2003 Toyota Matrix Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Toyota Matrix Wagon

(1.8L 4-cyl. AWD 4-speed Automatic)

Hatchback for Hire

Having decided that consumers like an extra dose of utility with their small cars — just not in the guise of a conservatively styled station wagon — various auto manufacturers have quickly come up with sport wagons and oversize four-door hatchbacks. Of course, this recent growth area also has to do with an interesting corollary to the decade-long SUV movement seized upon by some automakers: Anyone born after 1980 is undoubtedly into sports and the outdoors and insists upon the ability to transport every bike, board and kayak in or on his vehicle at all times. Craving both maneuverability and affordability, this group needs all-purpose vehicles — like the Toyota Matrix.

However you feel about the way such vehicles are being marketed and the resulting jabs from self-important journalists, the Matrix (along with its re-badged twin, the Pontiac Vibe) could be a useful, likeable vehicle for anyone who deals in kids, dogs or bicycles. We gathered as much after trying it out during the First Drive and subsequently invited two of these Toyotas to our offices — one of them was a regular front-wheel-drive 130-horsepower Matrix XR with a five-speed manual transmission (it competed in a four-door hatchback comparison test coming soon on our site). Until then, we can tell you that this Matrix proved to be a strong competitor in our field of six.

We also tested the all-weather version — an XR AWD — which oddly comes only with the base engine (which makes even less power in the all-wheel-drive application) and a mandatory automatic transmission. So we would have to put ourselves in the shoes and minds of buyers seeking 365-day-a-year utility rather than fun and weekend hauling ability.

Unlike previous wagon variants of the Corolla sedan (last seen as the DX wagon in 1996), the Matrix stands tall — 5 inches taller than the 2003 Corolla — and this gives the cabin a spacious feel, not unlike a Chrysler PT Cruiser, and allows it to accommodate adults comfortably in the backseat. On the outside, the Matrix has a more angular front fascia, including its own grille, headlights and taillights. And while the Corolla has a traditional, smooth-bodied profile, the Matrix benefits from an artisan's chisel, as a gentle valley breaks up the abyssal slab-side with an S-shaped character line flowing below it. In lieu of a wagonizing cargo box, designers gave it an abridged rear (it's about 7 inches shorter than the Corolla sedan), such that it is essentially a hatchback and isn't likely to turn away younger buyers. The trade-off, of course, is cargo capacity — the Matrix might offer a taller load area, but its 21.8 cubic feet of capacity with the rear seats up and 53.2 cubic feet with the seats folded are still less than "true" wagons like the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Jetta provide.

Of course, like the PT Cruiser, Toyota's hatch is an unusually flexible vehicle for its size. Scrutinizing our XR AWD test car, we noted that the 60/40-split rear seat sections folded down independently to create a perfectly flat load floor without requiring anyone to remove the headrests or yank up the bottom cushions. Like the main cargo area, the rear seatbacks are unapologetically coated in hard plastic, the idea being that it's a lot easier to clean mud off one long expanse of plastic than out of matted carpet.

Recessed into the plastic shell are two pairs of tracks (one set in the cargo bay proper, another pair on the rear seatbacks), and each rail has two adjustable cargo tie-down points for a total of eight. And so if you're the right sort of buyer, this would allow you to batten down your bike from day one without retrofitting your Matrix with aftermarket stuff. For really long trips, you may also want a roof rack — an accessory that your dealership's parts department will be happy to sell you. Matrix buyers with less rugged lifestyles can get a cargo mat (a dealer-installed option) to cover up the plastic cargo floor and/or keep their dogs from scrabbling around when the car rounds a corner. A soft tonneau cargo cover is standard on the Matrix, though it was missing in action in our test vehicle.

