The Toyota Matrix is part car, part wagon, part minivan, part SUV. Toyota even calls it a CUV for compact utility vehicle. We're not sure whether the acronym will catch on, but the Matrix appears to have caught on. Matrix was introduced in 2002 as a 2003 model, and Toyota sold nearly 30,000 of the compact wagons in the first half of the 2003 calendar year. Matrix is based on the Toyota Corolla and is built in California at a plant jointly owned with General Motors.
Matrix is targeted at younger buyers who want a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality. Toyota claims the Matrix combines the style and performance of a sports car with the functionality of an SUV and the affordability of a compact sedan. It does, indeed, accomplish all of those objectives, if not to the degree that sports cars, SUVs, and compact sedans accomplish their respective missions.
We found the Matrix offers peppy acceleration, particularly around town. It corners nicely yet offers a smooth, comfortable ride. Matrix is practical, with a big cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the rear seats. And it's certainly stylish.
While the high-performance XRS model has drawn some attention with its high-revving 180-horsepower engine, we preferred the 130-horsepower models for their more relaxed, more pleasant demeanor.
Despite its boxy looks there is no denying that the Toyota Matrix is a sporty car.
Shifting the manual transmission is easy. Although it might seem that the upright seating position and the high mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, it did not. Shifts are smooth and the standard engine revs nicely. Although the Matrix is quite light it's not as fast as expected as the base engine only delivers 130 horsepower. Judicious use of the gears allows one to have fun, however. There's plenty of pep when driving around town, even with the automatic transmission. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people. Equipped with the five-speed manual, the Matrix gets an EPA-estimated 29/35 mpg City/Highway.
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. We quickly grew tired of the high-revving 180-horsepower XRS, however. We found that the XRS was not nearly as pleasant as the XR. The 130-hp engine seems a better match for the Matrix than the high-strung 180-hp engine.
Four-wheel-drive models are not as sporty as the two-wheel-drive models. As noted, four-wheel drive is only available with an automatic transmission and the 123-hp engine. With more weight (185 pounds more) and slightly less power than the front-drive models plus the friction from the all-wheel-drive system, the 4WD models do not accelerate as quickly as 2WD models. It's still peppy, however, and the all-wheel provides superior traction on snow, ice, and slippery pavement. Matrix XR 4WD automatic gets 26/31 mpg.
Toyota Matrix is a sporty wagon that offers utility and style at an affordable price. We prefer the base and XR models to the XRS, which features a more powerful engine with a peaky powerband. Matrix also boasts Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability.