Home » Shifty Characters From California: 2001 Honda CR-V vs 2003 Toyota Matrix

Shifty Characters From California: 2001 Honda CR-V vs 2003 Toyota Matrix

Sbsd 4 23 2024
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Welcome back! Today we’re going to look at a couple of tall wagon/crossoverish things, both with manual transmissions. Each of them has, not a red flag, but certainly a yellow one. Maybe even a little bit orange. Which one is more worth the risk? We’ll see.

Yesterday, we looked at Gossin Motors Backyard Auto Rescue’s latest offering, and a rando Cadillac from some dealership here in beautiful southeast Portland. And somehow – the Cadillac won, by a lot, which tells me one thing: Most of you have never had dealings with the typical used car lots in southeast Portland. Most of them make Crazy Vaclav look honest. That Caddy might be fine, but it might also be a shitshow waiting to happen. I’ve had deals with those guys go both ways over the years.

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Needless to say, my vote goes for Stephen’s Chrysler. Based on their own merits, without taking their origins into consideration, I think I’d still pick the Chrysler, mainly because I never want to work on another transverse V8 again – unless someone gave me a Ferrari 308. Then, and only then, would I make an exception.

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Now then: Honda and Toyota are known for reliability and durability. Everyone knows that. Buy one of their cars, and you can usually not have to worry too much. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore some obvious concerns when looking at them. “Caveat emptor” applies just as much to cars with good reputations as it does to cars with bad ones. One of these cars has a potential problem with the car itself; the other has a past that might require some explanation. Let’s check them out.

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2001 Honda CR-V – $2,999

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Fresno, CA

Odometer reading: 234,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives great

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The Honda CR-V has been around for a long time now. It’s in its sixth generation, and like most cars, has gotten bigger. Not much; only about seven inches in length and three in width, but it feels like more, when you look at this first-generation CR-V. The new one is heavy, and it looks like it, with a high beltline and armored-car-sized windows. This car looks almost spindly by comparison.

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This CR-V also has a feature no longer available on the new ones: a manual transmission. Actually, two; I don’t think that snazzy diagonal-striped upholstery is available anymore either. The manual gearbox in this one drives the front wheels only; the CR-V often had all-wheel-drive, but not this one. Power comes from a 2.0 liter four, which was plenty for its day. It runs and drives very well, according to the seller, even at well over 200,000 miles.

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Now, about that seller: It’s a towing company. It’s being sold with lien papers in lieu of a title. It looks like they cleaned it up quite a bit – that’s a “Before” photo above, as far as I can tell, and the first photo is the “After” – but how did it come to be in their possession? If it runs as well as they say, how did it end up in a situation where it got towed? I’m sure it’s on the up-and-up if the DMV issued lien papers, but knowing the story would make me feel a lot better.

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The other trouble with a lien sale is that there is absolutely no history to go along with it. The past twenty-three years and 234,000 miles are a complete mystery. Plan to go over every inch of this car.

2003 Toyota Matrix – $3,150

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Santa Cruz, CA

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Odometer reading: 177,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well, but has “valvetrain noise”

This car isn’t quite comparable to the Honda. The Toyota Matrix wasn’t really a crossover, though it’s pretty tall and was available with all-wheel-drive. It’s basically just a Corolla wagon, and in fact, its official name is the Corolla Matrix. But then, what’s a crossover but a station wagon in platform shoes?

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This is a base-model Matrix, powered by the less-powerful of two 1.8 liter twin-cam engines. It’s equipped with a five-speed stick, and is therefore only front-wheel-drive; if you wanted AWD in a Matrix, you had to settle for an automatic, and also make do with a little less horsepower. This one runs well, but it makes what the seller describes as “valvetrain noise.” From what I gather with a little research, these are noisy engines anyway; they have chain-driven cams, and the chains get rattly. That could be what they’re hearing. The chain guides wear, and the chain slaps, causing the rattle. It sounds like the chains rarely break, but the noise could get annoying really fast.

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Apart from that, it’s in good shape. There’s no rust or damage outside, and it looks clean and intact inside. It does have mismatched wheel covers on the left and right sides, and I don’t know which style is correct. For me, it wouldn’t matter; I’d just chuck all four of them in the trash and go with plain black steelies. But used car lots don’t like uncovered wheels, so they stuck whatever they had on hand on there, and hoped someone like me wouldn’t notice the left and right sides are different.

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As much as the tow lien situation with the Honda gives me pause, I don’t have a whole lot more confidence in a typical used car dealer. And I wouldn’t expect to get much in maintenance history with this one either. But at least they’re being upfront about the engine noise.

Little wagony-crossovery things like this are really useful cars. They’re small enough to maneuver easily but have plenty of room inside for chores or adventures. They aren’t sporty, nor do they handle particularly sharply, but with manual gearboxes, they’ll at least be a little more engaging to drive. One has a completely unknown past, and the other might require some significant repairs in the future. Which gamble are you more willing to take?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Joke #119!
Joke #119!
1 month ago

I’ll vouch for the Matrix. I have a 2003 XRS, runs great! I have replaced the transmission and suspension, because that was still less expensive than buying something only to not drive it (WFH, maybe 5000 miles a year). Gets 25 MPG combined, 30+ highway only. Downside is that the paint is finally flaking off.

Bob Boxbody
Bob Boxbody
1 month ago

I’ve always liked the Matrix, and I was a bit bummed when I finally needed a new car and they had stopped making them.

