2003 Toyota Matrix

    (5 Reviews)

    $14,670 - $18,750

    2003 Toyota Matrix Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Rad street performance utility.


    It's cool. It's hip.' Or as the Brits would say: 'It's got street cred.' (That's street credibility: popularity and acceptance among fashionable urban people, especially the young.)

    These are not the sort of words normally used to describe Toyotas. Until now that is. Toyota is hoping that its new Matrix, a Street Performance Utility, as it's being called, will be a hit with younger buyers. Part car, part wagon, part minivan, part SUV, the Matrix occupies a new niche. 

    Although it looks radically different from the Corolla, it is based on the same platform, which means that it will prove to be a solid reliable car just like the plain Jane sedan. 

    Toyota quite rightly says it is a car that combines the style and performance of a sports car, the functionality of an SUV, and the affordability of a compact sedan. It's for young buyers who want a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality. 


    The Toyota Matrix consists of three trim lines: standard Matrix, Matrix XR and Matrix XRS. 

    Two engines are available. Matrix and Matrix XR are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower with two-wheel drive and 123 horsepower with four-wheel drive. XRS comes with a 180-horsepower version of the same engine. 

    The base Matrix comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission and plenty of features, including air conditioning and an AM/FM radio with CD player for a base retail price of $14,670 plus a destination fee of $485. 

    Automatic transmissions and four-wheel drive are available, but only on the base and XR models. Automatic transmission adds $800, while 4WD adds another $1,465 to the retail price. 

    XR starts at $16,180 with a manual transmission. It has the same engine but adds power door locks, power windows and remote key fob as well as a rear window wiper. A wider range of optional equipment can be added to the XR than the base model. 

    XRS is a high-performance model. It costs $18,750 and is only available with front-drive and a six-speed manual transmission. It is powered by the same 1.8-liter engine, but tuned to deliver 180 horsepower instead of the standard 130 horsepower. The XRS includes the same features as the XR plus 16-inch alloy wheels and anti-lock brakes. 

    Toyota worked with GM to develop this product and the Pontiac Vibe is similar. Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix have identical interiors but different exterior designs. Pontiac Vibes are more costly than the equivalent Toyota Matrix models. 


    After seeing the Matrix in photographs the first thing that strikes everyone is how small the car is in person. That's not surprising as the car is actually 8 inches shorter than a Toyota Corolla yet it is 3 inches taller. It has the same wheelbase but a wider track. 

    These dimensions give the Matrix a unique stance with very different proportions from the Corolla. In many ways its looks are close to that of the Ford Focus hatchback, which is slightly smaller. It is also similar in size to the Chrysler PT Cruiser although the Matrix has slightly less interior storage capacity due to a lower roofline. 

    And it's mainly the roofline that attracts one's attention. In a reverse wedge shape, the roof slopes down at the back while the belt line along the lower edge of the side windows slopes up creating a sleek wedge shape to the windows. 

    The tailgate opens up just as in an SUV or minivan, but the frameless window can be opened separately for quick access. 

    The front of the car has a purposeful looking nose with a relatively high hood line accentuated by a big grille. Engine cooling is also achieved through a large aperture under the front bumper which features two small foglights. 

    A wide track, along with generous tires fill the wheel wells nicely, helping give the Matrix an aggressive look. All in all it's a car that looks substantial despite its relatively small size. 


    One of the features people like about driving or riding in an SUV or a minivan is the enhanced view of the world offered by a higher ride height. While it is obviously difficult to achieve anywhere near the same height in a small car, one does get a similar feel in the Matrix as the seating is fairly upright, providing the driver and passengers with a more commanding view. 

    The driver will find that the cockpit is unlike that of other Toyota cars. Four pods in front of the steering wheel house deeply set gauges. The gauges glow red at all times, even during the daytime, as insufficient ambient light reaches them. Chrome rims accentuate each pod and fake brushed aluminum trim is used to surround switches on the dashboard and door panels. 

