By on March 29, 2016

Jack Baruth sits inside the six-speed Toyota Matrix, Image: © 2016 Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars

It was the winter of my friend’s discontent. The unsupported bearing shaft in his five-speed Toyota Matrix had failed. It was a common problem, since the five-speed was a deliberate customer punishment with unintended consequences on Toyota’s part. The only difference between the five-speed and six-speed transmissions in those cars was the presence or absence of the actual sixth cog. If you got a five-speed Matrix, you got the shaft (instead of the cog). What was Chris to do?

He asked me (and all of you) that question back in November, receiving about a hundred different responses. What he chose to do in the end was to replace the failed five-speed with a junkyard six-speed from a Matrix XRS. Then he drove it to central Ohio so I could check it out.


The Six-Speed Toyota Matrix, Image: Courtesy of Jack Baruth

As fate would have it, I managed to drive the Matrix both before and after the transmission swap. Therefore, we can divide this review into two parts:

Part Zero: What’s It Like To Drive A First-Gen Matrix?

Part One: What Difference Does It Make? (The Transmission Swap, Of Course)

Part Zero: The easiest answer to the question is this: not bad, but not great, either. As you almost certainly know, it’s a tall Corolla wagon, with about 125 horsepower to push about 2,600 pounds. Keep in mind that “tall” is relative; I’m taller than my five-foot-nine brother but shorter than my six-foot-four-and-a-half high-school girlfriend. Back in 2002, the Matrix was considered to be about halfway to a RAV4, but — by modern standards — there’s nothing particularly tall or CUV-ish about it. Compared to, say, a Honda HR-V, this is just a plain old car. It’s simply a Corolla with more upright seating and different pedal behavior because your feet are approaching said pedals at a different angle.

The true surprise for anybody who’s operated the Matrix for more than ten minutes at a time … well, let’s let Detective Alonzo Harris speak his piece:

It’s amazing … It is … that you could be out there with a fine bitch for a year … and the most entertaining story you can come up with to tell me … is a drunk stop.

So, to paraphrase Detective Harris: I find it amazing … it is … that Toyota could let General Motors build this car, and its successors, for nine years … and the most effective compact car that GM could come with to sell afterwards was the Daewoo Lacetti. Because this is a good, decent, honest, mostly faultless vehicle. It stops and goes without drama. Even after more than a decade’s worth of Canadian winters and Toronto potholes, it still feels properly screwed together. You can see out of it, all the way around. The control efforts are light. It has a ton of space inside for people and gear, but it’s also easy to park and maneuver.

The controls are easy to use. The steering is decent enough. Most of what you touch feels like it’s high quality. Ninety percent of American motorists would be absolutely and thoroughly satisfied by this vehicle. It’s not fast, but as supplied, with the five-speed box and the eager-enough 1.8-liter four, it can keep up with traffic. People get a quarter-million miles out of them all the time, even without careful maintenance. It’s not terribly characterful, unless you consider that its fault-free usability and durability implies a significant and deep-rooted character all by itself.

The Six-Speed Toyota Matrix, Image: Courtesy of Jack Baruth

There are no big misses in this car. Even the paper-thin veneer of sportiness implied by the three-spoke leather-ish steering wheel and the recessed gauge panel manages to work somehow. And Toyota let General Motors build it, let them have every spec and every part and every secret of assembly, just as they’d done with the Nova and the Prism before it. Didn’t it occur to anybody at GM that they should simply reverse-engineer the car, change enough critical dimensions to avoid a lawsuit, style it up a bit, and call it their own?

Look at it this way: In 1980, Beretta closed its pistol manufacturing plant in Brazil and sold it to a company called Taurus. The nice people at Taurus promptly started making Beretta copies. Then they made product-improved versions of Beretta pistols, incorporating a three-position safety/hammer-drop lever. When Beretta experienced its own quality Armageddon with its production of the “slide-tosser” M9 pistol, Taurus made sure that it had plenty of product in gun stores to sell to disaffected former Beretta customers. Today, the company is flourishing and enjoys the respect of nearly all shooters.

