluation category.
Inside, the Impreza greets drivers with a generally attractive dash design with metallic highlights and easy-to-read gauges. The Outback Sport comes with durable cloth upholstery. All of our editors described it as "tweedy," though they couldn't agree as to whether they liked its feel and appearance.
We did concur that the rear seats weren't particularly comfortable in comparison to the other vehicles. There is less legroom than the other cars, the narrow seat cushions cut thigh support and the sloped sides for the headliner limit headroom. There are three adjustable headrests, but they reduce rearward visibility for the driver. For the categories of rear-seat comfort and entry-exit, the Subaru earned the lowest scores.
Converting the Subaru for cargo duty is simple thanks to the one-step process for lowering the rear seats. The cargo area has two tie-down points, a grocery bag holder and a 12-volt power point, as well as a retractable shade. The narrow bottom opening of the hatch area can make the loading of large items difficult, though there's enough space to swallow plenty of cargo.
Though enjoyable to drive, the Subaru Outback Sport was held back by its minor faults, as well as its price, which was more than any other wagon in the test. The Impreza does make sense for those living in cold climates, but the other wagons in this test more successfully perform their intended missions.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
It's a shame that the Subie we had in the test had a four-speed automatic; it bogged down the 165-horsepower flat four, the most powerful engine in the test. What should have been a burst of thrust turned out to be more of an amble when trying to come out of a curve; downshifts come painfully slowly, eating away at your patience. Otherwise, the Subie is a blast to drive, with its all-wheel-drive technology adding a surefootedness to the already capable suspension that was missing from the other cars, most of which are front-wheel drivers. Power to all four wheels will also come in handy in climates where slippery roads are a common annoyance.
Some other negative aspects include rear-seat accommodations that are way too cozy for comfort, and extroverted styling that certainly has its detractors. These can be overlooked in the hijinks-inducing WRX flavor, but in the rather plebian Impreza, well, I'd say I was slightly less than Imprezed.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport
Ranking in Test: Fifth (tie)
System Score: 5.0
Components: The Subie comes with a simple CD player and a full-range speaker in each door. The head unit is mounted low and has a familiar layout with tiny buttons for most functions. Satellite tweets, upgraded door speakers and underseat subwoofer are all available as dealer-installed options.
Performance: The sound output is accurate, reliable and a bit flat. Bass response is surprisingly clean, but lacks the rumble found in the vehicles above. The treble clef gets fair treatment, although it's not crystalline.
Best Feature: The available upgrades are intriguing (but so is the aftermarket).
Worst Feature: Lack of bump.
Conclusion: Simple is as simple does. Trevor Reed
Fourth Place - 2002 Ford Focus ZX5
The Focus offered us the unique dilemma of which Focus to use for this test. There is the Focus ZTW, the traditional wagon, and the ZX5, the more recently introduced four-door hatchback. As the ZX5's shape and dimensions more closely matched the other vehicles in this test, we decided to go with the ZX5. It's also the sportier of the two, an important aspect given that much of this segment's revival is based on sport (or at least the appearance of sport).
In the past, we've given the Focus high marks for its precisely tuned suspension and responsive steering. That continued to be the case in this test. The Focus manages to provide a soft ride that soaks up bumps and broken pavement. Yet during cornering, the expected side effect of sloppy handling simply isn't there. There is body roll, but it is well controlled. The Focus is truly fun to drive, and it offers the best balance between sport and comfort. Our editors ranked the Focus the best of the six vehicles in the suspension and steering categories.
For power, the ZX5 uses a 2.0-liter inline four that makes 130 horsepower. During hard acceleration, the engine produces a pleasing growl, making the Focus seem faster than it really is. Its acceleration times were tied with the Subaru's at the bottom of the pack (and if the Subaru had been equipped with a manual transmission, the Ford would have certainly been the slowest). Our test car had the standard five-speed manual transmission, which offers a smooth shifter and an easy-to-modulate clutch pedal.
Our test car also had the optional leather package, and it was the only car besides the PT Cruiser to have leather. The leather is tough and rough feeling, however, and one editor remarked that it felt more like it was "from an elephant than a cow." Other materials used, such as the plastic on the doors and the dash, were about average for this type of vehicle. The gauges are easy to read, and the climate controls, with their three large rubberized knobs, are very simple to use.
Our editors weren't as enthralled with the ZX5's seating accommodations. The driver sits up high and isn't given much lateral support, though Ford has included a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a seat height adjuster and a center armrest. In back, taller rear passengers will note a lack of legroom and rear headrests. There is no center armrest for the rear, and the door armrests are narrow. Finally, Ford has installed just one cupholder for the backseat, and it sits low on the floor, making it harder for a rear center passenger to get in.
