2003 Toyota Matrix Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
January 14, 2002

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If there’s such a thing as too many SUVs, Toyota will be the manufacturer that finds out first. Looking at their lineup of RAV4, 4Runner, Highlander, Sequoia and Land Cruiser, someone over there figured that there was room to squeeze in yet one more – and it’s the new 2003 Matrix that is crammed into that slot.

Toyota — with hair-splitting precision — actually calls the Matrix a “cross-over utility vehicle” (CUV), which basically describes a niche somewhere between Mazda’s Protégé5 sport wagon and Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. Who knew there was a niche there at all? The Matrix is designed to attract young buyers who want a sporty driving experience combined with the flexibility and usefulness of a compact tall wagon. Think of it as a Protégé5 with more room, or a PT Cruiser with high-tech zip in place of nostalgia styling. Or don’t think at all – what do we care?

A full half dozen SUVs – will Toyota never stop?

Fun with fusion

The Matrix arrives in Toyota showrooms this February beside a new 2003 Corolla sedan with which it shares most of its mechanical components and a production line in Cambridge, Ont. Surprisingly, the Matrix will not be sold in Japan, though a right-hand drive version of its near twin, the California-built Pontiac Vibe, will be exported there as the Toyota Voltz. Like so many of Toyota’s current North America products, the Matrix is built in America and designed specifically for America tastes.

2003 Toyota Matrix

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Since it shares so many components with the latest Corolla it’s not surprisingly, close to the Corolla in overall dimensions. Both ride on a 102.4-inch wheelbase, but the Matrix is slightly wider, seven inches shorter in overall length and a little more than three inches taller in height. Parked next to one another, Matrix and Corolla hardly look related at all.

More telling than the comparison with the Corolla is how the Matrix matches up against its brother, the RAV4 and Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. The Matrix, with its 102.4-inch wheelbase, 171.3-inch overall length and 69.5-inch width casts a bigger shadow than the RAV (98.0, 166.2 and 68.3 inches in those respective dimensions), but offers slightly less interior room in most significant measures except rear legroom where the Matrix has a substantial 3.7-inch (36.3- to 32.6-inch) edge. The RAV4 has 29.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind its rear seat when that seat is up, while the Matrix offers 21.8 cubes of the same dimension and folding those seats up expands the dimension to 68.3 for the RAV and 52.2 for the Matrix. Some of the RAV’s cargo advantage probably comes from the fact that it carries its spare tire on the rear door rather than inside, but that’s beside the point if you have more than 52.2-cubic feet of stuff to lug around.

The Matrix is right on top of the PT Cruiser in size. The PT has a 103.0-inch wheelbase and is 2.5 inches shorter than the Matrix overall, and it’s just a bit over two inches taller. Take other aspects of their character and construction into consideration (both are front-drive, rely on four-cylinder engines, have four doors and a big rear hatch, get flat load floors when their rear seats are folded, and project no off-roading pretense) and it’s clear that if the Matrix or the PT Cruiser have any competition, it’s each other. The PT trumps the Matrix in rear legroom by 4.5 inches, but can only muster 19.0 cubic feet behind its rear seat. But it expands to a full 64.0 cubes when that seat is down.

As the distinctions between various vehicle classifications fuse together, it becomes more difficult to determine exactly where any particular new machine fits in the market. The Matrix fits somewhere in there with PT Cruiser and the small SUVs, but it’s unique too.

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Power bulges

Where the Matrix earns its distinctiveness isn’t in its high-tech, melted cheese wedge styling, but in the engine bay. Base and XR versions get the Corolla’s 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four featuring Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve-timing system (the same engine, but rated at 123 horsepower, is used when the all-wheel-drive option is chosen). Backed by the same transmissions used in the Corolla (a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic), this is a familiar engine that is quiet during cruises but raucous when pushed. And it needs to be pushed regularly.

With just 125 pound-feet of peak torque available at 4200 rpm, there isn’t a surplus of grunt available with the base engine and the Matrix weighs in about 200 pounds heavier than a Corolla. The Matrix would be a more easygoing vehicle with the RAV4’s 148-horsepower (and 142 pound-feet of peak torque at 4000 rpm) 2.0-liter four aboard. That would put the two vehicles on a collision course inside Toyota showrooms, but shouldn’t the individuality of the two come without compromising the performance of either? As it is, with the 1.8, the Matrix is just adequately powered.

Distinction comes in the form of the Matrix XRS, which steals its powerplant from the Celica GT-S sport coupe. While it too displaces a nominal 1.8 liters, it’s a shorter stroke design with Toyota’s more radical VVTL-i variable valve timing system at work on the 16 valves in the DOHC head. Rated at a full 180 horsepower while screaming at 7600 rpm and matched to the Celica’s six-speed manual transmission, this is an engine that’s absolutely sporting in character and even thrilling under the right conditions (on a race track). But it makes just an additional five pound-feet of torque over the base engine at a reach-for-the-ozone 6800 rpm. No other SUV anywhere has anything like the XRS’ screaming engine available.