    The combined radio and CD player, standard even on the base model, is located directly to the right of the instrument pods, while the heating and ventilation controls are immediately below. If the radio buttons and the general un-Toyota appearance of the trim seems familiar that's because the interior is all but identical to the Pontiac Vibe, even down to the American Delco radio. 

    The gearshift is also right there, a few inches away from the steering wheel. It's conveniently located more than a foot off the floor in a position that's become fashionable in high-performance rally cars, such as the Subaru WRX, and it is used in the Lexus RX 300. 

    Behind the front seats is where the Matrix really shines. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds down easily to provide a completely flat floor that is finished in a hard ribbed plastic. It comes with four slots that contain movable hooks that can be used to tie down goods. There are also several other tie-downs positioned along the sides. Storage compartments and cargo nets provide owners with maximum utility. All of this makes the interior as versatile as any station wagon and better than most SUVs. Even the front passenger seat can be folded down to provide another flat surface for storage, albeit at a higher level than the rest of the floor. 

    Thanks to the high roofline there is plenty of headroom, so tall drivers and passengers will be comfortable. Shorter passengers sitting in the rear seats might find the view slightly claustrophobic due to the small side windows, however. 

    One cool feature, which is standard on all but the base model, is a 115-volt power outlet located in the front dashboard alongside a regular 12-volt outlet. This is a great addition for all those people who like to power a laptop computer, TV, hairdryer or even a small refrigerator. 

    Driving Impression

    Despite its boxy, almost mini-minivan, looks there is no denying that the Toyota Matrix is a sporty car. For this reason it seemed appropriate to try the Matrix with a manual transmission. Although it might seem that the upright seating position and the high mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, it did not. In fact, the car felt sporty right away. Shifts are smooth and the engine revs nicely. 

    Although the Matrix is quite light it's not as fast as expected as the base engine only delivers 130 horsepower. Nonetheless judicious use of the gears allows one to have fun. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people. 

    Steering is precise and even if the center of gravity is relatively high there is little body roll. In fact the Matrix feels just like any other small sporty car. That's not surprising as it uses many components straight from the sporty Toyota Celica. 

    In keeping with the car's sporty attributes, the brakes are effective. 

    We also drove the sporty XRS with the 180-horsepower engine. The power increase comes from variable valve timing and lift, which comes into play between 6000 rpm and the 8400-rpm redline. At lower revs the engine delivers no more performance than the stock 130-horsepower engine, so you need to keep it wound up in the upper part of the rev range to tap into its performance. The engine does not generate much additional power until you rev it to about 6500 rpm. The six-speed gearbox ratios are the same as those used in the Celica, but the Matrix uses taller tires effectively giving it taller gear ratios. So you need to wind it up before shifting into the next gear to enjoy good acceleration performance. After screaming around with the engine running at 7000 rpm all day, I came to the conclusion that the XRS was not nearly as pleasant as the XR. 

    For this reason, I recommend the standard or XR models unless you like screaming around at high rpm. 

    The 4WD model is not as sporty as the two-wheel-drive models. Slightly less power (7 horsepower less), more weight (185 pounds more) and friction from the all-wheel-drive system reduce acceleration performance. Also, four-wheel drive is only available with an automatic transmission. It should offer benefits to people living in the snow belt, however. 


    Whether we call the Toyota Matrix a crossover utility or a street performance utility or a hatchback or a baby SUV or a wagon, it's one cool car that should appeal to drivers looking for a practical car with street credibility. Dare we say it? This is a modern iteration of the PT Cruiser. 

    Even more impressive than the cool looks and sporty appeal is the starting price of $14,670. It's a lot of car for a great price. 

    Model Lineup

    Standard ($14,670); Standard 4WD ($17,115); XR ($16,180); XR 4WD ($18,445); XRS ($18,750). 

    Assembled In

    Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. 

    Options As Tested

    ABS brakes ($300), side airbags ($250); Cruise control ($250). 

    Model Tested

    Matrix XR 5-speed manual ($16,180). 

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