The rear hatch lacks an external release, so owners have to pop it using the key fob or the dash-mounted button. The rear-seat cushion must be raised in order to lower the split rear seats flat. Unlike the PT Cruiser or Matrix, there's not much in the way of special tie-down points or extra storage bins, and the high rear sill makes it harder to load heavy items.
These shortcomings were the main reasons why the ZX5 placed midpack. Getting the ZTW wagon would add extra cargo room, but it's not as nimble and suffers more from a negative "wagon" stigma. Either Focus would be fine to own, but if you like to drive, Ford's Japanese cousin, Mazda, has something we think you'll enjoy even more.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Ford Focus is one of those cars that presents a little surprise every time you step into it. Hop into one and you're greeted with a stylish (even if its asymmetry doesn't please everyone) interior with an in-dash six-disc CD player. Step on the gas and you get a smooth, refined pull, jam the brakes and you'll note very good pedal modulation. And the stability control system (remarkable for this class of cars) is ready to kick in, if need be. Enjoy the action of the clean-shifting five-speed manual. Check out the lively, sporty suspension that still manages to provide a compliant ride. Treat your rear-seat guests and/or cargo to impressively roomy accommodations. My only complaint is the odd appearance of the back end, but if you dig the looks, the Focus makes plenty of sense as a practical people/cargo hauler.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Ford Focus ZX5
Ranking in Test: Fifth (tie)
System Score: 5.0
Components: The ZX5 is the only car in the comparison to come with a standard in-dash six-disc CD changer. It powers an oval-shaped full-range speaker in the bottom of each door panel. The controls are simple, but it takes more than five seconds to load or unload a CD.
Performance: This audio system is ready to rock and roll, but isn't very refined. The speakers are responsible for everything from chimes to acoustic bass, and unfortunately, the sounds tend to run together. This isn't much of a problem with heavy metal, but is noticeable when live recordings are cranked. The lack of separate speakers leaves a hole in the middle of the soundstage, but separation is distinct and consistent in all seats.
Best Feature: Six in the chamber is standard.
Worst Feature: Slow-loading changer.
Conclusion: The output is rowdy, but there's plenty of music in the dash. Trevor Reed
Second Place (tie) - 2002 Mazda Protegé5
While conducting this comparison test, one of our editors was driving the Protegé on a curvy road. Behind him was a Subaru WRX. Despite the WRX's power advantage, the Mazda stayed well ahead. When the two cars finally came alongside at a stoplight, the driver of the WRX said, "Wow, that thing's fast. What's a 'Protegé S'?"
We'll forgive the mistaken read of the badge, for this car could easily be considered an "S" version. In its move from sedan to wagon, the Protegé has lost little of the entertaining driving dynamics that previously made the sedan version a big hit with our staff.
Of all the cars in this test, the Mazda was easily the fastest around the corners. It has a hunkered-down sporty feel to it, and the driver gets a good sense of how the tires are interacting with the road. It also has a great steering rack, and it tied with the Focus for the best score in our editors' evaluation section.
The only downside to this sporty handling is subpar ride quality. Though not uncomfortable, it is certainly firm, and can be harsh when the Protegé5 is driven over broken pavement. There are also elevated levels of wind and road noise when the car is driven on the freeway. Of all the evaluation scores, the Protegé5's worst was in the noise category.
In terms of acceleration, the Protegé5 was in the slower pack of cars. Its 2.0-liter engine puts out 130 horsepower, the same as the Focus ZX5. It's not surprising then that the two cars had nearly identical 0-to-60 mph times. The Ford had the edge in shifter quality we all thought that the Protegé's shifter throws were too long. When it came to braking, though, the Mazda out-stopped everything else, and it was the only car to have a braking distance of less than 130 feet its best was 123 feet.
Inside, drivers will find a modern-looking dash with a rectangular center stack and a textured/perforated theme used on the doors, steering wheel, dash and parking brake handle. In most categories, including seat comfort, control design and storage space, the Protegé5 placed midpack.
Opening up the rear hatch reveals 19.8 cubic feet of luggage space, again an average figure. Lowering the rear seats is a three-step process because the rear headrests have to be removed in order to avoid interference with the backs of the front seats. Also, the liftover point is high, making it harder to load heavy objects, and the cargo area's dimensions are narrower than most.
