COAL: 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS–The Blue Pill


After wrecking my red Toyota Matrix, I needed to buy a car in a hurry. I wanted another wagon to haul the kids and the dog, and the used-car lots were filled with Chrysler PT Cruisers, Chevy HHRs and Dodge Magnums. I flirted hard with a hemi Magnum, but the only way I could own it was to take on a sizable monthly payment. And then, I came upon this 2003 Matrix XRS. There was great allure in returning to comfortable surroundings and, more importantly, being able to write a check and own this car free and clear.

More power was the only additional thing I ever really wanted from my old base Matrix, and the XRS brought it. My driving style is on the milquetoast end of the Hoon-O-Meter, but my one vice while driving is getting up to speed as fast as I can. Comedian George Carlin, in a routine about driving, once said, “I want to be behind the felon on his way home from work.” That really resonates with me.

The XRS is quick off the line. I felt like Speed Racer the first few months I owned it. But quickly, I had to learn not to just mash the pedal to the floor when the light turns green–the tires chirp, and the car goes slightly sideways. The XRS taught me a little finesse.

For all its initial eagerness, the XRS is otherwise surprisingly tame in day-to-day driving. Motor Trend magazine, for example, recorded a 0-to-60 time of 8.9 seconds with its long-term XRS–not bad, but not fire-breathing , either.


That’s because the XRS’s 180 hp, 1.8-liter 2ZZ-GE engine, shared with the contemporary Toyota Celica GT-S, has a variable valve timing and lift (VVTL-i) system that provides a serious power boost at 6,200 rpm. When it kicks in, it feels like a turbo. The car’s 8,500 rpm redline is correspondingly high–but when that power boost hits, you reach it in a hurry. That makes the XRS enormously entertaining when passing someone at speed on the highway.

Unfortunately, highway passing is the only time I ever get to experience this fun. For a long time, I thought it was because my XRS’s engine is mated to a four-speed automatic. (The standard transmission is a six-speed manual; the automatic was seldom ordered, and was dropped after 2003. I have a fairly rare XRS.) But I follow the Matrix forums; there, six-speed XRS drivers report the soonest they can make that power boost happen is in second gear, north of 40 mph.

You have to wonder what the point is. And this elusive power comes at a cost: The XRS demands premium fuel and returns only 26 mpg. My old base Matrix took regular gas and got up to 35 mpg! It was a much better day-to-day value.

The XRS’s suspension is supposedly tuned for sportier handling, but I couldn’t tell the difference between it and my base Matrix. It probably didn’t help that after the first time I drove the XRS in snow, I swapped the sport tires for all-season tires so I could keep the dang thing on the road. With them the car leans heavily during cornering at speed, and feels uncertain on bumpy pavement and over railroad tracks, as if it were on tippy-toes. The steering is a little numb and vague and leaves me feeling disconnected from the road. Braking is much better, though–the XRS has discs all around, as well as ABS.


Not surprisingly, the XRS is better optioned than the base Matrix. Its seats have extra padding. The stereo has six speakers and a six-CD changer (which was broken when I got it and soon replaced with a single-CD unit from a wrecked Pontiac Vibe). I absolutely love the dash-mounted 115-volt AC outlet, something I think every car should have; I’m constantly using it to charge my phone and my sons’ various hand-held gaming devices. The driver’s seat can be raised and lowered. The XRS also has de rigueur power windows, locks and side mirrors. Outside, it has 16-inch alloy wheels, which are very welcome after having constantly lost hubcaps with my base Matrix. It also has fog lights–a nice thought, but they really don’t light the way very well.


The XRS is just as useful a hauler of people and stuff as my base Matrix was. My boys are teenagers now, and I can bring both of them (and two of their friends) along in the Matrix without anybody worrying about whether someone forgot their deodorant. And I still get a ton of use out of the ginormous way-back, especially with the back seat folded flat.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to my XRS’s body and finish. I’m pretty sure it was in some sort of front-end accident before I got it, and the repairs were hastily done. The paint on the hood has become rough and dull, and paint has been chipping slowly from the bumper. The ground effects attached to the front bumper quickly became badly scratched and scuffed, but that’s probably due to careless parking on my part.


The previous owner left a LeBra with the car, so I tried to cover the front-end nastiness with it. That lasted only a few months because I couldn’t get over the d-bag, boy-racer image it projected.


Last year was especially unkind to my poor XRS: In March, I broke off the side mirror while backing out of my narrow, one-car garage. I ordered a replacement mirror from a wrecked Matrix on eBay and installed it myself. As a service to the entire Internet, I photographed the whole procedure and wrote how-to instructions. You’ll find them here.

I was rear-ended twice last year–in April, and again in August. The April back-end bashing did almost $3,000 in damage, but I drove my XRS home. The accident totaled the car that hit me, which felt like justice somehow. The August mishap did only minor damage to my bumper, but I also tapped the car in front of me. His car wasn’t damaged, but my fender is dented; I decided not to get it fixed in order to avoid angering the insurance gods.


Then, in late August, I broke off the ground effects from the front. The city had spent most of 2012 laying sewer in my neighborhood, and the project involved removing the surface from the main road outside my subdivision. Rain had washed out the dirt ramp they built at the pavement’s end, but I didn’t know that until I sailed off the edge and hit bottom pretty hard. I got the paving contractor to cut me a check for the damage, but considering how bad the car looked overall, I decided to pocket the money and move on.

I’m just going to leave my XRS looking like hell. It has rolled for more than 150,000 miles, it leaks a little oil, and now when I punch it hard, the “Check Engine” light sometimes comes on (especially when it’s below-freezing outside). My mechanic says the associated code is related to the VVTL-i, and that the repair costs more than the car is worth. “Just drive her like the old lady she is,” he cautioned, “and you’ll get another 50,000 miles out of her, easy.”

When I wrote about my 1989 Chevy Beretta, I mentioned that I brought my newborn first son home from the hospital in it. He turns 16 tomorrow. A beat up, almost used up Toyota Matrix will be a perfect first car for him.


With that in mind, I just bought a 2006 Ford Focus hatchback from my dad. A Focus isn’t the car of my dreams, but I bought it because it’s been reliable, Dad took good care of it, the boys and the dog all fit inside and I could pay cash for it. I haven’t had it long enough to tell its story, except to say that to my shock and surprise, it handles better than my XRS and has more accessible power in everyday driving. And with that, my Cars of a Lifetime series comes to an end.