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Road & Track magazine, March 1974

Road Test: American Motors Matador X


Sleek & fast but oversize & thirsty

AMC Seven years ago American Motors embarked on a program to upgrade and update its product lines with a company-wide commitment to design, engineer and market new cars that met specific consumer needs. First came the subcompact Gremlin, made by cutting the Hornet's rear end down, then the functional and handsome Hornet Hatchback and Sportabout models-cars that by a combination of foresight and luck hit a changing U.S. market at the right time with styling atypical of Detroit look-alikes. As a result, today the AMC corporate ledgers are inked in black whereas a few years before they showed nothing but red, AMC isn't exactly snapping at the heels of Detroit's Big Three, but in a marketplace where success is measured in tenths of a percent of increased market penetration, American Motors increased its share during 1973 from a little over 3% to slightly more than 4% (a jump of almost a third) at the expense of its domestic competition.

Buoyed by this success, AMC has taken another bold step and introduced a dramatically restyled Matador-a car that was until this year so innocuous that the 1973 ad campaign was built around the question "What's a Matador?'' The 1974 Matador coupe will not pass unnoticed. It is styled to appeal to the buyer of intermediate- size cars (U.S. carmakers' designation, not ours) such as the commercially successful Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Am. As with most cars in this field the styling is all-important: according to AMC the buyer of a domestic "intermediate" is the most style-conscious of all. The Matador coupe - with its long hood and forward-thrusting headlights, sharply raked windshield, concealed wipers, ventless front door glass and fastback roofline blending into the sloping rear deck - hits that market head on. If the exaggerated curving sides give the car a very narrow-track look - even with optional wide radial tires - imagine how each of those fender wells will look with 20 inches of NASCAR gumball lurking underneath. For that's another purpose of the new Matador shape: styled by Dick Teague with suggestions from Mark Donohue, the new Matador coupe was designed to become a serious contender on the NASCAR speedways, where the previous boxy coupe had been at a distinct disadvantage.

The new Matador coupe is available in three models: a basic 6-cylinder, the sporty V-8 "X" we tested, and a top-of-the-line Brougham with fancier interior and exterior trim. The coupe is built on a 114-in. wheelbase, 4 in, shorter than the Matador 4-door and station wagon models, which are basically carryover for 1974. There is no common sheetmetal between the coupe and the other models, although the mechanical components and restyled interiors are shared by all.

The Matador is an example of American Motors' ingenuity at its best. Lacking a development budget like those of the Big Three, AMC has chosen several refined and readily available items from the parts bins of Detroit's other automakers in engineering the Matador. A Matador driver sits behind a General Motors collapsible steering column, latches up a Chrysler-designed seatbelt interlock system, starts an engine that breathes through a Ford Motorcraft carburetor, puts a Chrysler Torqueflite automatic transmission into gear and steers with GM variable-ratio power steering. This is truly a product of "American motors"! That these components work well together (for the most part) is proof that AMC has chosen wisely.

American Motors engines, however, are in-house designs, and like most American cars the Matador can be ordered with several different displacements starting with the l00-bhp 232-cu-in. 6-cylinder and ending with a huge 40l-cu-in. V-8 of 235-bhp. In the Matador X a 2-barrel 304 V-8 is standard; 2- and 4-barrel versions of the 360 plus a 4-barrel 401 V-8 are optional. Our X had the 4-barrel 360 with dual exhausts, a $31 option good for an additional 25 bhp (with no other changes) over the single-exhaust 2-barrel. Like most U.S. V-8s this engine runs quietly - but only until you stand on it, when it becomes rough and noisy. In these days of emission-choked, ill-behaving engines, however, the Matador's near-faultless drivability merits high praise. This seems to be the rule rather than the exception at AMC - the Hornet Hatchback we tested last year had a similarly well-mannered engine and the Editor-in-chief's Wagoneer behaves well too.

The 360 Matador is also relatively quick for its great weight (two tons) but one does pay a price, higher and higher these days, for this level of performance. Fuel economy is a miserable 13 mpg.

