Toyota Matrix
Click image to enlarge

by Wade Ozeroff

I think I missed my calling in life. What I really should be doing is selling cars (or ‘Crossover Utility Vehicles’ if you enjoy marketing jargon).

I got my hands on one of the few Matrixes (Matrices?) around that isn’t already spoken for; and everywhere I parked it, whenever I returned to the vehicle it seemed someone would be standing by it, looking in. They invariably knew what it was, and would launch a conversation with questions that indicated they’d
already looked into one.

“Hey, you got the XR! Front or four-wheel? Whattaya think of it??”

Had I been peddling vehicles, half the job would have been done. Most of the people I found looking into my Matrix were already sold on it, which I guess is why there is a long waiting list at dealerships for prospective purchasers of the Japanese manufacturer’s latest success story.

And indeed, I did have a Matrix XR (front wheel drive version) and I quite liked it. The car (and, yes, I’m going to call it a ‘car’) is based on a Corolla platform, with a Corolla engine, but it’s raised, chopped, sporty look is a head

Its got the same sort of I-haven’t-seen-that-before cachet of trendy ‘newness’? that the first Honda CR-Vs attracted, before the roads got filled with imitators. That’s got to make a manufacturer happy, and the early buzz seems to indicate that the Matrix in all its levels is making customers happy, too. Certainly I didn’t find any major quibbles with the one I used, visually or from a performance standpoint.

Outside, the Matrix is half car, half SUV, sort of resembling a pumped-up, taller Mazda Protege5 (or almost exactly resembling its production-line twin, the Pontiac Vibe). The higher profile of the vehicle puts the driver in a much more comfortable-feeling position of view, giving some of the up-high sightline advantage that is a major hook for consumers who are considering vehicles of this type. The farther you can see, the more secure you feel.

2003 Toyota Matrix XR
Click image to enlarge

The XR is the middle of the Matrix line, it builds on the base platform with the addition of A/C, power windows and locks, alloy wheels and height-adjustable Driver’s seat, along with keyless entry and body coloured mirrors and doorhandles.

Excellent headroom in both front and back makes it a great ride for us tall ‘n gangly types and our gangly friends won’t find the back seats claustrophobic either. The fold-flat rear seats provide a respectable amount of cargo area, should you want to bring home a new bigscreen TV. Or whatever.

The gauge display is a warm Optitron set, amber-to-red illuminated dials are easy to read, though not too distracting for night driving. In general, the dark-coloured interior is a rugged, fabric covered affair with buckets in front and a 60-40 bench seat in back. Plenty of tie-down points are provided in the
cargo area.

2003 Toyota Matrix XR
Click images to enlarge

I was driving a 5-speed manual version; the shifter is positioned on a raised centre console, and the ‘throw’ between gears is short and snappy, like a much more performance oriented vehicle. Fit and finish throughout the vehicle is excellent, as I would expect from this manufacturer.

Performance-wise, the Matrix’s 1.8L 16-valve four cylinder powerplant will crank out 130 horsepower, making it nimble enough for maneuvering in the city and hauling light loads, which is about all I’m looking for in a vehicle in this class and price range.

I will stress, though, that what this means is that while the car is sporty, it ain’t a sports car. Curb weight in the Matrix averages about 60 kg more than the Corolla on which it is based, which means by the time you put your picnic gear and a couple of fat people in it, you will not feel like you’re driving a Viper, in terms of acceleration and passing.

If you want to spank your speed-racer friends from a red-light start, you will want to look at the more performance-tuned engine in the XRS model.

Outwardly, the narrow windows on the sides make for a ‘chopped’ and sporty look, while still providing good all-round visibility. Generally, I like the styling of the vehicle, but I don’t like this trend among manufacturers (not just Toyota, mind you, there’s lots of them) where they no longer apply a protective stripping along the doors at, say, shopping-cart level. Know what I mean?

They all come with 16 inch wheels and low profile tires (except, again, on the XRS, which gets 17 inch wheels), which contributes to a smooth and relatively quiet ride on the highway. The cruise control on my XR bore this out, and there was not excessive whine from the 5-speed in any gear.

