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First Drive

Driving a Wedge Into SUV Market

Twin crossovers from Toyota and Pontiac are aimed at budget-minded drivers looking for a more car-like sport-ute.

January 02, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was easy at first. There were cars. There were trucks. And ne'er the twain would meet.

But auto makers these days are piling complexity upon intricacy as they strive to fill niches no one knew existed, or thought needed filling, just a year or two ago. The twain have, indeed, met.

The result is the "crossover," and Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division are responsible for the latest iterations: the Matrix and the Vibe, twin tall compacts with five doors, the looks of a futuristic sport wagon, the storage capacity of a smallish sport-utility vehicle and the manners of a well-balanced sedan.

As with any attempt to moosh several things together, compromises were made, so there are other vehicles out there that will do the job, perhaps even better. But there's not much in the same price range of about $17,000 to $22,000 --an estimated range because Toyota hasn't announced its final pricing.

The 2003 Matrix and Vibe are the first in a subspecies of crossover that looks more like a car than an SUV but maintains some of the sport-utility characteristics that buyers find attractive. The cars will start rolling into Toyota and Pontiac dealerships this month.

The reason we're dealing with two competing brands in one review is that you really can consider the two as one--a Vibatrix, let's call it. They share the same automotive DNA, springing from a project developed by Toyota to be a joint production with GM, which chose its Pontiac brand as the retail outlet.

Toyota says the Matrix is a CUV, or "crossover utility vehicle." Pontiac calls the Vibe a blend of "sports car, sport wagon and SUV."

Both say the package is fun to drive, fun to look at and practical as all get out. The fun parts generally are true--despite a big caveat with the high-performance versions, which we'll get to--but there's room to question the degree of practicality.

These are, after all, compacts. Though they don't skimp on passenger room, they lack the cargo capacity and hauling muscle of some potential rivals. Chrysler's PT Cruiser has more space with the rear seats folded down, and Toyota's RAV4 has more horsepower and torque than all but the high-performance versions of the Matrix and Vibe.

Beneath their sheet-metal skins, the cars are identical--in addition to being built off Toyota's new Corolla platform, both employ Toyota suspensions, transmissions and engines.

Even the interiors are the same: attractive mesh-woven fabric upholstery and deep-set red-lighted instruments mounted in chrome-rimmed binnacles, making for a decidedly Pontiac look. The cars offer plenty of head-, leg- and elbow room; comfortable, supportive seats; and a plethora of hidey-holes and lidded storage compartments. The package inside is marred only by some flimsy- feeling plastic parts, a shortcoming in many economy-priced cars.

Park a Matrix and a Vibe side by side, and the similarities created by the Toyota-designed basic envelope make the kinship apparent, even though the only sheet metal they share is the roof panel.

So it won't be technology or performance, utility or ride quality--or even build quality, because both are manufactured under rigorous Toyota standards--that will differentiate.

Instead, it will be pricing, resale value, appearance and the respective reputations of their makers that will determine the markets for the two cars.

Toyota clearly has the edge when it comes to reputation, but Pontiac provides the better-looking version. And with the cost of entry starting at $16,900, Pontiac is likely to beat Toyota's still-undeclared pricing by at least a few hundred dollars for each of the three models: front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and sports performance.

Toyota, which will announce prices and specifications for the Matrix models Thursday, should have the edge in resale value, although as word gets out that the Vibe is really a Toyota in Pontiac drag, that advantage could evaporate.

Both companies say they are aiming at the youth market.

But visually, Pontiac went straight for that young crowd with a sport-wagon look complemented by a well-done mix of scoops and flares and roof racks for hauling gear. Toyota opted for a safe-and-sane, mature styling treatment with smoother body panels and softer lines; it ended up with a vehicle that is evocative of a European five-door hatchback and will probably make its best first impression on the over-30 crowd.

So score one for GM, whose brand designers took a basically complete vehicle from Toyota and personalized it for Pontiac in a winning package that goes a long way toward making up for the disjointed, lumpy look of the unfortunate Aztek, a crossover that goes in another direction, blending aspects of SUV and minivan.

Looks aside, the Toyota and the Pontiac exhibited little difference on the road, based on a Monday-to-Friday commuting week with the up-model Matrix XRS and the single day we spent testing all three versions of the Vibe.

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