Because of design issues like this, the Protegé5 is a bit of a disappointment. If you simply want compact transportation, this probably isn't the car you're going to want to buy. But for those seeking driving excitement, as well as a bit of extra room to take along a golden retriever, it's the only logical choice.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Our bright yellow Mazda Protegé5 was by far the looker of the group, with sharp lines that managed to be pleasing as well as sporty. For that, I'm grateful; too many cars in this group had eye-averting aesthetics that caused me to stammer, "Um, it has a nice personality and a good sense of humor," when asked what I thought of them. But wait, there's more. The rev-happy 130-horsepower engine begs to be pushed, and the excellent brakes haul it down if things get a little too intense. Take it to that twisty road and emerge at the end with a huge grin plastered onto your mug thanks to the balanced and stable chassis, minimal body movement and precise steering. The Protegé5 isn't exactly a comfortable car, as the taut suspension can be a tad harsh over bumps, but if I were looking for a sporty, good-looking hatchback, this Mazda would have my vote as the most appealing overall.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Mazda Protegé5
Ranking in Test: Third (tie)
System Score: 6.0
Components: A standard single-CD player with a large display and huge knobs for the volume and radio tuner is mounted high in the front console. A CD/tape player is optional as is an in-dash six-disc changer. The test vehicle came with a large full-range speaker in the bottom of each door panel. Wagons made after February 28, 2002, also come with a pair of tweeters in the front doors.
Performance: Even without the separate tweets, the standard audio system performs well in most situations. Low-end response is accurate, but won't register on the Richter scale. Vocals are strong and high notes manage to stay clean unless the music is bass-heavy. This shouldn't be as noticeable with the extra speakers in place.
Best Feature: Return of the big tuner knob.
Worst Feature: Satellite tweeters were a late addition.
Conclusion: Very easy to use and sounds good, but it would be better if Mazda added the subwoofer found in the Mazdaspeed Protegé. Trevor Reed
Second Place (tie) - 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser Limited
Much of the recent increase in carmakers' interest in compact wagons can be attributed to the PT Cruiser. When the PT Cruiser debuted for 2001, its retro-themed styling caused such a fervor among buyers that they paid thousands of dollars over sticker to get one. Two years later, the hype has subsided. Thankfully, there is some substance behind the PT's flashy looks, and this allowed the car to place well in this comparison test.
The PT's main strength is its interior. Up front, the symmetrical layout of the dash and its body-color panels give the car some character, as does the classic-looking gauge cluster. Most of the plastics are hard to the touch, but texturing has been used to improve their look. Our test car (in this case our long-term 2001 Cruiser) also had the optional leather and suede upholstery, making it the only car besides the Ford to have leather seating.
For hauling cargo, the Cruiser excels. The rear seats are multiconfigurable. Split 60/40, the seats can be lowered, flipped forward or removed entirely. Removing them isn't easy because of the seats' weight, but doing so opens up the cargo hold considerably. Our test car also had cargo tie-down anchors, a rear-mounted 12-volt power point and a handy parcel shelf that further improved the car's versatility. In the expanding/loading cargo category, the PT Cruiser tied with the Toyota Matrix with a perfect "10" score.
Getting in and out of the PT is pretty easy thanks to high-mounted seats and wide-opening doors. Our editors agreed, however, that improvement could be made on the comfort of the front seats. As one driver said, "[Sitting in the driver seat] is like sitting up on a bar stool. There is zero lateral support and not much thigh support, either." This created problems when driving aggressively, as the lack of bolstering caused drivers to slide around. (We will point out that the drivers in this test were all of average size; larger-framed individuals might find the PT's broad seating surfaces more to their liking.)
Other than the slippery driver seat, this Chrysler does a reasonable job of getting occupants through corners quickly. The suspension is softly tuned and allows noticeable body roll, but the stiff body structure gives the car a solid feel. The PT's speed through the 600-foot slalom was faster than most, and even though it has a nonindependent rear suspension, its ride quality didn't seem to suffer. The biggest annoyance is the wide turning circle, which makes parking in tight spaces more difficult than with any of the other cars in this test.