In other words, GM is not as smart as a bunch of tool-and-die people from the interior of the Brazilian rainforest. They had the Matrix and they gave us the Cruze. Which is a nice car in its own right, with several commendable features, but it ain’t no Matrix.

Enough of that. What’s past is past and, in any event, Toyota’s not perfect. It was a Toyota transmission “engineering solution,” after all, that landed us in this mess. So let’s get to Part One of this test. Well, the first thing you notice in Chris’ newly-revitalized Matrix is that he has the six-speed knob. Wasn’t he tempted to keep the old five-speeder and freak people out by shifting into a non-existent gear?

“I think you’re the only person who would come up with that idea,” was his response. The six-speed knob had less wear, and it was shiny, so Chris installed it with the rest of the transmission. The second thing that I noticed was how much faster and more alive the Matrix seemed to be with its new transmission. There’s a reason for that, and it’s one of the oldest reasons in the automotive book. Since the Matrix XRS had a higher-revving engine, the final drive on the six-speed is lower.

It turns out that first gear is the same for both transmissions, and sixth gear in the new box is the same as fifth gear in the old. The final drive difference is massive — 4.529 against the original 3.941 — so where you used to spin 4,000 rpm on the freeway, you’re now doing nearly 4,600. It’s okay with Chris. He doesn’t drive much past 60 miles per hour most of the time, even on the freeway. Musicians, you know? The irony is that he’s a champion in some sort of international iRacing league, which is how he relaxes after a busy week of making a substantial living doing creative things.

The combination of the relatively torquey inline-four and the numerically higher transaxle makes the Matrix revvy and noisy in around-town use. There was once a TRD factory supercharger kit for the Matrix that bumped the engine up to 166 horsepower. Combine the six-speed with the Roots blower and you might — you just might — keep up with the newest generation of compact cars. It would be fun to find out.

It’s a minor tragedy of sorts that Chris had to go through the transmission transplant at all, insofar as the failure was completely the product of Toyota’s desire to create an artificial differentiation between trim levels. There’s no reason the Matrix XR couldn’t have come from the factory with a sixth speed and another $15 added to the sticker. But if the automotive press is willing as a whole to overlook Porsche’s even more ridiculous and mean-spirited decision to saddle the 987-generation Cayman 2.7 with a five-speed despite that car costing approximately three times what you’d pay for a Matrix of any strip, then I suppose we have to let Toyota get away with doing a five-speed in the base Corolla wagon.

The final irony, of course, is that very few cars could justify the effort and expense of switching a transmission more than a decade into their service lives. If you had an air-cooled 911 that needed a new Getrag, you’d eventually get that money back, of course … but could you imagine putting two grand into a Chevy Cobalt of that era? For Chris, however, the financial end of it didn’t need to make sense. He’s reasonably successful and he could buy a newer car without much hassle. The prospect of abandoning the Matrix and getting something new, however, struck him as being needlessly spendthrift.

“The car’s still good, right?” he said, after we returned to my house from a quick drive. “No reason to get anything else, right?”

Right.

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61 Comments on “Reader Ride Review: Toyota Matrix XR (Six-Speed Conversion)...”


  • avatar
    SomeGuy

    I would love to formally invite you or your brother to come drive my Saturn Vue with the 2.2L and 5 speed manual. You can tell me if I am nuts for wanting to get rid of it. I live in the same town as your brother so I can easily meet somewhere. Just would be curious of your (or his) thoughts. Feel free to dog on it all you want, my wife knows I do.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      We’ll reach out!

      • 0 avatar
        SomeGuy

        Awesome! I’ve read on the internet 0-60 is in 11 or 12 seconds so you may need to book extra time for this review.

        • 0 avatar

          You live in Winchester, KY? WHY IN GOD’S NAME WOULD YOU DO SUCH A THING?

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Baruth

            Which reminds me, Bark — Danger Girl accidentally stole your son’s scooter. I’ll bring it back or ship you a new one.

          • 0 avatar
            SomeGuy

            I live in Louisville, KY. I saw you post about driving down I-64 and mentioning the town so I assumed…incorrectly it seems. No worries, you are not to far east of Lexington. I can always make an afternoon of it and head that way too. I’d love some in-depth analysis on the SUV.

