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February 14, 2006

Review: 2006 Hyundai Matrix CRDi

The moment you set your sights at the Hyundai Matrix, you immediately think: that doesn’t look right.  I don’t blame you.  The rest of humanity doesn’t blame you either.  Whether it’s red or silver or any other color for that matter, the Matrix stands out.  And that’s not a good thing.  It steers clear of everything that’s considered beautiful in automotive design and comes out as something rather, err… unique.  Ah, so the Koreans have done it again—a product that’s literally a design joke, probably penned by blind men in a windowless design studio.  Not quite.  For instance, on the c-pillar reads “disegno Pininfarina”.  Still, having an Italian design studio isn’t any guarantee of beauty or desirability.  In the case of the Matrix though, it relies less on its design studio origin but more on function and get this, performance.

The oddity that’s Matrix design is there for a reason and it’s a practical one.  For a car that measures a meager 4025 mm in length, it almost has the same wheelbase as a car that’s a class higher (i.e. Ford Focus, Honda Civic, etc.).  It doesn’t give the Matrix any more agility than any of its Japanese rivals, but it does give the Korean more interior room.  The taller overall height enables Hyundai to raise the Matrix’s hip point and seating position (without increasing step-in height) allowing for best-in-class ingress/egress and visibility.  People, especially the elderly, will find getting in and out of the Matrix far easier than any other vehicle.  Ultimately though, the only trade-off in the raised hip point is the Matrix’s odd side window kink wherein the glass drops far lower than the rest of the side profile.

Probably finding the exterior rather amusing, the Matrix’s designers decide to carry the same theme inside.  Again, things are rather odd, but again, it’s there for a reason.  The Matrix has a center-mounted instrument cluster.  It enables for less fatigue when driving since the human head is more relaxed looking towards the middle of the dash rather than the usual straight ahead.  Hyundai has gone a step further though by separating the warning lights from the instrument binnacle and placing it just above the steering wheel which is meant to increase the instrumentation’s legibility (larger fonts) thereby lessening fatigue as well.  Before you ask, all the other controls like wipers, lights, radio and ventilation controls are located in their usual positions.

The dash design itself is excellent and pleasing to the eye being symmetrical left to right.  The materials though are a mix with both high quality, well-damped switchgear (windows, lights and wipers) and high-wear cheap shiny ones (glove box, cup holders, center console).  Overall though, the dash material is actually pretty close to that of compact SUVs, which is surprising given the SUVs are about double the Matrix’s price.  The JVC audio system is actually quite easy to understand and puts out a modest sound quality.  What makes it extra special though is the inclusion of an auxiliary input allowing easy accommodation for those with 40GB worth of songs on their Apple iPods.  The seats aren’t the best for a sporty drive, but they’re quite comfortable even for out-of-town travel.  The rear seats are a blessing too with the middle person even getting his own personal adjustable headrest—something you won’t expect in a vehicle of this class.

Originally touted as a mini-MPV during its launch, the Matrix still manages to live to that moniker with an array of luggage / loading capabilities that puts most SUVs to shame.  Aside from a huge array of cubby holes (i.e. front under seat tray), cup holders (6 of them) and utility trays, the Matrix has as a 60/40 split-fold-tumbling and sliding rear bench with under floor storage bins.  This flexible seating mechanism compliments the Matrix’s already cavernous loading bay that’s good for a long weekend to Baguio or even a platoon’s worth of groceries.  The fairer sex will certainly find the Matrix appealing since its spare tire is located within the loading bay (as opposed to under the body) making tire changes less hassle and dirty.

At this point, it’s clear that the Matrix has proven its mettle in practicality, spaciousness and comfort.  Now let’s talk performance…and what a performance the Matrix has.  For those with a heavy right foot, the Matrix will fly.  Under the hood sits a sneaky 1.5-liter common rail direct injection diesel engine.  The lean-burning power plant generates a modest 102 horsepower but a hefty 235 Nm of torque.  As a comparison, the Mazda3 5-door has 105 horsepower and 145 Nm.  Hyundai’s CRDi engine is quiet on idle (though things can be a bit rough during cold starts), smooth and fast.  It’s so powerful it can actually strike fear in Isuzu Troopers (especially on the highways).  The CRDi engine pushes the rather porky (1370 kg) Matrix from 0-100 km/h in just a little over 10 seconds and reach speeds in excess of 160 km/h.  The 5-speed manual ‘box is a bit spongy and vague, but once you get used to it, it rewards you with an amazing 14.35 km/L mileage reading and a range of over 450 kilometers!

Unlike so many others in its class that have gone with a simpler torsion beam rear suspension set-up, the Matrix has all-around independent suspension with MacPherson Struts up front and Multi-Links at the back.  A set-up like this should have at least given the Matrix some handling prowess, but the net result is more of safe and stable.  It’s surefooted on any sort of terrain or corner, but it will never feel sporty.  On the tightest of bends, the Matrix will squabble for grip because of its small 185/65 R 14 tires.  An upgrade to larger tires could solve the problem, but it will also harden the Matrix’s already bordering-on stiff ride.  Likewise, the Matrix’s larger mass would require harder work from its brakes (vented discs up front, drums at the back) but it does stop pretty decently even if the CRDi model lacks anti-lock brakes.

As you get to know the Matrix from strength to strength, you will eventually forgive its rather odd exterior proportions.  From this car’s inception, the people at Hyundai probably had a simple design brief for the Matrix: a global compact car with a single body style that integrates the traits of a sedan, wagon and hatchback with performance that will scare the hell out of the Japanese.  To a degree, they’ve gotten things right.  It’s an enjoyable drive and a very practical one.  Personally, I consider this to be one of the best “everyday cars” I’ve ever driven—that alone says a lot.

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