2003 Toyota Matrix XR
Click image to enlarge

This would be a good time to overview the trim levels of the Matrix, as there are a few choices: The entry-level, base Matrix ($16,645) is the starter, and includes a good level of features for a base model, including AM/FM/CD, tach, outside temperature gauge, a good-feeling 3-spoke steering wheel, dual remote mirrors and accessory power outlets.

The next-up XR ($20,925) adds A/C, power everything, leather wrapped steering wheel, cruise control and alloy wheels, colour-key mirrors and skirts. Both are available in either front wheel drive or with Toyota’s V-Flex 4WD, the manufacturer’s new, intelligent torque balancing system. Rather than using
a centre differential, a viscous coupling at the end of the drive shaft senses wheel slippage and compensates. It’s a sealed unit which requires no servicing, and is expected to last the life of the vehicle.

The engine in both the base and XR is the 1ZZ-FE 1.8 litre (same as Corolla), used in all models except the XRS. Add about $3500 to either vehicle for the 4WD option.

Finally, the XRS ($24.540) is available solely in front wheel drive, and bites its line-mates with a 6-speaker audio setup, 17 inch alloy wheels, a much peppier, Z22-GE (same as used in the Celica) engine with a six-speed manual shift, that builds up the horses to 180. Both motors qualify as ultra-low emission engines, incidentally.

Lucky me, I had the car for the first cold and snowy snap in Edmonton, which is a good time to have a front wheel drive vehicle. Though its not an especially heavy for a long-ish vehicle, with a curb-side weight of 1,211 kilos, there were no undesirable ‘drifting’ incidents in cornering on our roads that week. Body roll is minimal, and it’s surprisingly agile for its hatchwagon body style (cough.. I mean CUV body style)

Toyota’s mileage reports state that the car will give 9.3 litres/100 km in the city (that’s 30 miles/gallon, if you still think Imperial like me) and 7.1 litres per 100 km on the highway (40 miles/gallon).

2003 Toyota Matrix XR
Click image to enlarge

Toyota’s mileage reports state that the car will give 9.3 litres/100 km in the city (that’s 30 miles/gallon, if you still think Imperial like me) and 7.1 litres per 100 km on the highway (40 miles/gallon).

The only heads up I would give is this: when you open the spare tire compartment to remove the tire…that plastic ring on top of the tire..that’s the ‘nut’ they’re referring to in the owner’s manual. It makes no sense as you read this now, but I just saved you fifteen minutes of puzzling should you find yourself with a flat in a Matrix.

I can’t give you any data at this point about the reliability and repair record of these vehicles, as they’re ‘all-new’ for 2003 (as the marketing people love to say), but a Corolla-based car like this, riding on Toyota’s formidable reputation for quality, makes me tentatively predict there won’t be any rude surprises for buyers.

Anyone looking for a multipurpose 5-door runabout and light hauler, from snowboarder-party kids to we more gentrified types who like to haul the odd refrigerator would be well advised to look into the Matrix. You can test drive them at virtually any dealership around, but you can’t have one right away. The last I heard, there is a five month waiting list for them, so popular is the Canadian-built (in Cambridge, Ontario) Matrix.

So much for my sales career.

See also: Test Drive: 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

Technical Data:

2003 Toyota Matrix XR
Base price $16,645
Tested price $21,920
Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact wagon/hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.8 litre four cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVT-i
Horsepower 130 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 125 ft-lbs. @ 4200 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual transmission
Tires P205/55R-16 inch all season tires
Curb weight 1254 kg (2,765 lb.)
Wheelbase 2600 mm (102.4 in.)
Length 4350 mm (171.3 in.)
Width 1775 mm (69.9 in.)
Height 1550 mm (61.0 in.)
Cargo capacity 428 litres (15.1 cu. ft.) seats up
  1506 litres (53.2 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 7.7 l/100 km (37 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.0 l/100 km (47 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with