            EDIT: Bad grammar. This is why I’m not a writer.

    • 0 avatar
      TheFirehawkGuy

      I’ll see your Saturn Vue and raise you a 97 Saturn SC2 with a 5 speed manual. It’s dang near new at only 60k miles! Loaded with leather and sunroof shiny paint and even clear headlights! very few signs of age for a car pushing 20. Of course I’m a bit far away in NY. If anyone from TTAC were around I’d be glad to give some seat time in that… or the Firehawk… or both.

    • 0 avatar
      Spanish Inquisition

      Hey, if we’re going to start inviting TTAC journos to drive our strange cars, I invite anybody to come over to Vancouver and experience how fast (read: slow) a 2008 MB C230 with the 6MT is.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Originally I was jealous until you made the point about gear ratios. My wife has a 2005 Vibe 5-speed and if a 6th gear could reduce RPM by about 1000 on flat level highway ground I’d love it but if it doesn’t change that then forget it.

    I’ve also found that a set of Uniroyal Tiger Paws really reduced the interior noise.

    • 0 avatar
      Dorri732

      “I’ve also found that a set of Uniroyal Tiger Paws really reduced the interior noise.”

      In my 42 years on this Earth, I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles in dozens of different cars. During this time five of my tires have had broken belts (while still having lots of tread left) leading to terrible vibration that couldn’t be balanced out.

      All five tires were Uniroyal Tiger Paws.

      If i’m considering purchasing a used car with those tires on it, I immediately factor new tires into the purchase price.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Heh heh heh! I’ve had my own fun with Tigerpaws – two times having complete tread separation. The first time, it ripped out the rear inner fenderwell and sounded like a bomb went off in the back of the vehicle. The second time was less scary, but looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing the cylinder of tread rolling down the road while slowly veering off into the ditch is quite surreal (“hey, that’s my tire tread”).

  • avatar
    CincyDavid

    Hey, if he likes the car and the seats don’t make his back hurt, more power to him. That does sound like a buzz-bomb on the highway though, gives me a headache just thinking about it.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Is that 4600rpm at mere mortal highway speed, or 4600rpm at Jack-the-untamed-racing-driver-foot-of-depleted-uranium highway speeds?

    Sounds like fun as long as you have something else for long trips.

    I find the Corolla in all its versions the very definition of “dull but worthy” – anything you can do to liven it up a little can’t be a bad thing.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      The Pontiac version at least feels like the chassis has potential. I’ve whipped my wife’s through some two lane highway curves at extra legal speeds and it is much friskier than you’d expect out of a Toyota.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    Nice ride. Nice read. I’m especially impressed that you got a picture of Greg Allman in the car.

  • avatar
    65corvair

    I had a 2004 with the 5 speed manual. It failed. Just under $3000. I loved the style, but it had no soul. Lots of creeks, squeaks and rattles. It was a car Toyota forgot about. A true 95%er.

    Dan
    65 Corvair convertible
    14 Accord 6 speed manual

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Note to your friend: Wheel covers. Look into it.

    • 0 avatar
      CaptainObvious

      ^ This – so much.

      And also to the rest of the people out there who take their wheel covers off as a cheap way to get the “murdered” look. You are not fooling anyone. And it looks bad.

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        That’s not why (Canadian) people do it. We often have a second set of wheels for our winter tires, and alloy wheels both cost much more, and corrode more easily, in salty conditions. Factory wheel covers go for as much as $90 apiece, so that’s out, and I find generic wheel covers to look worse than naked rims. As an side, Subaru offers a very nice, affordable factory steel wheel that doesn’t require wheel covers.

        The alloys will make their appearance again come April or May.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Well, that, or you don’t want to put the money into it. I have a 13-year-old car that’s missing one and I can think of better ways to spend the money, y’know?

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Nah, plastic wheel covers look lame.