If you need to haul an especially long item, simply fold down the front passenger seat (which also has hard plastic armor on its backside so that you can load things on top of it) and you can carry objects up to 8 feet long and still close the hatch. Further, with the aid of the tailgate's separate rear lift-glass, you can allow longer cargo to hang out the back when needed. The main liftgate has a user-friendly design that includes an exterior latch and a usable interior grab handle that actually has enough leverage to close the gate in one motion (such that there's no need to push on the outside of the gate when it's all grimy). To accommodate more mundane tasks, every Matrix comes with a couple of nets to corral groceries, as well as a small storage compartment in the cargo floor for items like flashlights and ice scrapers.

Overall, the Matrix is one of the best choices for hauling in this price class. Only the PT, which has removable rear seats (as well as a folding front passenger seat), and consequently, a lower load floor and about 11 extra cubic feet of load capacity, might be a better choice — but it doesn't have a durable plastic load surface.

All base and XR iterations of the Matrix are propelled by the Corolla's 1.8-liter inline four; with the assistance of Toyota's VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence) — which continually adjusts when the intake valves open and close, resulting in increased low-end torque and reduced emissions — this engine ordinarily produces 130 hp and 125 pound-feet of torque. However, due to different exhaust routing in the all-wheel-drive models, the engine can manage just 123 hp at 6,000 rpm and 118 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm (and drops from a ULEV to a less impressive LEV rating).

This isn't very much power to move almost 3,000 pounds of vehicle, yet our test car had ample get-up-and-go around town and capably held high speeds on the freeway. But when we attempted to pass slower-moving vehicles on the highway or climb steep grades, the engine was easily taxed, especially with three adults onboard. Several editors commented that the engine was surprisingly noisy for a Toyota, probably because it's working hard most of the time in the all-wheel-drive Matrix. Performance testing supported these impressions as our test car needed a full 11 seconds to reach 60 mph and labored through the quarter-mile in 18.1 seconds at 75.2 mph.

Exacerbating the AWD models' power deficiency is the obligatory four-speed automatic transmission. In order to make the best of the situation, engineers fitted the AWD cars with a more advanced electronically controlled transmission that is supposed to provide smoother, more responsive shifts. Also included is up- and downhill shift control logic that prevents the transmission from unnecessary shuffling in and out of overdrive. The transmission's gearing is taller than that of the front-drive cars, which certainly must improve fuel economy — even with AWD, the car is rated at 26 mpg city/31 highway (tops for all cars and trucks with AWD, in fact), and we did manage a 26-mpg average during the car's week-long stay. Of course, with taller gearing, the engine revs more slowly, heightening one's sense of leisurely acceleration.

For the most part, we were satisfied with the automatic's performance, though with a lightly powered car, downshift timing is very noticeable, and some of us thought it was a tad slow. Also, as we motored uphill with the aforementioned three adults, we noted that even with the shift control logic, the transmission was shifting between second, third and fourth quite regularly to keep us on pace, and we finally hit the "overdrive off" button to get some relief. To be fair, though, this behavior probably had more to do with the road's changing grades and the engine's relatively high peak power delivery than with the inadequacy of the transmission's shift logic.

While this powertrain might be acceptable in the front-wheel-drive Matrix, its underwhelming performance in the all-wheel-drive version is dissatisfying, considering the price of our XR AWD test car. You could step down to the base AWD model to save some money, but then you'd have to give up standard features like a driver-seat height adjuster and power windows, locks and mirrors. If you live a northern climate and consider all-wheel-drive a must-have, we would encourage you to test drive a Subaru Impreza. The Impreza TS Sport Wagon stickers just below the Matrix XR AWD and includes these essentials, along with a 165-hp four-cylinder engine and a solid reliability record.

Taken on its own, though, the all-wheel-drive system in the Matrix easily escaped our reproof. The system departs from others in the Toyota lineup that employ a center differential and instead uses a viscous coupling mounted at the tail end of the drive shaft. Under ideal traction conditions, the Matrix is driven only by its front wheels, which improves fuel economy. When either of the front wheels slips, the viscous coupling can redistribute up to 50 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels. All of this happens automatically with no input required from the driver.

