2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Photos by Grant Yoxon

The 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS is the top-of-the-line performance version of this recently-introduced compact hatchback/wagon based on the Corolla platform. It has a different engine from the other Matrix models: a 180 horsepower 1.8 litre four banger with variable valve timing borrowed from the Celica GT-S. It also includes a 6-speed manual transmission, four wheel disc brakes, 17 inch tires, premium stereo, sport seats, and a 115 volt interior power outlet. Almost everything’s included in its MSRP of $24,540.

A wagon that wants to be a sports car

The ‘too cool to be a wagon’ Toyota Matrix is just one of a gaggle of sporty but practical wagon-like hatchbacks that have been embraced by practical, budget-restrained Canadians looking for a vehicle that does it all. Other recent entries in this class include the Mazda Protege5, Ford Focus ZX3, ZX5 and SVT, Pontiac Vibe, Honda Civic SIR, Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Spectra GSX, and the retro PT Cruiser.

Most of these hatchbacks are based on existing compact sedan platforms – the Matrix, for example is based on the just-redesigned Corolla platform, and the two cars are built on the same assembly line in Cambridge, Ontario. From a quality point of view, that’s good news: the Corolla consistently ranks as one of the most reliable cars on the market and the Cambridge plant itself has won numerous J.D. Power and Associates plant quality awards.

Like its competitors, the Matrix wants to be sporty, fun-to-drive, and practical all at the same time – and is aimed at a predominately younger customer. “Matrix is the result of listening to the wants and needs of young new-car buyers,” said Don Esmond, Toyota Division senior vice president and general manager. “Young buyers want a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality. The problem is that utility and image have always come at a price out-of-range for most young buyers. Matrix is active, accommodating, adaptable and, most important, affordable.”

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

That’s one area where the Matrix does differ from its competitors. While most of the above vehicles come in a single, top-of-the-line trim level, the Matrix is available in a base model that starts at a reasonable $16,645. It includes front-wheel-drive, a 130 horsepower 1.8 litre four cylinder engine (the same engine used in the Corolla), 5-speed manual transmission, 16 inch wheels and tires, split folding rear seats, AM/FM/CD player, and rear liftglass.

An XR trim level, which adds air conditioning, alloy wheels, side skirts, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power windows, cruise control, keyless entry, and a height-adjustable driver’s seat cushion starts at $20,925.

The Matrix is also offered with an ‘on demand’ four-wheel-drive system in base and XR trim. The AWD model includes a four-wheel-independent suspension, 4-speed automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes for an MSRP of $20,315 ($24,110 in XR trim). Only the Pontiac Vibe AWD and Subaru 2.5RS Impreza are also offered with four-wheel-drive in this class.

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

The top-of-the-line XRS, this week’s test car, is a front-wheel-drive model with the same semi-independent rear suspension as the base and XR models. It has a different 1.8 litre engine: a 180 horsepower 1.8 litre twin cam four cylinder engine with variable valve timing borrowed from the Celica GT-S. The XRS also comes standard with a 6 speed manual transmission, four wheel disc brakes with ABS, front fog lamps, premium AM/FM/CD/cassette 6-speaker stereo, a 115 volt power outlet, sport seats, anti-theft system, power windows and door locks, 17-inch alloy wheels and unique exterior styling. The XRS has an MSRP of $24,540.

Driving impressions

The Matrix is taller and wider than most of its competitors – in fact, if you’re sitting in a coffee shop looking at it, it resembles a small minivan! The Matrix’s extra height translates into more front and rear headroom than its competitors and the interior is definitely roomier than the Protege5 and Civic SIR. It also has a couple more cubic feet of cargo space (with the seats up).

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

The Matrix’s tall roof and four large doors makes entry and exit easier than in other cars. The seats have a high hip point, and sitting in the driver’s seat is like sitting on a dining chair – your legs drop down to the pedals and you must sit a bit closer to the steering wheel and steer as if you were opening a hatch on a submarine. (A lot will depend on how long your legs and arms are).

The front seats have excellent thigh and torso support and the sturdy-weave black cloth material in my test car looked great too. The seat cushion is adjustable for height, but it pivots at the front requiring the driver to readjust the backrest angle as well.

