Orica GreenEdge rider Matthews, 25, blitzed the 6.1km course at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, to the west of Paris, in 7min 39sec to beat Dutch timetrial specialist Tom Dumoulin by a single second.
“First day back in the grid and first win. It’s really a great start to the season,” said Matthews, who was competing in his first race of the season.
“I was thinking a top five was possible on a course like this. It was hilly, with lots of technical corners, which suits me.
“I had high hopes but I didn’t think I could win this. The next few stages are flat sprints so I should be able to keep the jersey.
“We’ll see how far I can go. My climbing form is quite good so it will be nice to see how long I can keep it.
“It’s an amazing jersey and an amazing race. This is Paris-Nice and I know most of the climbs on the course this week.
“I’m a bit surprised because this was my first race of the season. I knew the training had gone pretty well but it’s hard to tell exactly how you’ll feel at race level.”
New Zealander Patrick Bevin was third at 2sec while Australian defending champion Richie Porte came in 11th, 10sec down.
Team Sky leader Geraint Thomas, widely tipped to run Porte close for overall victory in the ‘Race to the Sun’, was seventh at 7sec while twice former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador came in a lowly 27th at 16sec.
Matthews, who was second at last year’s world road race championships, excels mostly on sprints with a slight climb rather than outright flat sprints.
Monday’s first stage proper will take the peloton 198km from Conde-sur-Vesgre to Vendome and is expected to finish in a bunch sprint.
Results from Sunday’s 6.1km Paris-Nice opening prologue around Conflans-Sainte-Honorine:
1. Michael Matthews (AUS/ORI) 7min 39sec, 2. Tom Dumoulin (NED/GIA) at 1sec, 3. Patrick Bevin (NZL/CAN) 2, 4. Jesus Herrada (ESP/MOV) 6, 5. Ion Izagirre (ESP/MOV) same time, 6. Lieuwe Westra (NED/AST) 7, 7. Geraint Thomas
(GBR/SKY) s.t., 8. Dries Devenyns (BEL/IAM) 8, 9. Sylvain Chavanel (FRA/DEN) 9, 10. Jerome Coppel (FRA/IAM) s.t.
11. Richie Porte (AUS/BMC) 10, 27. Alberto Contador (ESP/TIN) 16
Photo: Cor Vos