EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 2003 Toyota Matrix

At the risk of sounding like a hardened movie critic, the 2003 Toyota Matrix is a good storyline spoiled.

Eye-popping visuals and special effects? Thumbs up.

Good drama, powerful parts and enough gusto to make you a believer? Thumbs down.

Conclusion: We hope the sequel’s better.

Toyota didn’t just reinvent four wheels when it recently rolled a blockbuster of a “crossover” vehicle out of its California production studio, then named it after a Hollywood sci-fi mega picture.

The automaker also tried to satisfy the masses with a multidimensional interior, enough seating for an audience of five and the kind of sharp looks that would make an unshaven Tom Cruise jealous.

One thing. They forgot their audience.

All-new for ’03, the Matrix is the perfect example of the fact good looks alone cannot carry a good title. You’re going to need a little substance.

And as good as the Matrix looks – and, from the front, side or behind it looks really good – it doesn’t quite have the guts to win glory.

Utility? Give it an Oscar.

Cargo capability? More kudos.

Power and performance? A Golden Razzie.

As much as I wanted to believe the Matrix might be the world’s greatest answer to the nagging question of wagon versus SUV or hatchback versus sporty (it claims to be all the above), when it came to the sporty part, our XR-model Matrix left me wanting more.

Too bad. It might be a good picture into what may be.

Billed as a “crossover utility vehicle,” the avant-garde Matrix is really a cargo-friendly small car/wagon. Based on the 2003 Carolla platform, and billed as a sister car to the ’03 Pontiac Vibe, it’s Toyota’s belief that what has worked in Europe will now work in North America. That means fuel economy, multiple passengers and a cutting edge-design that cuts pretty deep.

Check. Check. Check.

Throw in a scratch-resistant cargo bed, a PT Cruiser-like interior, attractive chrome accents and even a 115-volt AC outlet in the dash that will run an electric shaver, and you’ve got an interesting package.

The Matrix is available in three trim levels: the standard model; our tester, the XR; and the sportier XRS. Each comes with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Only the XRS comes with the beef – a 180-horsepower version that gives you the get-up and the go.

But this is where things get a little sticky.

The standard and XR versions give you all-wheel drive, but no real drive. Slip behind the wheel and slide into wishful thinking. Without the XRS engine, there are only 130 horses to play around with – not bad for a Corolla, but not enough for a vehicle this heavy. And add on the all-wheel drive and you’ve got a real weight problem and even fewer ponies (123 in the XR), mostly thanks to a complex exhaust system that produces more back pressure and robs the engine of any extra power. Add kids and cargo and things get downright lethargic.

Highway passing takes long-term planning. Hard acceleration means high-engine noise and plenty of buzzing. Quick maneuvers are out of the question.

I spent most of a 200-mile interstate trip turning off the overdrive on the automatic transmission and stomping my right foot to the floor.

Oh, what a feeling, Toyota. OK, the automaker says, we’ve got the upscale XRS to solve your power woes.

But if you take the XRS, you can’t have the all-wheel drive and you will pay the most money. Again, a knock.

Get beyond the power, or just do most of your driving in the city, and you’ve got a unique ride with an attractive front end, a sharp, sloped rear and high sides that will get just as many looks from the street as the PT Cruiser once did.

Inside, it’s a comfortable ride with a solid steering feel and plenty of room for the whole family. The seating position is higher than most cars, the headroom is plentiful, but the step-in height is not much different than a standard car. The high-tech interior setup was very PT Cruiser-esque – that means silver, rounded instrument clusters, lots of chrome, lots of logical placements and a clean finish.

The radio and climate controls are high on the dash, but the red display on the stereo and speedometer are almost impossible to see during the day.

On utility, the Matrix folds down and folds up to maximize room. The rear seatbacks fold in a 60-40 arrangement to increase cargo room to more than 53 cubic feet. The front passenger seat, with a hard plastic back, even folds flat for extra long items.

On fuel economy, the Matrix is also a winner, averaging about 25 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway in automatic modes, higher with a manual.

And on price, you might not get more for less, especially with everything you get.

An automatic XR drives in at just under $21,000. But that includes standard equipment like anti-lock brakes, power windows and locks and everything from a rear window wiper to air conditioning. Option it out and you can add side air bags ($250) and even a sport package that includes wide tires and a moonroof.

It’s an attractive list for an attractive package and an attractive look.

A blockbuster worthy of all seasons, filled with personality.

A sequel we’re sure will be even better.

2003 TOYOTA MATRIX — SPECS

Rating: 2.5

High gear: With a versatile cargo area, a Swiss Army-like interior, good gas mileage and enough sharp lines to make you the talk of your street, the Matrix is a crossover vehicle that crosses the boundary of people hauler and design.

Low gear: In the base and XR models, the Matrix lugs more than it leaps. And if you opt for the high-end XRS, you can’t get all-wheel drive. Decisions, decisions. Also, a red interior display is difficult to see during the day.

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger sport wagon.

Standard equipment: Four-speed automatic transmission; power rack & pinion steering; power front disc brakes; driver and passenger dual stage air bags; anti-lock brakes; daytime running lights; air conditioning; rear cargo nets and track system with tie downs; power windows and door locks; flat folding rear seats; split folding rear seats; AM/FM/CD stereo; power front disc brakes.

Competition: Ford Focus wagon, PT Cruiser, Pontiac Vibe

Engine (XR model): 123 horsepower, 1.8-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder

Torque (XR): 119 foot-lbs. @ 4,200 rpm

Wheelbase: 102.4 inches

Length: 171.3 inches

MPG rating: 25 mpg city/30 mpg highway

Manufactured: Canada

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is five years/60,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is five years/unlimited miles.

Base price: $15,155

Price as tested (XR model – includes options, destination and delivery charges): $20,426

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