Lacking moisture of any sort to test the system's response time, we tossed the Matrix around on a large, sandy turn-out, and even with quick turns of the steering wheel, it never lost traction as power was instantly redirected to the rear wheels. The real utility of this AWD system, of course, would come into play in the wintertime, as the Matrix enables you to navigate unplowed roads to get to the grocery store or drive to the ski slopes without stopping to put on tire cables. Offroading is not really within its grasp — imagining that some Matrix drivers would take it camping, we considered taking ours down a light-duty offroad trail to a campsite to see how it would handle. But noting that this Toyota provides less than 6 inches of ground clearance, further reduced by the test vehicle's optional underbody spoilers, we decided not to risk it. If your rugged lifestyle would require your vehicle to venture past the gravel parking area, you'll want to take a look at Subaru's Impreza Outback Sport.

In mild climates, it's hard to justify the added expense and reduced performance of the AWD models. Sure, the automatic front/rear power transfer gives this Matrix a confident feel when it's pushed around turns, but it's still not a fun car. The hatchback's tall-riding design reinforces the driver's sense of disconnection from the road, while the fully independent suspension — with struts in front and a compact double-wishbone rear — is softly tuned to prioritize ride comfort over firm handling. As a result, there is noticeable body roll around turns, though the Toyota's habits are easy to predict. Those who take long trips will be pleased to know that the ride is indeed comfortable as the miles pile up, though the calm breaks up a little when the tires encounter rough pavement or expansion joints. One thing to note: The front-wheel-drive Matrix gets a less sophisticated semi-independent twist-beam rear suspension (it's bulkier and wouldn't have been able to accommodate an AWD system). In terms of handling ability, we've noted little difference between these setups — that is, the Matrix's composure on undulating pavement is acceptable with or without an independent rear.

The steering is light and accurate, but its response isn't especially quick, nor does it convey much road information to the driver — thus consigning the fat-rimmed steering wheel pulled from the Celica to a superficial existence. So long as you don't have sporting aspirations for your Matrix, you won't be disappointed, though.

Braking is accomplished by a vented front disc/rear drum setup in base and XR models (the XRS gets rear discs); ABS and electronic brake force distribution are standard on XRS and all AWD models and optional for front-drive base and XR models. As we drove our XR AWD, we were quite satisfied with the progressive pedal operation and solid stopping ability, and front-end dive during moderate braking was only mildly bothersome. During performance testing, the Matrix demonstrated a characteristically Toyota ability to stop short, even with less forceful rear drums — it recorded a 124-foot braking distance from 60 mph.

Our test vehicle wore a set of 205/55R16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires mounted on 16-inch alloys. The tires provided an average amount of grip during cornering and made a fair amount of noise when asked to perform at higher levels.

Climb into the cockpit, and one can't help but fixate on the large amount of conspicuously faux aluminum on the dash and doors — not the "brushed effect" stuff in the Celica but a more youthful, sparkly version. Neither this nor the hard plastic dash and door panels gives the cabin an upscale feel; soft-touch surfaces are non-existent, unless you count the two-tone mesh upholstery on the seats. However, with the added help of individually sunken gauges with electroluminescent red lighting and bright chrome rings, the overall look is certainly distinctive and sure to get the attention of buyers drawn to bright colors. That said, in their efforts to create a stylish habitat that fits within the allotted budget, designers allowed "ease of use" to fall by the wayside in a few areas — the chrome rings reflected a lot of sunlight, which made it difficult for drivers to read the gauges and see the road ahead (as light was reflected back onto the windshield); the brightness of the instrument display required continual readjustment as the gauges washed out in sunlight and were then too bright with the headlights on; and finally, none of the gauge pods could accommodate a gear display in vehicles like our test car that have an automatic transmission.