Though a Matador buyer has a wide range of engines to choose from, transmission options are few. Automatic is standard with all V-8s; the only thing left to decide is whether you want the lever on the column or will spend an extra $73 for a floor shift. The Matador buyer can't even pay extra for a 4-spred; this year it's available only on certain Javelin and AMX models. "Sporty'' has obviously taken on a new meaning at AMC. Not that we would criticize the automatic: the Chrysler 3-speed is a very satisfactory unit. It doesn't offer the instant demand downshifts of the Mercedes automatic, but its upshifts are precise, quiet and smooth. The shifter pattern AMC has chosen is unusual, allowing the driver to shift between 2nd and Drive without depressing the button on the T-handle but requiring it to be pushed to get into neutral. Other American automatics (even this transmission in Chrysler cars) provide free shifting between Drive and Neutral, with the possibility of overselling the engine if the lever should slip during a manual upshift.

The Matador interior is completely devoid of the European look GM tried to design into the cockpits of some of its recent intermediates. The purse strings had to be tied somewhere, but it's surprising that a car with such an interesting outward appearance should be so nondescript inside. The dash design is overstated and cheap-looking, and gauges provide only the barest of information; tachometer, ammeter and oil-pressure gauge are absent from the panel. Ventilation is also behind the times. There are no dash-level vents - only underpass openings - and all the air is directed at the lower body. The big ventless side windows draw in lots of air without much wind noise or buffeting, thanks to the aerodynamic shape of the car, but one doesn't necessarily want to drive with the windows open just to get air.

Front individual seats are better than average for a U.S. car, but they (like most others in domestic cars) lack seatback adjustment - and AMC was the company that pioneered them here. Reclining seats are an option but they are a split-bench design which offers no lateral support and their backrests pivot at a point about halfway up the spine - hardly conductive to comfort. There's considerable legroom for rear-seat passengers, but headroom is at a premium because of the fastback roofline. Incredibly, the rear seat accommodates just two, making the Matador one of the world's largest 2 + 2s and a particularly inefficient user of space and resources.

On the positive side there's an easy-to-grip padded steering wheel, plus a large lockable glovebox and more storage space in the center console. Removable litter bags, which attach to the doors, and intermittent wipers were pleasant options on our test car. If the Matador owner isn't particularly impressed by what he sees inside, at least the world outside is visible. There's good outward vision in all directions, including the rear, through the sharply raked back window and the large rear-quarter windows, a tall windshield and the ventless door windows. The Matador's road behavior is a noticeable cut above the usual Detroit offering but it's still clear that the car's chassis isn't a sophisticated one. There's reasonable suspension travel - more than we normally expect to find on a sporty domestic car - and less front-end float when coming out of gentle undulations at speed than with comparable GM and Ford intermediates, although our comments relate to (and we recommend) the $30 handling package fitted to our car. But the Matador's unlit body-frame construction is a weak link that lets through bumps and noises trapped and isolated by the separate-frame designs of the Matador's Ford and GM counterparts. The optional radials are partially to blame; they're smooth when cruising but feed in low-speed harshness. Some more chassis tuning is in order.

On a skidpad the Matador's big radials work up to a respectable lateral loading - nearly 0.7g and about equal to its GM rivals - but with strong, tire-scrubbing understeer. This isn't surprising, considering 58% of its 2-ton mass is hanging over that expansive front end. However, on the road the Matador is surprisingly agile and its natural tendency toward understeer can be greatly diminished by application of the proper amounts of throttle and steering lock. Applying the right amount of steering is an art in itself, as the GM power-assisted variable-ratio steering gear is typically vague, almost without road feel and in this car not particularly quick, it's meant for parking, not driving.

Braking also has its strong and weak points. In normal use the brakes are fine; the car stops straight, and effort (25 lb for a 1/2g stop) is close enough to ideal. Stopping distances in panic stops are also respectable, but the distances by themselves are deceiving because erratic locking caused the car to slew sideways on every hard stop. lf the driver hadn't been so busy modulating the braking effort to prevent lockup, stopping distances would have been even shorter.

Judging from the admiring looks it got wherever it went the Matador is a styling success in the context of the traditional domestic market. And though it lacks the refinement of its rivals in several areas it costs considerably less - about $1000 less than an equivalent Grand Am, Monte Carlo or Olds Cutlass Salon. The Matador's biggest failing is its lack of relevance to the times. A year ago only people like the editors of R&T; would have given this a second thought. but in these days of fuel and other resource shortages it is probably hard for anyone to become enthusiastic about any design (not just the Matador's) that places so much emphasis on style and so little on economy of means.

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