      Steel wheels can look nice. This Matrix just needs some TLC:

      hubcapmike.com/images/scion-xb-trim-rings.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      CaptainObvious

      Well – I see it all the time in lovely NJ. Not just old cars but brand new cars – first thing that comes off are the wheel covers – and they stay off all year – no alloys for the summer. If you are missing just one – that can be excused.

  • avatar
    laserwizard

    I don’t get the need for adult men to make hand gestures like a 12 year old.

    I don’t get why this car is so bland looking.

    Half of this article should have been removed and we should have not had to wade through the useless pretext to get to the point of the article in the first place.

    In the end, the car should have been crushed.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Wish I could justify (and afford) to do a swap of the 4 speed AT in my 2004 Lancer Sportback Ralliart for a manual trans (never mind an Evo-spec engine). Not that 162 ponies are much in today’s world, but the Lancer is reasonably fun to drive and I think it’d be dang-near perfect for me as a DD if it had come with a manual. That said, the car is worth, maybe $2000 these days, so dumping that much into a “gee, I wish I had…” conversion just doesn’t make sense when the current trans at least functions properly, albeit boringly.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    He should have swapped the final drives

    Interesting review though

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    “Didn’t it occur to anybody at GM that they should simply reverse-engineer the car, change enough critical dimensions to avoid a lawsuit, style it up a bit, and call it their own?”

    Well, yeah, I’d say they ended up doing that, and the outgoing Cruze was the result. It was actually on the market for a few years before it was introduced here in 2011, and I’d argue it’s still a far better car than the Corolla…plus, given your reviews of high-mileage rentals, I’d say it’s quite durable too. The old Delta-platform Saturn (nee Opel) Astra was also a good compact.

    I think GM had been building good compacts for a LONG time, but most of them never made it here…typical of GM at the time. But I think they definitely learned a thing or two from Toyota.

  • avatar
    djsyndrome

    2003 XRS with the 6 speed. Eight years, 250k miles, and only one clutch. Zero issues with the transmission itself, even after beating the hell out of it.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I really hate to argue with the Jack.

    The Matrix, as I understand it, was not built side-by-side the Vibe in NUMMI because NUMMI could not support RHD production. The Matrix was Canada built in Ontario, the Vibe was US built at NUMMI.

    Toyota’s website at least use to reflect this on their manufacturing operations page.

  • avatar
    slance66

    Seems he made the right choice for him. I think Jack is taking some liberties in saying 90% of people would be happy with this car…hell, 90% of people aren’t happy with nicer modern cars, and less than half would tolerate a manual transmission in any car. Maybe 90% of people who expect nothing but basic transport from a car and who like driving a stick.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Honda played the same game at that time with their 6-speed, offering it only in the Si even though it’s just the base 5-speed with an extra cog. Really wish my 5-speed Element had one more gear, but of course we can’t have nice things…

  • avatar
    06V66speed

    Am I the only one here that thinks 4600 RPM’s at 60 MPH or so is a bit high? Lol I mean, maybe it’s pleasant in… idk, a Miata perhaps? Dam… what happens at 85 mph?

    My Accord sits right at about 2,800 around 80 (mph), and that’s “hunkering down” into 6th. Hell, my big ol’ Suburban cruises 65 around 2200 or so, IIRC, and that’s with a 4-speed auto.

    “That ‘lil thang sho is buzzy.”

  • avatar
    paxman356

    I had a 2003 Vibe with an automatic. The rings on #1 took a dump on the car, and I eventually wound up selling for 1/4th what I originally bought it for. Far as I could tell, it was because they didn’t do proper oil maintenance. Rings on these were ill, yo! So the line, “People get a quarter-million miles out of them all the time, even without careful maintenance”, is not entirely accurate.

  • avatar
    WEGIV

    “Well, the first thing you notice in Chris’ newly-revitalized Matrix is that he has the six-speed knob. Wasn’t he tempted to keep the old five-speeder and freak people out by shifting into a non-existent gear?
    ‘I think you’re the only person who would come up with that idea,’ was his response.”