For the most part, editors were happy with the driver seat, which, in the XR, comes standard with a seat-height adjuster so that you can make the most of the hatchback's tall seating position. The seats, of course, are covered in a rugged, breathable fabric and provide an admirable amount of cushioning and support for this price class — we especially liked the generous side bolsters. All is not perfect, though. Like most manufacturers, Toyota doesn't offer a telescoping function for the steering wheel, and as this one is mounted close to the dash, several editors complained that they weren't able find an optimal driving position. Further, ostensibly to preserve legroom for rear-seat passengers, designers limited the seat-track travel. Adding to the problem for longer-legged drivers is the seat bottom that ratchets forward as you increase the seat height. This in turn detracts from one's comfort and view of the road. We would encourage potential buyers to test the seats thoroughly. Side airbags for front occupants are optional across the model line.

Rear-seat accommodations are excellent in the Matrix — probably the best of any four-door hatchback or small wagon in this price range. The bench is deep and mounted high, so that even adults get ample thigh support. The back cushion is a bit flat, but it comes up high (past the shoulders of the average-size adult), providing full back support for most occupants. Thanks to seat travel restrictions in front, legroom and toe room are surprisingly plentiful. All three rear seating positions get three-points belts, and adjustable headrests are provided for outboard occupants. The requisite upper and lower anchor points for child seats are included, too — the upper anchors are located on the cargo bay floor rather than the seatback (as we prefer in hatchbacks and wagons) but at least they are in close proximity to the rear seat. Getting in and out of the Matrix was quite easy for most editors, thanks to high seats, low door sills and relatively wide door openings front and rear.

Turning our attention to the controls, we found the climate adjustments — three oversize dials on the bottom of the center stack and three large buttons on the left side of the stack — extremely easy to use. A cabin air filter is standard. The stereo controls were another matter; unlike the usual Toyota head unit, these controls seemed a bit disorganized and had a lower-grade look and feel. And that's when we learned from our stereo expert that this was one of GM's contributions to the Matrix/Vibe project — a Delco head unit. Check out the stereo evaluation for the story on its performance.

Secondary controls gave us little to complain about, as Toyota equipped the Matrix with the usual three-stalk arrangement for lights, wipers and cruise; daytime running lights are standard. We appreciated the separate tilt and slide controls for the sunroof, and of course, the dual front seat power points and 115-volt, two-prong household outlet, the latter of which was ideal for the power cord for one editor's Game Boy. Areas that could stand improvement include the poorly placed window buttons on the rear doors and the lack of retained accessory power (for the windows) after shutting off the engine.

For storage, the Matrix offers a two-tier center console container (felt-lined with a power point for your cell phone), a spacious glovebox, usefully shaped wells in the center console, a change holder and note straps on the visors. There are door bins in the front, but they're pathetically small for a utility-oriented vehicle. Worse, there is no storage to speak of in the backseat, except for a map pocket on the driver seatback. At least you and your passengers will have a place for beverages: there are two unlined holders in the console, and the rectangular, felt-lined well in front of them can house a 1.5-liter bottle of water. A spring-loaded cupholder rack with room for two beverages deploys from the back of the center console for the benefit of rear occupants.

Although Toyotas are renowned for their tight construction, this Matrix is part of a string of Toyotas we've tested in recent months that have had serious rattles emanating from the cabin — this one had a consistent buzz coming from the instrument cluster that sounded like splintering wood and proved annoying to all who drove the car. Otherwise, build quality wasn't too bad though it wasn't flawless, either — the list of problems included loose tweeter housings, A-pillar trim and center console container; rough, unfinished edges on some plastics; exposed screws on door panels; and on the exterior, minor panel misalignments and paint defects.

After spending a week with a Matrix, we're convinced that it would be a satisfying choice for many people — it rides comfortably; it handles capably enough; it has plenty of room in the backseat for your friends (or your kids); and it provides a lot of flexibility for those whose interests require a lot of equipment. But the Matrix is not a thrill ride in and of itself, and we would discourage people living in temperate zones from buying an AWD model like our test vehicle.