The upright seating position has advantages and disadvantages – it provides easier ingress/egress, improved visibility to the outside, a better view of the instruments, and better posture. However, I found it more difficult to operate the pedals because the angle between my foot and lower leg seemed sharper and required more effort to hold the feet above the pedals. I also found that the higher seating position forced me to pivot my upper body laterally when steering. In a lower seating position, the arms move up and down without having to pivot the torso very much.

The Matrix has lots of windows, and even though the side windows are narrower at the rear, outward visibility is excellent – with the exception of the lower rear window where the wiper housing juts into the window area. However, the rear wiper, which includes an intermittent wiping setting, makes a world of difference when the rear window gets smothered in dirt, slush, snow or condensation.

The XRS’ high-revving 1.8 litre four cylinder engine develops 180 horsepower @ 7,600 rpm, and 130 lb.-ft. @ 6,800 rpm – that compares to the base 1.8 litre engine with 130 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 125 lb-ft. of torque @ 4200.

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

The XRS engine is equipped with Variable Valve Timing and Lift with intelligence (VVTL-i). VVTL-i has two-stage lift and duration cam profiles for both intake and exhaust. Each pair of valves has one cam lobe for low-rpm operation, and one high-lift, long-duration lobe for high-rpms. At high engine speeds, operation automatically switches to the high-lift lobe, increasing the lift and duration of the intake and exhaust valves, and allowing the intake of a greater volume of air-fuel mixture and easier discharge of exhaust gases. The result is better engine breathing and more power at high rpms.

I found that first gear is geared quite low, enabling rapid acceleration from a stoplight with a hint of torque steer – more apparent on wet roads. Though the XRS’ high revving engine develops maximum torque at a relatively high 6800 rpm, it still has reasonable torque at lower engine revs and pulls strongly all the way up to its 8200 rpm redline. There is a noticeable surge in acceleration at about 6200 rpm when the high-lift lobe does its thing. 0 to 100 km/h is accomplished in about nine seconds, not a particularly quick time, but acceptable.

For a performance vehicle, the Matrix XRS offers excellent fuel consumption: 9.3 l/100 km (30 mpg) in the city and 7.1 l/100 km (40 mpg) on the highway. A lot will depend how you drive.

The shift lever is positioned higher up and farther forwards than traditional shift levers, a position that I found difficult to get used to at first. Rather than dropping your right hand onto a shift knob between the seats, you must reach up and forwards. After a week driving the XRS, I’m still not sure if I preferred this position. I was sure that I didn’t like the noisy shift linkage – the shifter isn’t difficult to shift, but it sounds clunky.

Pedal effort when releasing the clutch is acceptable, but could be lighter in my opinion. Clutch engagement is sensitive, and a smooth takeoff takes a bit of practice.

A four-speed automatic transmission is available as an option on the XRS for approximately $700 more.

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

Like other front-wheel-drive Matrix models, the XRS has a non independent twist-beam type rear axle rather than the independent system offered on the AWD Matrix. This helps lower the cargo floor for extra cargo space, but doesn’t provide as good a ride on bumpy surfaces. Still, the XRS handling is very stable and predictable for a tall wagon-like vehicle with a 158 mm (6.2 in.) ground clearance, and there’s not a lot of body lean. Turn-in is quick and responsive, and the car exhibits excellent grip with mild ploughing at the limit. The car’s tight body and standard Z-rated Firestone Firehawk 215/50 series R-17 inch tires are responsible for much of this car’s grip.

The XRS’ carefully-tuned suspension, relatively long wheelbase and wide track provide a comfortable but firm ride that’s not jarring over sudden bumps. Its engine speed-sensing power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was a bit firm at slow speeds, but was accurate and quick. The XRS’ turning circle of 10.8 metres (35.4 ft.) makes tight corners light work.

The XRS is the only Matrix model available with four wheel disc brakes, and these include standard ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD). I found pedal modulation firm and linear with excellent stopping distances.

Interior is flashy

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge

Once seated, the driver faces an attractive three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel with a thick rim and handy thumb grips. The flashy instrument panel includes overlapping gauges that are buried in deep pods – fortunately they’re always illuminated in a glowing red colour and are easy to see. The left-hand gauge can be obscured by the steering wheel depending on how you position it. Prominent metal trim around the gauges and centre stack controls is de riguer these days – but if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s made of plastic.