Ever since its introduction, the Cruiser has been tagged as being rather slow. Its 2.4-liter inline four makes 150 horsepower, giving it a relative power and torque advantage over some of the other cars in this test, but this power is taxed by a curb weight that is at least a few hundred pounds heavier than the other cars. However, the net acceleration result is still pretty good, with a 0-to-60 mph time of nine seconds, a time that ties the Matrix for the quickest start. Our test car's five-speed manual sounded clunky when shifted, but the throws themselves are reasonably short and have a solid engagement. In-town EPA fuel mileage is rated a low 21 mpg
Overall, though, the PT Cruiser should satisfy most buyers looking for a compact wagon. Its cargo hold is very versatile, it drives fine, it has plenty of features and it has no glaring faults. And to top it all off, it has distinctive character, something that is missing from so many other new cars these days.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
I tried to keep an open mind. I really did. I had previously acquired an intense dislike for the Cruiser, with its distinctive cues such as the push-button door handles and center-dash-mounted window controls, all of which seem like annoyances rather than retro quirkiness. I tried to be objective and pit it against its competition and see how it stacked up. Unfortunately, I'm sad to say that the PT still hasn't gained any more grace in my eyes. I will readily admit that it may be in the perception; the PT was no laggard in the performance department, with hardware that, on paper, really keeps up with the others in acceleration and handling. However, numbers don't tell the whole story, and in my opinion, the car's just no fun to drive. Power delivery is harsh, the engine is loud and unrefined, the body's sloppy when turning corners, the car has the largest turning circle of the six and, worst of all, I can never get comfortable in the seats. The Cruiser certainly has its pros, such as nice materials for the interior and a most distinctive exterior, but for me, the numbers don't add up to a desirable car.
Stereo Evaluation - 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser Limited
Ranking in Test: First (tie)
System Score: 7.0
Components: Cruisers come with a single-CD player with three lighted EQ controls (the test vehicle had the optional CD/tape head unit) mounted low in the dash. This powers two wonderfully large tweets that blast into the windshield, midbass drivers in the front doors and strong full-range speakers behind the rear headrests.
Performance: Once again, satellite tweeters steal the scene. By reflecting off the front glass, music is spread throughout the cabin, with the driver and navigator getting a face full of strings, keyboards and other high tones. The woofers in front and back provide plenty of thump, but distort at relatively low volumes. If rock and rap are your mainstays, this won't be an overwhelming problem, but live classical recordings highlight cracks in the wall of sound.
Best Feature: Big ol' tweets in the dash are standard.
Worst Feature: No CD changer available from the factory.
Conclusion: Strong performance, but the PT could use a dose of the refined Infinity speakers found in other Chryslers. Trevor Reed
First Place - 2003 Toyota Matrix
Six cars enter. One car leaves. It's pretty simple, really. As compact wagons go, the Matrix is the best one currently available.
As with its sister car, the Pontiac Vibe, the Matrix puts together all of the required elements. It doesn't excel in too many areas, but it doesn't have any major flaws, either. For someone wanting a compact vehicle that offers a highly functional interior, a comfortable ride and a reputation for durability, the Matrix is an excellent choice.
One of our editors described the Matrix's cargo area as "superior," and that pretty much sums it up. Made of a durable plastic, the floor contains recessed tracks for adjustable tie-down anchor points, additional fixed tie-down points and hidden storage areas beneath the floor. The liftgate's rear glass can be opened independently, making it easy to quickly load smaller items.
Should you need to carry bigger items, the rear seats fold flat in just one motion. The backs of the seats are also covered with the same plastic as the cargo floor. Superlong items can also be transported by folding the seat back of the front passenger seat forward. Once done, the seat back even serves as a mini table. The only shortcomings about the whole setup are that loose items rattle around more because of the plastic and the flimsy soft cargo cover is fussy to install.
The rear seating area is by far the most accommodating of the six cars. There is plenty of legroom, headroom and toe room, and the seat's shape is well contoured. Other than the negatives of having narrow door armrests and no center armrest, the backseat is pretty comfortable for long-distance drives. Accessing it is also easy due to wide doors and high-set seats.
Up front, the Matrix features dark-colored plastic highlighted by chrome and metallic-looking accents. The vents and gauges are all circular for design harmony, and the gauges have a distinctive red illumination. The majority of our editors liked the overall design, though the lone dissenter said that the Matrix's "overly liberal use of faux chrome seemed tacky and created glare in the afternoon sun."
Drivers will have plenty of choices for stowing various items. Storage areas abound, including a bin below the shifter, a two-tier center console box and an amply sized glovebox. Our editors ranked the Matrix's storage areas as the best in the test, and they also liked the two deep cupholders in front and the two sturdy ones in back.
On the road, the Matrix is a pleasant companion thanks to its quiet cabin (the quietest of the bunch) and comfortable ride. The soft suspension absorbs most of the bumps and dips encountered in urban driving. On curvy roads, it's easy to toss the Matrix around, but it quickly reaches its very modest limits. While the Focus ZX5 and Protegé5 happily zip from corner to corner, the Matrix, through its oscillating suspension and screeching tires, quickly tells you, "Please slow down!"
