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2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

Sports car? Wagon? Minivan? Cool.

Jul 23, 2002 SHARE

The 2003 Toyota Matrix is unlike anything we've ever seen. It's a vehicle without classification. A car without definition. Look at it. Is it a minivan, a sports car or a station wagon? The answer is yes, and it's cool. How cool? Cool like the Celica with enormous cargo space. Cool like Mom's minivan with sports car underpinnings. Cool in a sporty, utilitarian way.

But let's forget, for a minute, about what the Matrix is. Let's talk about what it's not. Namely, it's not heavy. Our test car weighed 2,790 lbs with a full tank of fuel. That's light; 263 lbs lighter than Mitsubishi's Eclipse GT and only 268 lbs heavier than Toyota's own Celica--not much considering the Matrix offers more than triple the Celica's cargo volume.

When the Matrix hits the market in February of 2002, three drivetrain configurations will be available. Lowest on the performance ladder will be the 130-hp XR trim level, which shares its engine with the new Corolla. All Matrixes share the Corolla platform. Also available with the 130-hp engine will be an all-wheel-drive drivetrain with a viscous center differential and your choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The Matrix that matters most, is the version pictured here--the 180-hp, front-drive Matrix XRS. The Matrix XRS shares its engine, the high-specific-output 2ZZ-GE, and six-speed manual with the Celica GT-S--one of our favorite cars.

Comparisons with the Celica, which is also built on the Corolla platform, are unavoidable when discussing the Matrix. Both were styled at Toyota's CALTY design studio; both share the same brake system, down to the rotor size and caliper design; and both use almost identical front suspension designs, sharing geometry with changes to handle the Matrix's extra mass.

Unlike the Celica, however, the Matrix is classified as a mid-size car by its interior volume and listed as a small station wagon by the EPA. Confusing? Only until you drive it.

Driving
Getting behind the wheel of the Matrix is a unique experience. The driving position is high and pushed forward--not unlike Subaru's WRX. The XRS Matrix shares its steering wheel with the Celica GT-S, carrying the performance attitude of the car to the interior. Close inspection of the tachometer reveals an 8100-rpm redline--very different from your Mom's minivan.

Matrix fires up with the same subtlety as the Celica and remains docile until its cam switchover at 6000 rpm. Then the transformation from minivan to sport wagon begins in earnest. It's weird at first, like riding a motorcycle for the first time. Nothing is intuitive. Matrix's height and general character asks you to relearn much of what you know about fast driving. Then, slowly, you gain respect for its abilities. It's not as quick as the Celica, nor as composed, but it's not far off. In fact, considering its mass, it's very respectable. Sort of like, well, a fast wagon.

Pound the Matrix through a set of curves and you'll be surprised at its balance. It also stops quickly, thanks to the Celica's binders. Sixty to zero takes only 118 feet--five feet longer than the Celica. Fact is, you'll struggle to find a car this capable with this much cargo space.

Matrix also uses the Celica gearbox with taller tires, which exacerbates the Celica's gear spacing problems even further. Keeping the engine in the powerband is a constant struggle. This is frustrating. Toyota could've built a six-speed gearbox with tighter ratios that keep the engine in its sweet spot on upshifts. As it is, when you roll into the power in second gear from low speed the car doesn't really accelerate until 47 mph--the speed the cam switches over in second gear.

This severely affects acceleration. At the test track, our Matrix ran a disappointing 16.6-second quarter-mile time at 85 mph, and 0 to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds--due largely to the difficulty of launching with such tall gears.

Work your way around the gearing problems, however, and it's a fun car to drive--especially if you don't exceed eight-tenths. Plus, it sounds great. We're not sure if the exhaust on our pre-production test car will make it to production, but we hope it does. On the big cam, it allows the 2ZZ's high-rpm shriek to be heard and enjoyed.

But here's the exciting part: Matrix pricing, at press time, suggests the car will deliver all the Celica's hot-rod drivetrain for less cash. Sure, it'll weigh a little more, but with that weight comes loads of function.

Utility
If Toyota can sell the Matrix XRS for about $20,000, it's got a definite winner. This price puts it well below the Subaru's WRX sport wagon, which the Matrix can't match in performance, but is undoubtedly superior when it comes to practicality. With similar interior volumes to the Subaru Wagon, Toyota's effort in making Matrix is obvious.

Take, for example, the 110-volt AC outlet built into the Matrix's dashboard and the two 12-volt DC outlets and it's clear where Toyota designers were aiming the interior amenities. This is, by design, a user-friendly environment for any of today's notebook computer-using, cell phone- packing young people. Add to those features a DVD-based navigation system and a uniquely flat-floored rear cargo area and getting anywhere with the gear you want will be easier than with many other wagons currently on the market.

Toyota says the Matrix is a product of listening to the wants and needs of young, new-car buyers. We think it's more than that. We think it's a practical utility vehicle with its feet planted in performance-car territory. This unique positioning puts Matrix in a market by itself.

2003 {{{Toyota Matrix}}}
Estimated Price : $18.500 to $20,000

Engine
Engine Code : 2ZZ-GE
Type : In-line four, aluminum block and head
Valvetrain : DOHC, four valves per cylinder, VVTL-i variable valve timing
Displacement : 1795cc
Bore & Stroke : 82.04mm x 85.09 mm
Compression Ratio : 11.5:1
Claimed Horsepower : 180 hp @ 7600 rpm
Torque : 130 lb-ft @ 6800 rpm
Redline : 8100 rpm

Drivetrain
Layout : Front engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission : Six-speed manual Gear Ratios
1 : 3.166:1
2 : 2.050:1
3 : 1.481:1
4 : 1.166:1
5 : 0.916:1
6 : 0.725:1
Final drive : 4.529:1
Differential : Open

Exterior dimensions (preliminary)
Curb Weight : 2790 lb.
Overall Length : 171.3 in.
Wheelbase : 102.4 in.
Overall Width : 69.5 in.
Track F/R : 59.8 in./58.9 in.
Height : 61.8 in.

Suspension
Front : MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
Rear : Torsion beam with trailing arms, anti-roll bar

Brakes
Front : 11-inch vented discs, single-piston sliding calipers
Rear : 10.5-inch vented discs, single-piston sliding calipers

Wheels and Tires
Wheels : 17x7-inch aluminum alloy
Tires : 215/50R-17 Firestone Firehawk SZ50

Performance Acceleration
0-30 mph : 3.3 sec.
0-60 mph : 8.9 sec.
30-50 mph : 3.3 sec.
50-70 mph : 5.1 sec.
Quarter Mile : 16.6 sec. @ 85 mph

Handling
Lateral grip (200ft skidpad) :0.81g

Braking
60-0 stopping distance : 118 ft
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