Reader Ride Review: Toyota Matrix XR (Six-Speed Conversion)

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

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.

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • MRF 95 T-Bird MRF 95 T-Bird on Mar 30, 2016

    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.

  • Chris2.0 Chris2.0 on Jul 02, 2016

    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

  • TMA1 Been thinking about getting one of these for my mother. Skip the AWD and DSG, the FWD comes with an 8-spd. Good size vehicle for a woman who wants a SUV and has a small garage. Much better view outwards than the Mazda CX-30 I was looking at. Wish it had a power tailgate though - she's short.
  • Ajla Mustang.
  • Slavuta 2.3 mustang auto was quick enough but I didn't like it. Is this Ford still comes with Aluminum body parts? Because paint used to peel off. I like more classy Nissan cockpit. Both are not nearly perfect.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I would have to try each one on Flinton Rd in Eastern Ontario. This winding and hilly road is located between HWY 41 S and HWY 7 W.
  • Slavuta "a bill that would helped fund consumers who wanted to turn their used cars into EVs" - sounds like subsidies to good $$ earners were cut. Did anyone listened what this is about?
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