    This made me laugh. In college, I had a 1991 Plymouth Colt that gained a 5th gear courtesy of a junkyard transplant when the original 4-speed manual grenaded, and we kept the 4-speed knob (mainly because the 5 speed knob wasn’t provided with the trans). My friend and I still laugh about the phantom 5th gear in that car.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    “Dam… what happens at 85 mph?”

    In Canada? You get arrested.

  • avatar
    formula m

    This is a great car for a musician. I sold a 4yr old Vibe that I took on trade to a friend that is a musician. He bought it in 2008 and just sold it because of a second child. The fold down seats with the hard plastic seat backs and trunk are perfect for sliding sound equipment and instrument cases over.

  • avatar
    chris2.0

    hey, Chris here;

    that RPM discussion got me curious, so on the way home tonight I checked it out:

    6th gear at ~3400 RPM I was cruising at 120km/h ( which calculates to 74 MPH )

    6th gear at 4000 RPM I was going 150km/h ( which calculates to 93 MPH )

    So it is not a screamer at normal highway speeds.

    Back when it was a 5 speed, I seem to recall 3000 RPM for 120 km/h cruising highway speed in 5th. maybe even a bit lower?

    I haven’t done a 6spd gas mileage test yet, but 5spd on summer wheels I could eek out 600 KM on a tank of gas

    It is definitely more fun to drive now, as it’s more responsive.

    I never rev it above 4k in practice: it’s probably only ever been close to redline when Jack took it for a spin in Ohio.

    redline is 6500 RPM

    ps. Yep those are winter wheels

    Thanks!!

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Well, that answers the question of what Jack considers normal highway speed. 4000 / 93 = 4600 / 107, or within shouting distance of 170 km/h in them newfangled metric units. I guess all that Maximum Street Speed stuff still applies…

  • avatar
    -Nate

    That’s a _lot_ of RPM’s at freeway speed .

    I didn’t see the actual RPM to MPH in the article .

    My old Mercedes with 407,XXX miles on it is going 109 MPH when it hits 4,600 RPM .

    At that RPM’s the engine and turbocharger are howling loudly , enough to overcome the noise the un muffled exhaust makes .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    chris2.0

    I don’t know if we ever got the Matrix out 4th when Jack was driving?

    I do recall saying something like “we’re going over 100 km/h and you’re still in in FOURTH GEAR?? ”

    I think he was too accustomed to the engine sound in the Mclaren ;)

    normal highway cruising up here is 120 kmh. So at 3400 RPM vs 3000 RPM with the 5 spd, not a huge deal IMO.

    I believe this transmission will last a long time. I eventually plan to use it as a winter beater, and I will keep the Miata/whatever/fun car for summer only, non-haulage use.

    As much as I like cars, I look at them as utilitarian depreciating money pits. As long as it gets me around, and doesn’t cost too much to keep on the road, I’m good.

    I’d have a hard time buying anything other than a wagon from now on though, this thing kicks ass for utility.

  • avatar
    chris2.0

    weird…on my morning commute today I was hovering at 3000 RPM going 110 kmh/68 mph

    and 100kmh/62mph was 2800 RPM ( which is technically the speed limit up here )

    When I did the 4000RPM test I *was* going up a long incline, and it was windy. So that may have affected the results. mind you, I don’t know how accurate these speedo’s are. Or my absolute altitude above sea level. but that’s what they read

  • avatar
    ammom_rouy

    It is amazing that GM had decades at the NUMMI plant to learn and/or copy what Toyota did better than they could, but just couldn’t (or more likely wouldn’t) learn at all.

  • avatar
    pbr

    Man. Covered a lot of ground in this one, dude! Training Day, a “throwing DG under the bus” story, gun-industry tales, The Shocker and an over-delivering car. Do you know your target audience, or what?

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Since the AWD version of the Matrix/Vibe was only offered with the base 1.8 L 123 Hp motor and automatic transmission I wonder if some enterprising soul ever transplanted a manual transmission or the XRS power train in one.

  • avatar
    chris2.0

    finally had a chance to run the Matrix to empty, with the 6 spd transmission

    results:

    5spd = 600km per tank
    6spd = 590km per tank

    I am surprised! that’s better than I thought

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