Toyota began shipping its new youth-focused Matrix to dealerships in February 2002 as an early 2003 model. Described as a crossover utility vehicle, the Japanese automaker says the Matrix combines the functionality of a sport utility vehicle with the image and performance of a sports car, yet its as affordable as a subcompact sedan. Young buyers want vehicles that are high in image and high in functional utility, says Don Esmond, general manager of Toyota Division.
Because of its practical wagonlike configuration, cars.com places the Matrix hatchback and the closely related Pontiac Vibe in the wagon category. Styled by Toyotas CALTY Design Studio in Newport Beach, Calif., the four-door Matrix follows the companys street-performance utility theme.
High headroom and flexible seating positions are among the Matrixs special attributes. Three trim levels are available: standard, the step-up XR and the high-performance XRS. The standard and XR models may be equipped with either front-wheel drive (FWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). The XRS sport model comes only with FWD and packs an additional 50 horsepower and a six-speed-manual gearbox a powertrain borrowed from Toyotas Celica GT-S sport coupe. The Matrix is produced in Ontario, Canada.
The Matrixs basic appearance most resembles a small wagon a body style that appears to be making a modest comeback. Although the platform is new, its similar to the one used by Toyotas popular subcompact Corolla sedan. Hints of the sporty Lexus IS 300 are evident in the Matrixs front end. Toyota says the edge-web body panels have sharp surface edges, but they display rounded weblike contours intended to yield strong, flowing character lines.
Standard tires measure 16 inches in diameter, and the XR and XRS can have optional 17-inchers. Alloy wheels are optional on the standard and XR models, and they are standard on the XRS, which also features fog lights, a front spoiler and a rear underbody spoiler.
The Matrix seats five occupants, and the rear seats fold all the way down to create a flat floor. A sliding track in the cargo floor can be adapted to hold various lifestyle accessories. The driver faces deep-set Optitron gauges, and a navigation system is optional.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning with an air filter, power mirrors, intermittent wipers and a cargo cover. The XR adds power windows and door locks, keyless entry, a sport steering wheel and a vertical seat-height adjuster. A four-speaker CD stereo is standard, but the XRS gets a six-speaker cassette and CD system. Maximum cargo volume with the seats folded down is 53.2 cubic feet.
Under the Hood
The standard and XR editions get a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 130 hp; models equipped with 4WD generate 123 hp. Working with variable valve technology (VVT-i), the engine meets Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) requirements. Either a four-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission can be installed.
Available only with FWD, the XRS carries a 180-hp version of the 1.8-liter engine and a close-ratio six-speed-manual gearbox. Toyotas 4WD system has no center differential but uses a viscous coupling. If any wheel slips, as much as 50 percent of torque goes to the rear wheels.
Antilock brakes are standard in the XRS and optional in the standard and XR models. Side-impact airbags are offered as an option.
The Matrix is well built, nicely designed and stylish, but early drives produced a slightly unpleasant surprise for a Toyota product: noise. It is quiet enough while cruising, but the 130-hp engine yielded substantially more sound than a Corolla during acceleration, emitting a growly and almost whiny sound. Road noise is also noticeable. The base engine in models equipped with the automatic transmission isnt loaded with oomph. Gear changes are noticeable but not bothersome.
Stability is good, and its easy to keep the Matrix on course. Steering with more precision and less wheel vibration than the Corolla, it still falls a bit short of stimulating, though the XRS is more refined.
Even with a sunroof, front headroom is very good. Backseat space beats the Corollas, and theres a lot more headroom than the low roofline suggests. Because the navigation system lacks a touchscreen, its not as easy to use as some systems on the market.