Meanwhile, in the front-drive hatchback crowd, a vehicle like the Mazda Protege5 would certainly generate more of an endorphin release — unless of course you've decided on the 180-hp Matrix XRS — whereas at the XR level, the Matrix is about getting your friends and cargo to your destination with minimal hassle, discomfort and expense along the way and perhaps enjoying a tailgate party once you get there.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7

Components: Toyota Matrix Base and XR models get single round speakers in each door enclosure and a single-CD player head unit with a large red display. The XRS trim gains two more tweeters near the sideview mirrors and a cassette/CD player combo. This is a $140 option for the XR, and our test car had it (a tape/CD upgrade is also available for base models, but you don't get the extra speakers). For a few extra dollars, the XR and XRS can have more fun: an in-dash six-CD changer is only $100 for the XRS and $250 for the XR (but comes with the satellite tweets standard in the XRS). All of the players are GM Delco head units (also found in the Pontiac Vibe) with a graphic equalizer that has five settings, including a custom setting. For those with more flexible budgets, a DVD-based navigation system with "voice guidance" prompting is available for $1,750 on XR and XRS trims and includes the six-disc changer along with the satellite tweets.

Performance: Round speakers sound better? They sure do. The drivers in the bottom of each door panel are not very big, but bass tones of all types are fairly strong and very accurate. This is partially thanks to the rigidity of the speaker shape and size of the enclosures. Unfortunately, rap fans won't feel the full rumble Dr. Dre intended. The door speakers do a good job of producing strong and clean vocals, but live recordings lack warmth. The additional tweeters are a definite plus. The crisp response adds a fine touch to every cymbal and chime, with the aim creating a full-bodied soundstage up front while benefiting backseaters.

Best Feature: Satellite tweets (optional for the XR).

Worst Feature: Needs more bass.

Conclusion: Lots of available features and strong performance, but the low-end base response is lacking. —Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Toyota Matrix has most of the ingredients to make it a likeable vehicle — thoughtful features like the 115-volt power point and adjustable tie-downs in the cargo area to facilitate ease of loading and unloading. It's also a very comfortable ride if you should need to haul people as well as cargo. Toyota seems to have struck a chord with the younger crowd (for whom it's positioning the Scion brand); I got a whoop of resounding approval from neighborhood boys who were as interested in the Matrix as in some of the fancier sports cars that I've brought home.

However, the appeal doesn't seem to be cross-generational. Most people who are past having a squeaky voice ("When it's time to change, you've got to rearrange"), including myself, seemed to wrinkle their noses in distaste at the wedge-of-cheese silhouette of the Matrix. Ah, my lost youth. I wasn't too crazy about the way our test model drove, with a sluggish engine mated to an equally leisurely transmission. All-wheel drive is useful for slippery road conditions and heightened road handling abilities, but with a vehicle powered by a 123-horsepower engine, it just seemed to weigh it down further. The Toyota provided a smooth, unruffled ride, but nothing that would be considered as sporty as its marketing campaign would suggest. If you opt for the Matrix XR, buy it for utility, not for any semblance of fun. Or pony up for the XRS version.

Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed says:
Driving home, I had difficulty reading the gauges because they are deeply recessed and bright sunlight was glinting off the chrome edging. The gleaming chrome was also reflected back at me in the windshield. This was annoying especially since I actually liked the way the chrome edging highlighted the gauges.

I liked the feel of the seats and imagine that they would probably be easy to clean. When I shut the door, however, it sounded tinny and hollow. I've noticed this in other Toyotas and it isn't a great beginning to a ride in a new car. This grabbed my attention each time I entered the Matrix and gave a generally compromised feeling.

The Matrix handles well and has a taut suspension. The ride height and steeply sloping hood give the driver a good view of the road ahead and produce a different driving sensation. It reminded me a little of the PT Cruiser. I noticed the lack of passing power on the freeway. It was very sluggish when I put the whip to it at about 60 mph. But I did like the fact that it got 26 mpg. In my mind, the trade off was worth it, particularly since it steps off the line smartly.

