2005 Toyota Matrix

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2003 Toyota Matrix

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2003 to 2008.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Significant new entry in small crossover vehicle field.
Pros:
  • Versatile
  • Fast with top-line engine
  • Fun to drive
Cons:
  • Rather noisy
  • Notchy six-speed gearbox
  • Oddly placed gauge markings

The Toyota Matrix is an early 2003 crossover vehicle that could be characterized as a variety of models rolled into one.

For instance, the Matrix could be sold as a roomy and sporty small sedan or wagon, sport-utility vehicle or mini-minivan. And it has attributes of a sports car. To simplify things, some in the industry just call the Matrix a "tall station wagon."

However, despite its rather simple look, the four-door hatchback Matrix is anything but simple. It comes—and please stay with us here—in three trim levels with two engines (one built by Yamaha), three power ratings, two manual transmissions and three versions of an automatic transmission.

There's also front-drive or full-time 4-wheel-drive setups. And the 4-wheel-drive trim has a different rear suspension than the front-drive Matrix.

Aimed at Younger Crowd
The Canadian-built Matrix is mechanically similar to the Pontiac Vibe, which has different styling and is made in California. Both are based on the revamped 2003 Toyota Corolla, which also has gone on sale. And both are aimed at the under-40 crowd that Toyota and Pontiac have been having a hard time attracting lately.

But that's not to say that the Matrix can't appeal to older, young-at-heart motorists, who should appreciate such things as its roomy interior, economical operation, easy entry and exit and generally fun-to-drive personality.

The Matrix is offered in Standard, mid-range SR and hot-rod XRS trim levels. You can get front- or 4-wheel drive, but this is no off-road machine with the latter setup. The XRS comes only with front-drive.

Affordable and Versatile
Base prices range from $14,670 to $19,330, which makes the Matrix affordable to many younger buyers. Such folks tend to want a sporty, versatile, affordable vehicle, and Toyota (and Pontiac) thus have hit the nail on the head with this one. It even looks easy to modify, which is another selling point to some young drivers.

The seating position is a little higher than normal because many potential Matrix buyers grew up in minivans and sport-utility vehicles, which have high seating.

Roomy With Folding Seats
The Matrix is a subcompact, but there's room for four tall adults in the interior, which lets in a fair amount of engine and road noise. There's also good storage space. The front passenger and split-folding rear seat fold utterly flat even with headrests in place for a large, although rather high, cargo area.

Even the glove compartment—seemingly an afterthought on many cars and light trucks—is large. A tailgate window pops up if you want to toss in items without opening the tailgate.

Odd Gauge Markings
Front seats are supportive, but the racy looking dashboard has deeply set analog gauges with oddly placed markings. For example, the 80-mph mark is put where the 60 mph mark would be on a conventional speedometer. The tachometer has similar offbeat placement of markings, which are fine for the race track but annoying for the road.

Moreover, the gauges are almost impossible to read with polarized sunglasses, which "wash out" the markings.

The top-line XRS can be had with a Yamaha-built 180-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, which also seems best suited to tracks. This small 1.8-liter unit is from the Toyota Celica GT-S sports coupe and only really comes alive above 6000 rpm, which can make it tiresome in city or suburban traffic. And it revs at an unusually high 3400 rpm at 75 mph with even an overdrive manual transmission.

Although best left to car buffs, the XRS streaks to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. But 4-wheel-drive isn't offered for this trim, so it has excessive torque steer (front tires jerk to the left or right) when accelerating hard from a standing start on wet roads.

The other engine is a 1.8-liter Corolla 4-cylinder that produces 123 horsepower in the 4-wheel drive Matrix and 130 horsepower in the front-drive trim. The higher-horsepower rating should be for the 4-wheel-drive version because that version is heavier.

Best Engine for Daily Use
However, with either power rating, the Corolla engine puts out nearly as much torque as the hot-rod engine and is better suited to daily, in-town driving. However, it's lazy with an automatic transmission. And don't try quick passes on the highway with it, especially if you're in a 4-wheel-drive Matrix.

Both Matrix engines provide good fuel economy, with the Corolla engine delivering the best mileage with the front-drive setup.

Exclusive Transmission
A 6-speed manual transmission, which works with a light, long-throw clutch, is offered only in the XRS. Its action is so notchy and vague that it will only be loved by diehard manual-shifter fans. However, the XRS also is available with a high-performance 4-speed automatic transmission.

The Corolla-engined front-drive Matrix is available with a regular 4-speed automatic transmission. The 4-wheel-drive version gets a special 4-speed automatic with a viscous coupling.

There's also a 5-speed manual gearbox. But, alas, 4-wheel-drive trims come only with an automatic transmission; they could use the extra performance provided by a manual gearbox.

Fun to Drive
All Matrix models are fun to drive, especially the XRS. Steering is quick, handling is nimble and bumps are soaked up by the supple suspension, which provides a good ride. The 4-wheel-drive versions have a superior rear suspension, with a double wishbone arrangement.

Stopping distances are short, and the brake pedal has a nice feel. Anti-lock brakes are standard on the 4-wheel-drive Standard and XR trims and optional for those with front-drive. They're also standard on the XRS.

The XR and XRS are offered with optional 17-inch wheels and tires for better handling. However, all Matrix trims have standard, fairly large 16-inch wheels.

The Standard trim has only a fair amount of equipment, including air conditioning, intermittent wipers and a rear window defroster. But an AM/FM/CD is optional for that version, and one must move up to the XR and XRS to get such standard items as keyless entry and power windows and door locks—all optional for the Standard trim.

Sporty Appearance
As for cosmetics, the XR has sporty looking side skirts, but the XRS is the zoomiest-looking Matrix with those skirts and front and rear spoilers, which are optional for the XR.

The driver's seat moves back enough to satisfy at least an NBA guard, and the large amount of headroom gives the interior an especially spacious feel. Front cupholders are large, as are climate system controls. But the radio controls are too small and rear windows don't roll down all the way. You can charge your laptop with the 115-volt power outlet on the XR or XRS dashboard.

The Matrix should be more than a moderate hit. It has a clever design, but potential buyers can save lots of time in showrooms by keeping all the above information in mind.

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BB01 - 9/19/2014 12:54:49 AM