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Pushed on an open road with the six well-spaced cogs available from the perfectly weighted shifter, the XRS’ engine is never less than a joy with which to romp. Combined with the Matrix’s very capable chassis, excellent steering, decent brakes and the XRS’ optional P215/50ZR17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, this is among the few sport-utility vehicles to actually merit the “sport” in its definition – if Toyota would fess up and admit it’s an SUV. It’s the XRS that’s the glamour machine of the line and the image it personifies and projects can be intoxicating on the open road.

Having said that, the XRS’ engine is less thrilling around town where its rev-happy character can’t be expressed and, if experience with the Celica is an indication (and it should be), likely ill-suited to the more widely-spaced ratios of the four-speed automatic. It’s smoother and quieter than the base engine and that’s always appreciated, but it’s no better during mundane driving and it requires premium grade fuel.

For everyday livability and sporting thrills, the Matrix really deserves a larger displacement four or ideally, a small V-6. Maybe Toyota will give us one or the other during the vehicle’s life.

Solid structure

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, no company builds more impressive structure into their vehicles than does Toyota. With the Matrix and Corolla, however, they raise even their own lofty standard to new heights. These may be near entry-level vehicles, but they’ve got the sort of solidity that would have been remarkable in a Lexus a few years ago.

It’s the sheer impregnability of the Matrix’s chassis that lets the suspension work as well as it does. In specification, the front MacPherson strut and torsion beam suspension couldn’t be more prosaic. And yet it remains poised under aggressive driving despite the fact that this is a relatively tall vehicle. All Matrix models get standard 16-inch wheels and P205/55R16 radials and even the base and XR models are solid handlers with high adhesion limits. Like a good front-driver, the nose will push if the driver insists on exceeding the limits of adhesion and the driver has no problem managing those limits. A slightly thicker front anti-sway bar and the optional larger 17-inch wheels and tires on the XRS push those limits out a bit further. The XRS also gets four-wheel disc brakes with ABS to slow things down, while the base and XR also get ABS but make do with drums in back.

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Despite the big holes necessary to accommodate four doors, a rear hatch and an optional sunroof, the Matrix is squeak-, rattle- and tin-sound-free. And the interior that structure surrounds is both avant garde in its design and functional in its feature.

Substance, style or both?

Every piece, panel and element of the Matrix’s appearance is designed to attract young buyers. As such, there’s a certain exuberance to the interior that stands in bold contrast to the conservative innards of most Toyotas.

The general dash shape is reminiscent of the 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse in how the instrument bezel sweeps in an arc to the center, though in the XRS’ case it’s divided into thirds with a silver faux-metallic finish on the outside portions. Inside that bezel are four round, deep and chrome-ringed holes that contain the instrumentation itself, all of which are easy-to-read and well lit in red. Just above the shifter are the ventilation controls and just above that is a Delco-sourced audio and/or navigation system. While many of the controls are familiar Toyota pieces, the most familiar of those is the three-spoke sculptured steering wheel, which, like the XRS’ engine, seems to have been lifted straight out of the Celica GT-S. Despite the upright seating position, the styling of the dash and surrounding components conveys a cockpit-like feel to the driving environment.

Up front the seats are comfortable if not aggressively bolstered while the rear is flat and folds in a 60/40 split. And when folded forward, the seats result in perfectly flat load floor with integrated, adjustable tie-down rails. For tying down things like dog cages and misbehaving toddlers, nothing is better.

There are storage cubbies all about the cockpit, but the most unique feature sits in the dash where a fully-functional, two-prong 115-volt power outlet is standard on XR and XRS and optional on the base Matrix. This is the natural step beyond 12-volt cigarette lighter-style outlets and allows occupants to plug in laptops, blenders, Tiffany lamps or one of those $3,000 shiatsu massage chairs everyone sits in at The Sharper Image but never buy. It’s a useable and flexible interior that will reset expectations for utility in many buyers’ minds.

Toyota is hoping that the Matrix will attract buyers significantly younger than the 44-year-old median age of current Corolla sedan buyers. With prices starting just south of $18,000 for the base Matrix, it’s certainly priced competitively and with its aggressive styling and the XRS’ unique drivetrain, it’s the first small SUV that wouldn’t look out of place at a street race.

But really young buyers generally prefer style over utility and will put up with inconveniences in order to get two-door style. The Matrix is more likely to attract sort-of-young buyers who have kids but aren’t quite yet ready to accept the fact that they’re full-fledged adults, and don’t have much use for a PT Cruiser’s old-timey styling. Toyota will probably find out that there are more people out there like that than even they imagined.

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Base Price:
$21,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.8-liter, 180-horsepower, DOHC, 16-valve four
Transmission: 6-speed manual/4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 102.4-inches
Length: 171.3-inches
Width: 69.5-inches
Height: 60.6-inches
Weight: 2690-pounds
Fuel economy (EPA): 24/29 cty/hwy (manual); 24/30 (automatic)
Standard safety equipment: Dual airbags
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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