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Coloring Outside the Lines: 2003 Crossover Buyer's Guide
by Steve Siler

Pontiac Vibe / Toyota Matrix
Crossing into Affordability
2003 Pontiac Vibe
Pontiac Vibe
2003 Toyota Matrix
Toyota Matrix

Among the most affordable of the so-called "crossovers" are the Pontiac Vibe and its mechanical twin, the Toyota Matrix. Priced between $17K and about $25K, the Vibe and Matrix are aimed at younger folks and small families that want the quality of a Toyota-built vehicle and the style of something decidedly more youthful than the conventional station wagon or SUV.

The spunky-if distinctly different-shapes of the Vibe and Matrix are at once fun and functional, and together share one the best small SUV/wagon layouts on the road today. They are both expressive; the multi-element headlights and split grille of the Pontiac's defining what can safely be called one of the most tasteful front ends in Pontiac's history. The Matrix is more organically designs, but shares with the Pontiac a cleverly disguised cargo area that tapers in look, but still features a very high cargo area roof, and thus a surprisingly large cargo capacity.

Also nice are shared features like a rigid plastic floor in the cargo area that deals with spills and sharp objects in ways that carpet never could. Their dashboards are nearly identical, too, which is perfectly all right given how cool they look, with their chrome-ringed gauges and generous swaths of metal trim. The seating position is upright, like an SUV, a good thing for outward visibility as it affords you a commanding view of the road.

Both the Vibe and Matrix share engines with, of all things, the Toyota Celica. Their 120-hp base engine gets going well enough for most drivers, while the 180-hp engine in the GT adds some high-rpm zip to the task. If you want all-wheel drive or an automatic transmission, however, you'll have to stick with the base engine, as the more powerful version only comes with a 6-speed manual and front-wheel drive.