For more than 50,000 miles over the span of a few years, my 2003 Toyota Matrix was a loyal companion. It capably carried myself, my girlfriend, and a hatch full of our belongings across the continent to our new home in California. And like the vast majority of Matrices, my car featured the base 1.8L engine and a four-speed automatic gearbox.
Shortly after arriving in the Bay Area, my wandering eye locked onto an interesting prospect. San Francisco Toyota had a Matrix nearly identical to mine, although this one was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Instantly, they had my undivided attention: Rowing my own gears was one of my lifelong dreams.
Growing up, our family haulers (i.e. Mom’s cars) were always automatics. Dad’s economical commuters were manuals. By the time I began driving, his ’83 Sentra wagon—with a five-speed stick, naturally—was on its last legs. His next car, a ’90 Legacy, sported Subaru’s self-shifting 4EAT. Excepting some domestics that passed through Dad’s revolving-door fleet in his early adulthood, the Legacy was his first shiftless car. That he finally bought an automatic owed more to the general scarcity of manuals than any change in his preferences.
At the time, he still had his summer car, an ’86 Nissan 200SX, with its manual five-speed. But he babied that car and wouldn’t dream of exposing the transmission and clutch to an inept teenager’s clumsy fumblings.
So as a result of some unfortunate coincidences, I never officially learned how to operate a manual transmission. But being the car-obsessed child I was, I knew from intent observation what you were supposed to do, of course. And somehow, I did drive the 200SX a mile down the road—once or twice. I can’t remember the details now, but it must have been a clandestine affair while my dad was away. Regardless, I managed to take off, navigate a suburban neighborhood, and return his car to its place without anyone noticing.
Within days of seeing the listing, I made an appointment to look at this manual Matrix. At San Francisco Toyota’s showroom on Van Ness, a close look at the car revealed numerous improvements over my 2003. Both cars were silver, but Toyota retired the slightly tinted Lunar Mist Metallic color for the purer Silver Streak Mica. Up front, Toyota stylists revised the Matrix’s aggressive ground effects—which perpetually scraped on driveway aprons and curbs.
Inside, a Toyota-branded Fujitsu Ten stereo—looking much more cohesive with the dash design—replaced the previous Delco unit. Responding to criticism of the all-red gauges on 2003 Matrices, Toyota redesigned the gauge faces with white numerals. In addition to being easier to read, the two-color Optitron gauges looked quite striking.
More relevantly, the prospective Matrix had ABS, an essential feature that my existing car lacked.
Though this 2006 car had nearly the same mileage as my 2003, it looked sharper and felt tighter in every conceivable way. I was already predisposed toward buying the car before I arrived, and everything I saw convinced me even further. After negotiating the relative values of the two Matrices, the salesperson and I arrived at a deal. The 2006 Matrix was mine. Now came the interesting part: getting it home.
Because of a number of factors—familiarity with the model, insecurity in my manual-shift competency, and the tight urban environment of the dealership—I never test-drove the 2006 Matrix before agreeing to buy it. (Yes, I realize how foolish that was.) My first time driving the car was out of the dealership’s garage. I squeezed between two other parked cars, around a concrete pillar, and out of the narrow garage. Then, I made a right turn onto the steepest stretch of Sacramento Street in the city. With knuckles whitened and heart pounding, I made my way up to Lombard and then across the Golden Gate Bridge to our home in Marin County. I could smell some traces of burning clutch, but I had kept my dignity from going up in flames.
Immediately, driving was no longer merely a mundane task; it became a challenge to be mastered. I eagerly seized any opportunity to get in the car and practice. That first weekend with the new Matrix, my girlfriend and I took off for Oregon. Somewhere on I-5 between Weed and Yreka, I started to relax a bit. This was becoming fun, I thought. The coordination of my left foot on the clutch and right hand on the shifter was automotive ballet. The sound of the engine, when I hit each gear perfectly, was nearly symphonic. Never before had the act of driving a car felt as rewarding.
A few months later, my girlfriend and I married, completing a life transformation that had begun a year earlier. We were newlyweds in a new state driving a new car, soon embarking on new careers. As we explored California—Bodega Bay to Barstow, Sacramento to Santa Monica—the Matrix was always with us. It proved as bulletproof as the automatic Matrix but was engaging to drive in a way its predecessor never was.
But in 2015, our carefree life in California faced an existential threat: pregnancy. My wife and I lived in a neat mid-century cottage in Corte Madera, but our living arrangement wouldn’t scale to suit a trio. Moreover, all of our family was east of the Rockies, and the complexities of cross-country travel with a newborn were more than we wanted to face. Ultimately, we decided to move back East.
And the Matrix faced threats on two fronts. First and foremost, my wife couldn’t drive it. She never was much for driving and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to shift gears for themself. When I first bought the car, I took her to an empty parking lot just to get the feel of the clutch and practice setting the car in motion. After stalling the car a couple of times, she refused to try it ever again. With a baby on the way, we didn’t want to risk her possibly being stranded at home. And by 2015, a host of new safety technologies had become commonplace. The Matrix lacked anything like forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert…even a rearview camera.
I knew we had to get a car we both could drive. Party time was over—but it was fun while it lasted.
Having nearly 230K on the odometer (about 80K of which I was responsible for), the Matrix’s trade-in value was almost nil. That said, the car had been meticulously maintained and carefully driven, and it looked immaculate inside and out. We listed the car on Craigslist and were soon contacted by a Honduran man interested in the car. He said that in his home country, Corollas with manual transmissions were the vehicles of choice. But good, late model examples were getting harder to find. Being a mechanical cousin of the Corolla, my Matrix was attractive to him. The Honduran bought the car without much deliberation and planned to transport it back to Honduras.
In all likelihood, it’s still on the road.