2003 Toyota Matrix First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
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2003 Toyota Matrix Wagon

(1.8L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Invasion of the Angry Red Pods

As a journalist, it's a constant struggle to avoid writing hackneyed tripe. So imagine the difficulty in trying to craft a story about Toyota's new Matrix without ever mentioning the movie The Matrix, making snide comments about Keanu Reeves' acting ability or typing in "Unfortunately, nobody can be told what the Matrix is." Without these, how is one supposed to come up with an interesting lead?

Fortunately, I'm blessed with such exquisite writing skills that I'm able to avoid such things.

So what is the Matrix? Toyota's early TV spots have hyped the fact that the car is so new and different that it's indescribable. However, we have to point out that Toyota built something like the Matrix before. Those of you old enough to remember Spuds MacKenzie, Budweiser beer shill, might remember that Toyota offered a Corolla wagon in the late '80s and early '90s. The Matrix is kinda like that, but way better and, for most people's tastes, not nearly as ugly.

Tagged as a 2003 but going on sale in the spring of 2002, Toyota designed the compact Matrix to have the style and performance of a sports car and the functionality of an SUV. Underneath, much of its hardware comes from the new 2003 Corolla platform (the same goes for the Matrix's sister car, the Pontiac Vibe). It joins a growing list of sporty and affordable five-door hatchbacks/wagons, including the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Focus ZX5, Mazda Protegé5, Suzuki Aerio and Subaru Impreza Outback Sport. Is there anything that separates the Toyota from the pack? Let's find out, shall we?

There are three trim levels: standard, XR and XRS. Within these, a variety of drivetrains are available. Standard and XR trim cars come with the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Corolla. Equipped with Toyota's VVT-i variable valve timing system, this refined engine makes 130 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. It drives the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 30/35 mpg for the manual transmission and 28/33 mpg for the automatic. This engine is also clean enough that the car earns ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV) status.

So far, this is pretty common stuff for Toyota. The "functionality of an SUV" part comes from the Matrix's available four-wheel-drive system. Offered on standard and XR trim, this system is different from the all-wheel-drive systems on the RAV4 and Highlander. Instead of having a center differential that constantly applies a 50/50 split of power to the front and rear wheels, the Matrix has a viscous coupling at the tail end of the driveshaft. During normal driving conditions, the Matrix applies power to the front wheels only. This is done to improve fuel efficiency. In the event of slippage at one of the front wheels, the viscous coupling in the rear differential quickly reapportions up to 50 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels. All of this happens automatically and is virtually imperceptible to the driver.

Still, as 4WD vehicles go, the Matrix is definitely light-duty. Snow-covered roads should be fine, but don't plan on doing any off-roading in it. And don't think having 4WD will improve acceleration, either. The 4WD comes with a four-speed automatic transmission only, and, due to different exhaust routing, power drops to 123 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque. Add in 187 pounds of additional curb weight (compared to a front-drive XR automatic), and you've got one pudgy Matrix.

To get your speed on, you'll want the Matrix XRS. This, too, comes with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, but it happens to be the Yamaha-built "2ZZ" engine from the Celica GT-S. Equipped with the more advanced VVTL-i system that adjusts both valve timing and valve lift, this engine creates 180 hp and 130 lb-ft of torque. Like Allen Iverson in the paint, this is a frantic and peaky unit, with maximum horsepower and torque being developed well past 6,000 rpm. It comes with either an exclusive six-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. This automatic (as well as the one used with the 4WD system) is a newer design than the standard auto, as it has reduced internal friction for improved fuel economy, quicker shifting ability and a hill-detection feature for reduced shifts in and out of overdrive while on hills. Fuel economy for the XRS is 22/29 mpg with the manual and 21/27 for the automatic.

The Matrix (and Vibe GT) is currently ichi-ban of the class for horsepower. But this isn't its only attraction. It is a hatchback, after all, and utility is a major attribute. The liftgate opens upwards, and the rear glass can be popped open independently. Doing either reveals a rear cargo area that can hold 21.8 cubic feet of cargo. Toyota has forsaken carpet and instead gone with hard plastic. This should make the aftereffects of transporting dirty or wet cargo much easier to deal with. Additionally, the cargo floor features two parallel tracks for adjustable tie-down hooks. Underneath the floor is a small storage compartment. The 60/40-split rear seat can be folded flat in one motion without having to remove the headrests, thereby expanding cargo room to 53.2 cubic feet. Assuming no one is sitting in the front passenger seat, it, too, can be folded nearly flat. Surf's up, bro; put that Eaton board inside and close the hatch!

Up front, the Matrix has a modern-looking cockpit that is considerably different than the Corolla's. Circles and metallic-looking highlights are the themes here. The gauge cluster consists of four individual chrome-ringed pods, each continually given a red illumination similar to that in Lexus vehicles. To the right are the audio and climate controls. Below them is the transmission shifter. Yep, that's right; the shifter is mounted "rally-style" on the dash. It might seem strange at first, but the location quickly becomes natural, and it frees up additional storage space between the front seats.

Also on the dash is a 115-volt 100W power outlet. It's standard on XR and XRS and optional on base models. It accepts household-style plugs, allowing owners to plug in a variety of items. Heavy-draw appliances are off the list, but things like laptops, shavers and small air compressors are fine. You could also hook up a portable DVD movie player and watch, well, you know.

Think that's neat? Check out the optional navigation system. If you're directionally challenged and can't refold maps, this is definitely for you. The system is DVD-based, meaning that it covers the 48 states as well as four major metro areas of Canada on one disc. The system is operated by a small joystick, making it harder to enter information than if it were a touchscreen, but the price ($1,750) is lower than touchscreen Lexus systems. It also includes a six-disc music CD player located underneath the front passenger seat.

Base-level cars have items like air conditioning with a pollen filter, a CD player and cargo nets as standard, but most of the worthwhile features are optional. Go with the XR or XRS and get standard power locks, windows and mirrors; keyless entry; intermittent wipers; a rear wiper; a sport steering wheel; and a seat-height adjuster. Main options include 16- or 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels (17s for XRS only), an all-weather package, a power moonroof and two different premium sound systems. ABS is standard on XRS and 4WD vehicles and optional on remaining front-drive cars.

Additional safety comes from optional side airbags, three-point seatbelts with automatic/emergency locking retractors (ALR/ELR) for all outboard passengers. The driver's belt also features an ELR.

Though our seat time so far in this car has been very limited, the Matrix seems to put on a good show. Its cargo hold truly is useful, and there are nice features and touches. Though adding options can push the price of an XRS to more than $20,000, the pricing is competitive with other vehicles considering the content provided. But don't rely solely on us. As Morpheus said, "Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."

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