What really sold me was the way the rear 60/40-split seats folded down and became completely flat. To test it appropriately, I looked around for a bulky object to load in there. I found my golf clubs beckoning and thought, "Oh well, if I really have to..." and headed for the driving range. A set of golf clubs is a frequently loaded and awkwardly sized object, so it's a good test for a car. The left side of the rear seat (the 40 side, not the 60) folded down easily and the clubs fit just right. Bingo — the Matrix had a fan.

Consumer Commentary

XR AWD Model Review: Very versatile car but has lots of rattles in dash and drivers door. The cooling system developed a leak early on. Not typical Toyota quality. Also, is not a "full-Time" 4 wheel drive as advertised by Toyota. Works like the CRV. Front drive until slippage is detected and then up to 50 percent of the power is transferred to the rear wheels. Favorite Features: 1) versatility 2) sound system (except speakers near windows) 3) gas mileage. Suggested Improvements: 1) use plain English when describing the 4 wheel drive system 2) improve quality control including vibration of front windows 3) more horsepower without need for hi-test gas. — leaks & rattles By b.mclearen, May 5, 2002

XR Model Review: Roomy interior, excellent cargo space, and surprising standard features such as a CD player and outside temperature gauge. I have the manual transmission, and shifting is super smooth. Quiet ride, no rattles. I bought it because the Corolla engine has consistently achieved high reliability ratings over a long period of time, but the car is also just plain fun to drive. Favorite Features: Two-way hatch is great! Also, front cupholders are different sizes, so your drink fits one or the other. Storage compartments everywhere you look. Hard surface of cargo area makes transporting wet/dirty stuff a breeze. Suggested Improvements: Front seats could use a little more support and padding for real comfort. — Great Car All Around By SusieW, May 25, 2002

Base Model Review: I've had my Matrix about a month now and still get a little thrill out of driving it. I chose the base model with auto and the winter package as it really doesn't look/feel like a typical base model. Beware, the ride is too sports car like for some. I've since realized that the front seats are about an inch too high for me (I'm 6 feet tall). I have to slouch if I want to rest my elbows on longer drives. Kinda wish I'd bitten the bullet and gone for the XR. Live and learn! Favorite Features: Interior room and practical design. Engine/trans. and Suspension/wide tires. Suggested Improvements: Steering wheel too close to dash. Lower the back portion of front seat bases about an inch, for a more comfortable highway position. — A fun car to live with! By SteveM, March 13, 2002

XR Model Review: As a VW loyalist, it was hard to look beyond the VW dealership when I started looking for my next vehicle. Yet, after looking through their offerings, I knew I had to fairly reconsider some of the competition. VW's have increased in price since reinvigorating the brand with the "New Beetle". The 2 models I seriously considered (Golf & Jetta) had cramped back seats and weren't places I would choose to spend on a short road trip. Enter the Matrix, albeit funky looks (love it or hate it), the utility of the vehicle was a big seller. Nice legroom in the back seats for my average 6'0 height, mileage is good, comfortable seating position, all for a decent price. Favorite Features: Convertible cargo space is well thought out, seating position is high and comfortable, really fun to drive, it's a TOYOTA. Suggested Improvements: Those big flanks on the sides will be a magnet for parking lot dings with no rub strips (although I'm not sure how they would look). Strange rattles in the back cargo area over bumps. The fold-up cargo cover is really flimsy. Back end a tad jumpy through corners. — A great overall vehicle By zaxer, April 22, 2002

XRS Model Review: I purchased a Matrix a little over a month ago. So far I am very pleased. The gas mileage is great — averaging 27 mpg for mostly city driving. The interior is functional and roomy. The styling is a little different, but overall it is a good looking car (although a little goofy from some angles). Performance is great - especially when the timing changes above 6000 rpm. Favorite Features: The best feature so far is that it is fun to drive. Suggested Improvements: The only improvement would be to make the auto headlights less sensitive to light changes — when the lights come on during daylight it is quite hard to see the instruments. — Matrix By nvjohn, April 20, 2002

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