For power, the XR version of the Matrix has a 1.8-liter inline four that generates 130 horsepower. This is the smallest engine of the six in the test, and it produces the least amount of torque (125 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm). When going up hills in a higher gear, the lack of torque is noticeable, but around town it's rarely apparent. You wouldn't know it from instrumented tests, either; our test car went from zero to 60 mph in nine seconds, tying the PT Cruiser for the quickest time. What's more, the Matrix takes top honors for fuel economy it's rated at 29 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway, and our test vehicle averaged 27 mpg (best in the group) during a week of hard driving. The five-speed manual transmission can be shifted quickly thanks to its console-mounted shifter, but the shifter's cable-operated mechanism gives it a poor feel.
Even with its minor negative points, the Matrix stands above the rest. For what we expect potential owners will want out of a vehicle like this getting their friends and cargo to their destination with minimal hassle, discomfort and expense the Matrix excels. This isn't one you'll want to skip.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Those folks over at Toyota sure did pack a lot of neat features into the Matrix, like plenty of storage space to hold all your belongings, a 115-volt two-prong outlet to encourage distracted driving and the grooved tracks and hooks of the cargo area to facilitate loading and securing of luggage. It's just too bad they couldn't make the car look any better than a wedge of hard, fragrant cheese.
Or so said the old codger. It may be a sign of me losing touch with the youth movement, since the faces of the two boys who loiter regularly outside my apartment virtually lit up when I drove home in the Matrix. They thought that it looked plenty cool. Yeah, well, so were parachute pants back in the day. Inside, the Matrix is decorated with faux titanium around the dash, and faux chrome around the gauges and the door trim that creates glare in the sun. Otherwise, the two-tone dash is rather handsome, except for the stereo which is obviously sourced from the GM parts bin. Ah, well, stereos are the least of GM vehicles' troubles. Overall, the Matrix is a well-thought-out car, but unlike what its advertising campaign claims, the XR version has no semblance of sportiness. With a soft suspension and a wheezy engine, it felt no different than driving a Corolla. Then again, there's always the athletic XRS version.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Toyota Matrix
Ranking in Test: First (tie)
System Score: 7.0
Components: A single-CD player with customizable equalizer (the same GM unit found in the Pontiac Vibe and Aztek) and a speaker in each door is standard on the XR models. A tape/CD unit with tweeters in the mirror patches is optional. You can also upgrade to an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and for $1,890, add a DVD navigation system (this comes with the changer and the extra speakers). The test vehicle was fitted with the Delco 100 tape/CD player and six speakers.
Performance: The unassuming tweeters do wonders for the soundstage while providing crisp highs. The circular woofers produce strong bass and do well with electric guitars and vocals. East Coast beats won't break the windshield, but that's not expected. What counts is that the system does reasonably well with all types of music. The bright highs add a nice touch to everything from jazz to grunge and whether bass is acoustic or synthetic it sounds accurate until the volume knob is tortured.
Best Feature: Optional tweets near the side mirrors.
Worst Feature: Needs more bass.
Conclusion: Plenty of custom sound for every occasion and the only car in the comparo with an optional navigation system. Trevor Reed
Though each of the six vehicles in this test is considered a compact wagon or four-door hatchback, there is enough variation between them that most buyers should be able to find the right one for them.
When our editors were asked to rank in order the wagons they would most want to buy, the Aerio came in last. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But if you're cash-strapped and want a new compact wagon, the well-equipped Aerio's superlow price will be to your liking.
On the opposite end of the sticker spectrum, the Subaru Impreza Outback Sport is a bit pricy. But you do get a lot for the money. Its advantages lie in its weather-beating all-wheel drive and light-duty off-road ability.
The Ford Focus ZX5 is a good value. It's sportier than the regular Focus wagon but can still hold a reasonable amount of cargo. It's also got fine driving dynamics and a well-thought-out interior.
It's really the top three finishers in this test the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Mazda Protegé5 and Toyota Matrix XR that should warrant the most attention. The PT and the Protegé5 finished within 0.2 point of each other a tie by our definition (any margin less than 0.5 is considered a draw).
For maximum fun, the Mazda Protegé5 can't be topped. Its power output is disappointing, but there's no questioning its handling prowess. It also has sharp styling that rivals that of the best European sport wagons. The PT combines outstanding people- and cargo-hauling ability with a fair amount of Hollywood style. Fuel economy and seat comfort could be better, but overall, it's a practical family vehicle.
Meanwhile, the Matrix has all of the utilitarian attributes of the PT and then some editors ranked its interior accommodations best in the group. Although not as engaging to drive as some of the others, it's still a pleasant companion thanks to its smooth, quiet ride. The final nod goes to the Toyota because of its competence (if not excellence) in all areas, affordable price and expected durability and reliability as the miles pile up.