Toward the end of 2008, the global economy was crashing, and it had plenty of company. I’d slammed headlong into the realities of post-college life, both working professionally and pursuing a second degree full time. And while visiting home around the holidays, my younger sister demolished my ’97 Subaru Impreza Outback in a frontal collision. With classes set to resume in a few short weeks, I needed to find a replacement—quickly.
Fortunately, I already rehearsed for the occasion. Months earlier when my employer gave my entry-level salary a little bump, my thoughts immediately turned to new cars. Might as well buy now while I still qualify for new graduate incentives, I reasoned. The mental acrobatics I would entertain in an attempt to rationalize acting on an unwise impulse! But what to buy?
From the vantage point of America in 2023—where the average price of a new automobile is nearly $50K and 5,000-pound pickups and SUVs dominate the sales charts—it’s hard to comprehend the embarrassment of small car riches we had during the Great Recession. Ford reintroduced the Fiesta to the American market. Mazda brought its tossable 2 to our shores. GM was still peddling the bargain basement Aveo and the badge-engineered G3. I read rumors that VW might import the Polo to America (which never happened). Toyota, Nissan, and the Koreans were all selling B-segment models as well. In mid-2008, small car brochures littered my desk. You could assemble a fleet from all the build-to-order cars I had configured on manufacturer websites.
Of that cohort of late 2000s subcompacts, the spunky, versatile Honda Fit appealed to me most of all. One Saturday afternoon, I visited a Honda dealer in suburban Philadelphia to size up a Fit. I liked what I saw. But no matter how long I milled about the showroom demonstrator, sat behind the wheel, and flipped the Magic Seats into different positions, no one even approached me to say hello. Perhaps I looked too young to be worth a salesperson’s time. Ultimately, that missed connection saved me from buying a new car I couldn’t afford and didn’t really need. (Yet.)
Back to the dawn of 2009: I was in my hometown and needed a car that I could afford immediately. I hoped to find some kind of hatchback or wagon. Having enough load space to transport my bike was crucial. Naturally, I’d have preferred another Subaru. Our trusted Subaru specialist garage, sadly, was winding down operations at the time and didn’t have much inventory. They went out of business a few short years later.
My hometown Honda dealer had a first-generation CR-V on sale, but it was in rougher shape than I preferred. Plus, I bristled at its underachieving fuel economy and SUV pretensions. I looked long and hard at a Jetta wagon nearby; owning a Volkswagen was a lifelong dream. But in an era of tight budgets, I worried that unexpected repairs would break me. Finally at a heritage Ford dealer an hour’s drive away, I found a promising listing: a 2003 Toyota Matrix XR.
I was aware of the Matrix from its 2003 introduction but for some reason had not paid it much attention. The model name and the aggressive “we’re young and edgy!” marketing turned this millennial off completely. Though not identified as being a part of Toyota’s ill-fated Project Genesis, the Matrix represented one of the automaker’s most concerted efforts to attract young buyers to its flagship marque just before launching Scion.
But setting the marketing aside, the more I looked at the Matrix, the more I liked it. It was larger than the Honda Fit I wanted, but not dramatically so. It may not have been as versatile as the Honda either, but it had some useful tricks of its own. The rear seats, backed with rigid plastic, folded absolutely, positively flat with a single motion. My Impreza required that the bottom cushion be flipped upward first before the rear seatbacks could be folded (mostly) flat. The Matrix’s front passenger seat also folded flat, allowing long cargo to be carried on the right side. The folded seatback also doubled as a mobile desk, and a nearby 110V AC outlet provided power for a laptop.
Getting behind the wheel for a test drive, I initially found the driving position awkward but adjusted to it quickly. Acceleration lagged slightly behind my ’97 Impreza Outback but was on par with my ’90 Legacy. The Matrix handled responsively, although its tall body and higher center of gravity led to more body roll and a less sure-footed feel than I enjoyed in the Subarus. In a major downgrade from the Subarus, this Matrix lacked ABS, a surprising omission considering the car’s equipment.
And this Matrix XR was fairly well outfitted for its time. Of course, windows, locks, and mirrors were all powered. The car featured remote keyless entry, A/C, and cruise as well. It had a moonroof, too—a feature I loved on my Legacy and sorely missed on the Impreza. For whatever reason, Toyota tapped NUMMI partner GM for the Matrix’s audio system in the first two model years. The car’s Delco six-disc CD changer looked like it had gotten lost on its way to a Bonneville.
This Matrix may not have been my ideal automobile, but it checked enough boxes to move it into the “buy” category. I drove it back to the Philadelphia area and resumed my work/school grind.
As a result of the economic downturn, my employer decided to close the local office where I worked. They didn’t fire me, though: Now I got to work from home full-time. With a little more time (and income) at my disposal, I regained a touch of the wanderlust I had in my undergraduate years. No longer tethered to a physical workplace, I made lengthy summer trips through the Rockies and desert Southwest. The Matrix proved to be a reliable companion, and I tore through thousands of happy miles exploring the country. Fuel economy was better than any of my previous cars, surpassing mid-30s figures on the highway without trying.
At the close of 2010, I earned my second degree and could finally escape the gravitational pull of campus. To paraphrase the old Southwest ads, I was now free to move about the country. One carefree day sitting on a park lawn with my then-girlfriend (now my wife of a dozen years) I casually remarked, “I’ve always wanted to move to San Francisco.” “Sure, let’s,” she replied. Neither one of us had ever been there before. But when you’re young and drunk with love, little details like that are trivial. Mere weeks later, we packed some essentials into the back of the Matrix and took off across the continent.
Like the covered wagons of the 19th century, my Matrix crossed the Great Plains and the Rockies, traversed Donner Pass, and arrived in the Promised Land of California. Yet I prepared to part ways with the car not long after arriving in the Golden State. Browsing car listings online one afternoon, I saw that San Francisco Toyota had 2006 Matrix for sale, virtually identical to mine. But this Matrix had a manual transmission—something I’d always coveted and never had.
I had never been taught to drive a manual, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Even in San Francisco.