The position of controls is generally pretty good – at the top of the centre stack is the AM/FM/CD/cassette backlit in red and below that is a no-nonsense three dial heater/air conditioner controls. In addition to a 12 volt powerpoint, the centre stack also includes a two-prong 115 volt power outlet with an on-off button – this can be useful for laptops, chargers, and other accessories but isn’t designed for power drills, sanders, heaters, air conditioners and other high voltage appliances.

In the storage bin between the front seats there’s another 12 volt powerpoint for keeping cellphones and digital cameras out of site. The Matrix console also includes two cupholders.

The rear seat has generous legroom and headroom for two adults over six feet tall, but is a bit narrow for three full-size adults. There are two fold-out cupholders that pull out of the centre console, and there’s a pocket on the back of the front passenger seat, but I noticed there isn’t a folding centre armrest at the rear.

The folding rear seatbacks are split 60/40 allowing two people to sit in the rear with one seat folded down, if necessary. As well, the front passenger seatback will fold flat, creating a loading space eight feet long. With the rear seats up, there’s 428 litres (15.1 cu. ft.) of cargo area, and with both rear seats folded flat, there is a gargantuan 1506 litres (53.2 cu. ft.).

The back of the rear seats and the front passenger seat has a hard ribbed plastic surface which is useful for loading wet or dirty items like snowboards or skis, but acts like a skating rink for items that are not tied down. Fortunately, the Matrix has built-in tie down hooks and flexible tie-downs for securing cargo. As well, the Matrix features a sliding track system integrated into the rear cargo floor.

Under the cargo floor is a storage area built into the wheel of the spare tire and another couple of shallow storage compartments, handy for keeping smaller items out of site. There are also two covered storage areas in the side walls behind the rear wheelwells.

Accessing the cargo area is easy – the rear hatch door is lightweight and lifts up over your head – as well, the rear window lifts up separately – it can be opened with the remote keyfob or by pushing a button on the dash. The Matrix and Vibe are the only small hatchbacks to offer this feature.

Standard safety features in the Matrix XRS include dual-stage driver and passenger airbags, 3-point seatbelts for all occupants with pretensioners, force-limiters and height adjustable shoulder anchors in front. At the rear are child restraint seat anchors, and child door locks, and there are four height-adjustable head restraints at the outboard positions. Side airbags are not available.

Competitor Overview

If you think Matrix buyers might cross-shop at Pontiac dealerships, then the Matrix XRS’ closest competitor is probably the four-door Pontiac Vibe GT ($26,550) which is essentially the same car with different exterior styling. Vibes have more standard equipment than base Matrixes, so it’s difficult to compare prices directly.

Import competitors include the 160 horsepower two-door Honda Civic SiR ($25,500), the turbocharged 180 horsepower two-door VW GTI 1.8T ($25,895), the turbocharged 150 horsepower two-door VW New Beetle 1.8T ($26,875) and the upcoming 170 horsepower two-door Ford Focus SVT hatchback. Four-door competitors (other than the Vibe) include the 165 horsepower Subaru Impreza AWD 2.5RS Wagon ($21,995), and possibly the 227 horsepower Subaru WRX AWD Wagon ($34,995).

The Matrix XRS’ 180 horsepower is at or near the top of its class (other than the WRX), but its maximum torque is developed at a relatively high 6800 rpm – the turbocharged GTI for example develops maximum torque at just 1,950 rpm. The Matrix XRS’ 0 to 100 km/h acceleration time of 9 seconds is not as quick as the WRX (6.3 sec.), GTI (7.8 sec), Civic SiR (8.5 sec), and Impreza 2.5 RS (8.5 sec.), but its average fuel economy of 8.2 l/100 km is the best in its class. Other than the Vibe, it’s the only one to offer a 6-speed manual transmission.

As mentioned, the Matrix is longer, wider and taller than most of its competitors, and has considerably more interior and cargo room.

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Click image to enlarge


The Matrix XRS is a good value for under $25,000, and offers an excellent combination of interior and cargo room with sporty good looks and spirited performance. But to a certain extent, it lacks refinement, and if you’re expecting a wagon that handles and performs like a sports car, you may be disappointed.

Technical Data:

2003 Toyota Matrix XRS
Base price $24,540
Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact wagon/hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.8 litre four cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVTL-i
Horsepower 180 @ 7,600 rpm
Torque 130 lb.-ft. @ 6,800 rpm
Transmission 6 speed manual (4-speed automatic)
Tires P205/55R16 all-season
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: 9.3 l/100 km (30 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.1 l/100 km (40 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca