COAL: 2003 Toyota Matrix–The Red Pill

My wife held out as long as she could, but had finally had her fill of cramming two child seats in the back of her beloved but tiny Corolla coupe. We struggled under the payment on our loaded minivan, but she insisted on a brand new car. That limited our options plenty, yet when she learned that three child seats fit across the new Toyota Matrix’s back seat, she went right out and bought one.

The Matrix is a tall wagon built on the Corolla platform. I’ve always thought it was the spiritual descendant of the tall Tercel wagon from the ’80s. She bought the base model, which could be had for an almost entry-level price but still came with some nice features–air conditioning, a CD stereo, automatic headlights and an outside thermometer on the dashboard. You’d think it would have been cost effective for Toyota to throw in the power windows and locks that came standard on the up-level XR and XRS, but no luck.

The base Matrix’s 130 HP, 1.8 -liter 1ZZ engine was tuned for economy, yielding 30 mpg in town and 35 mpg on the highway. That economy came at the cost of acceleration: It took a little patience to bring the Matrix up to highway speed, but once there it cruised happily.

My wife would own only manually-shifted automobiles. You’d think that would have made my love strong enough to overcome any of marriage’s challenges. Alas. After our lawyers worked out who got what, I ended up with her car. While I wasn’t thrilled to be driving around in a car that reminded me of her, the Matrix turned out to be incredibly practical as I moved three times in three years before settling into my final post-divorce home.

The Matrix’s wayback held a prodigious amount of stuff. In those transient years I moved all manner of furniture in it–most notably, a six-foot-long dining table and six chairs in one trip. My recliner threatened not to fit, but I maneuvered it 98% of the way in and tied down the hatch. I even moved a fully assembled gas grill in it.

Four things make the first-generation Matrix a great hauler. First, the hatch opens tall and the opening is wide. (The glass portion of the hatch also opens, which is surprisingly useful.) Second, the load floor is level with the bottom of the hatch opening, thus eliminating lift-over. Third, the back seats fold perfectly flat. The front passenger seat also folds forward flat; I’ve moved long pieces of lumber and pipe, laid front corner to back corner, in my Matrix. Finally, this wagon’s extreme height creates gobs of space. From my driver’s-seat perch, the headliner is a whopping nine inches above my head, and I’m six feet tall.

My manually-shifted Matrix was not all skittles and beer, however. The clutch was balky in first gear. Even after I learned the clutch’s nuances, I still stalled it a few times a year. And then, at 80,000 miles, the transmission failed outright. The Matrix forums are full of stories of this five-speed tranny failing just as mine did. With demand being greater than supply, the new transmission set me back north of $3,000.

When the Matrix was new, reviews routinely panned the driving position, calling it awkward. Maybe it’s because I’m tall and angular, but I thought the Matrix was plenty comfortable. I often drove it all day without fatigue. I just tried to avoid driving into the sun as it rose or set, because the tall roof and correspondingly tall windshield made the normal-size sun visors useless. While I’m complaining, I might as well add that I found the all-red dash lights to be annoyingly bright at night. I kept them turned down low. They were set deep into round recesses of varying sizes, and were visible only when the car was on, which was a cool touch for an economy car.

Despite the limp acceleration and squint-o-matic morning and evening driving, the Matrix really grew on me. It was a great family hauler. I could fit my two large dogs, my two growing sons and a weekend’s worth of luggage into the Matrix, all without anyone’s personal space being invaded. We took plenty of trips together in our little red car.

I like to hit the road just for the heck of it, too. On a weekend road trip with a friend, as we crossed over from Indiana into Illinois on US 40 we noticed an abandoned brick road paralleling the modern highway. It was US 40’s older alignment, and we saw bits and pieces of it for 60 miles. We stopped just west of the state line for a look. As I tried to turn my car around on a narrow access road, I backed it off the edge, lifting the front wheels just enough so that they could get no traction. We got out, and there behind us was the old brick road with grass growing through it.

A woman who lived nearby came out to help, as did a passing motorist. We ended up lifting the front end of the car and pushing it right down the hill onto the old brick road. I backed my car up to get a good running start and then made a break for it up the hill. The bottom of my car scraped as it went over, but no fluids or parts trailed behind me so I figured all was well. I was probably the first person in at least 50 years to drive on those bricks!

I also took my sons on a spring break trip to Washington, DC in the Matrix. We took the long way home, driving along the old National Road, much of which became US 40. It was great to see the countryside out east; we especially enjoyed Maryland. My Matrix struggled through western Maryland, where it gets hilly. Going up Polish Mountain, I could coax no more than 45 mph from it, the engine whining all the way.

My Matrix met its end on that trip. I’d always wanted to drive over the suspension bridge in Wheeling and was excited finally to get my chance. We came off the bridge on Wheeling Island and then crossed a smaller bridge over the Ohio River’s back channel into Bridgeport, Ohio. And then, I ran a red light I didn’t see–and socko!

Remarkably, none of us was injured. My youngest son seemed not to know what had happened and was puzzled that I was checking on him until he tried to open his door, which was stuck shut from the impact. We got out and walked around the debris from the other car, including its entire front bumper, and then sat on the curb as an ambulance and a fire truck came screaming to the scene.

I learned that if you have to have an accident five hours from home, you (obviously) want to walk away from it–but you also want it to total your car, so you don’t have to deal with having it towed home or fixed in a distant town. My insurance company cut me a check and I went car shopping. I ended up with another Matrix, this time the top-of-the-line XRS with a more powerful engine. I’ll tell its story next.