What makes a car a good daily driver? Is it comfort? Fuel economy? Is it dependent on the amount of stuff and/or passengers it can carry? Is reliability the most important aspect? Everyone has different priorities of course. When I was looking to retire my MR2 from daily driving duties, there were a few key features I was looking for. The car had to have fully functioning AC and heat. I had to have cruise control. The car needed to be mechanically simple to work on, and reliable. It needed to have space for people and things, it had to be manual transmission, and something that at the very least wouldn’t be completely soul-sucking to drive.
One day while looking around on AutoTrader I found a 2005 Matrix XRS 6-speed. It had 113,000 miles, cold AC, cruise control, and everything on the car worked. I immediately called the seller and scheduled an appointment to go and see the car that weekend. After driving the car, I liked it well enough and the things I didn’t like were easily fixable for the most part. The first thing that strikes you with this car is how utterly boring it looks, especially in silver. With it’s grey interior, grey exterior, and grey wheels, this car isn’t turning any heads. On the up-side, this also means vandals and cops alike don’t give it a second look. It’s like the car is camouflaged by its blandness.
Inside, the trunk space is enormous. The floor of the trunk, as well as the backs of the rear seats (which fold flat) are hard plastic, which is great for hauling big heavy things that could otherwise scuff up your interior. For example, this 50 gallon air compressor fit perfectly. The trunk also features tie-down cleats and a rail system in the floor where you can add additional cleats to tie things down so they don’t slide around. Speaking of which.....
If you put groceries, or really anything in the trunk, it’s going to slide around like it’s on ice. The slightest touch of the gas, brakes, or steering will send stuff flying around back there.
It’s hard to see in this picture, but the front passenger seat also folds flat with a plastic table-like surface on the back. The rear glass can also open separately from the hatch, allowing me to transport these 10-foot fence rails. As far as stuff-hauling, this car is pretty great.
The biggest issue I had with the car aesthetically was the tail lights. In 05 models, Toyota put horrible chrome tail lights, so I found a used set of 03-04 red tail lights for cheap, which I think look much better.
One of my biggest gripes with the car right off the bat was how clunky the shifter felt. It was difficult to feel where the gears were and had a generally cheap feeling to it. Swapping out the shift cable bushings with some solid brass parts from Speed Source gave the shifter some much needed tightening up.
Another thing that bothered me was the how quiet the engine was. You could hardly hear the RPMs rising and falling to know when to shift, especially after having driven an MR2 every day for 8 years the quiet was very strange to me. Some Energy Suspension polyurethane engine mount inserts on the front and rear mounts fixed that, raising the decibels inside the car without being too harsh. They also reduced wheel hop which was nice.
The only thing on the car that didn’t work was the horn. I added some Hella Supertones, a must-have on all my cars after being nearly merged into too many times.
Being based on the Corolla platform, many suspension bits are the same. To help reduce the body roll and top-heavy feeling, I added a TRD rear sway bar which was a very easy (two bolts) installation. All of the things I’ve talked about so far apply to all Matrices though. What about the thing that makes the XRS special - the 2ZZ drivetrain?
The 2ZZ-GE engine and 6-speed manual transmission are what sets the XRS apart from the standard plebeian Matrix. Revving over 8,000rpm and making around 180 horsepower, the 2ZZ is shared with the Lotus Elise/Exige, Pontiac Vibe GT, Corolla XRS, and Celica GTS. In the Matrix, it injects an otherwise pedestrian hatch with a spark of personality. Unfortunately there are a few drawbacks. Because the variable lift doesn’t engage until 6,800rpm, you really have to beat on this engine to go anywhere fast - meaning average fuel economy rarely gets above 25mpg. Due to it’s high compression, the 2ZZ also requires 93 octane, so this is not exactly the cheapest car in terms of fuel costs. However, these engines are known to go well over 200k miles, are extremely reliable, and are relatively mechanically simple compared to turbo engines.
I drove the XRS at one rainy autocross event and needless to say it didn’t really excel. However for me I think this era of car is perfect for daily driving. It has modern electronics in terms of engine management, while still being mechanically simple to work on. It has all the creature comforts I need in the form of electric locks, cruise control, a nice JBL stereo, power windows, and most importantly AC, but nothing superfluous that will break and be expensive or difficult to fix. It has amazing throttle response via a cable, rather than an unresponsive, numb, rev-hanging electronic throttle. Unlike the standard Matrix, it has disc brakes all around, so it stops as well as it goes. The hydraulic power steering has decent feel without feeling overboosted and numb.
A boring-looking, practical hatch with a fun drivetrain, that’s unique enough to satisfy my need to be different (they only made 2500 of these), the Matrix XRS is a great fun daily driver.