Bri-Fi
Bri-Fi
1 month ago

Matrix all day every day. I bought a Certified Used 2006 Matrix base with only 6,100 miles back in December 2006. By far the newest car I’ve ever owned to this day. I put over 150,000 miles on her over the next seven years without a single issue. She was fun to drive and a joy to maintain. If not for a multi-car pileup I was unfortunate to be in the middle of, and insurance declaring her a total loss, I’d probably still be driving her today or more likely would’ve passed it down to my son. It was my first ever Toyota and it convinced me to never own a different brand car ever again.

Timothy Swanson
Timothy Swanson
1 month ago

My wife and I seriously considered the twin of the Matrix – the Pontiac Vibe – for our first family car. We went with a manual Saturn VUE, which was a great choice. But the Matrix/Vibe was a fun car too, particularly in the stick shift, so going with that one.

Dmod_08
Dmod_08
1 month ago

When I first read the title. My mind went to the first gen CRV, and between that and the matrix, it is a no brainer. A 1st gen CRV all day. As I realized what the options were, I still made the decision for the CRV. Even this generation is a superior selection over the Matrix of this generation. My decision is based on the aftermarket availability and the legacy of the Honda name.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
1 month ago
Reply to  Dmod_08

Yeah, and also … a 1zr-fe shouldn’t have either valve noise or timing chain slap after 177k miles. That’s a hint the Matrix has been neglected, probably by infrequent oil changes.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
1 month ago

CR-V for sure…my wife has one and my Dad still has a 1st gen auto. This one is awesome w/ the stick and in good shape. I would figure out the paperwork- it just takes time and can be a hassle of course. I used to go to tow auctions years ago w/ my brother so that doesn’t bother me. This actually made me realize too that out of all of my shitboxes, I’ve never gotten paperwork history for any of my cars. They just never came w/ any and I never cared since they were dirt cheap, ha ha…cheapest was a $100 car. I was also able to figure out current condition pretty quick and then have someone do an actual inspection if needed. So as far as mine it was mainly focused on current condition and what to do next after checking all the basics- fluids, etc to see if they were still good or not…among all the other checks of parts, etc

VogonFord
VogonFord
1 month ago

Having spent most of the last ten years living either just of SE 82nd or SE McLoughlin, yes, if the lot is not obviously a real factory dealership, it will be in business for under two months and will obviously be connected to some sort of criminal enterprise

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 month ago

I’m usually a reliable Honda vote, but this CR-V’s provenance gives me pause … and I remember the steering wheel in these first-gen CR-Vs being closer to bus-driver horizontal than passenger-car vertical. Maybe Mercedes would enjoy it, but I did not.

We’ll take our chances in the Matrix.

Cyko9
Cyko9
1 month ago

I had to vote for the Matrix; it’s just getting broken in. I haven’t driven a manual – always wanted an XRS but couldn’t lobby for the standard with my fam. They’re not incredibly fuel efficient, but they’ll haul an amazing amount. Like a TARDIS Corolla.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago

That CRV couldn’t have spent 23 years in Fresno air pollution. It still has paint and rubber parts on it.

Hotdoughnutsnow
Hotdoughnutsnow
1 month ago

Don’t both of these cars have something in common, added features in the cargo area to appeal to the young people? The CR-V with its hidden table, and the Matrix (IIRC) with some sort of power conversion or USB ports?

FrostyRam31
FrostyRam31
1 month ago

Went with the CRV, even with the title issues.

I had an 08 Matrix with the manual. At about 61k (1k outside warranty) it started grinding when shifting into 3rd when cold unless you double clutched (cue the Fast and Furious quote). Google told me this wasn’t an uncommon problem with the manual transmissions for that generation Corolla/Matrix, and I swore them off forever.

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
1 month ago

Gotta go with the CR-V, between two reliable and practical workhorses it’s got a much smoother more rev-happy engine , slightly nicer interior, and has better steering than the Matrix (my wife owns an ’05 Vibe), you give up some handling but not much for even more practicality and typical Honda driving experience. Also I’m too tall to comfortably drive the vibe/matrix which sadly has some of the worst tall person seat to steering wheel pedal ergonomics of any small car I’ve driven. Source: I’ve owned an e30, ej Civic, and a Hyundai accent, all of which fit me better at 6’4″

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 month ago

The only good direction to drive in Fresno is “away” so I’ll get a trip permit and take the CR-V on a California adventure. If the car survives, I’m sure I can find a buyer back home.

Six Inna Row Makes it Go
Six Inna Row Makes it Go
1 month ago

I went with the CR-V, because my Mom had an 01 and it is a great car. Also very comfortable to drive, plus it has the removeable back seats like my Element that I used to have. After she passed, my sister took it over and loves it as much as Mom did. a manual version would be fantastic, even with DMV issues. If this one also has the hidden picnic table in the back, so much the better.

Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
1 month ago

C’mon down! We’re right on the corner, right on the price! Guaranteed not to rust, bust, collect dust! Break into two halves, You own both of them!

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
1 month ago

My step mom had a 98 corolla that she only got rid of due to rust and replaced it with a 2010ish corolla. When that was stolen she got a Matrix. My step sister had a 2003 Vibe AWD that was great until her ex got smoked by a guy running a red. Insurance repaired it but it was never quite the same after. Still ran fine though. I’m voting Matrix due to their long and reliable lives in my family.

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