COAL: 2003 Toyota Matrix XR – Much Better

2003 Toyota Matrix XR Front

As I described last week, I soured pretty quickly on my 2002 Camry because of cost and quality issues. For whatever reasons, that particular car mistake got in my head more than just about any other bad decision I made. After about 8 months of grumbling about the car, I was ready to take just about anything if I could rid myself of that Camry. Luckily, I found a vehicle that was inexpensive enough and fun enough that I could be happy moving on.

Despite not liking the Camry and being somewhat dissatisfied with the leasing price structure at Toyota, I was still pretty much confining myself to that company’s products. Given that I was likely to lose a bundle on the Camry after only having it for 8 months, I had to confine myself to the lower end of the Toyota line. I quickly discarded the tiny Echo as it would have been too much of a change in equipment and performance. The Corolla was a possibility (and a safe one at that) but I wanted something a little more exciting.

The car that fit the bill best for me was the Matrix 5-door hatchback, which was new for 2003. Based on the proven Corolla platform, the basic vehicle was shared (interestingly enough) with General Motors as the Pontiac Vibe. The collaboration between Toyota and GM on the Matrix/Vibe was associated with the NUMMI joint venture dating back to the Corolla/Nova in the mid-1980s, but only the Vibe was produced at the NUMMI plant in California – the Matrix was produced at Toyota’s Cambridge, Ontario plant. The only visible evidence in the Matrix of the GM connection was the use of then-current GM stereo units in place of similar Toyota units.

Brochure view of 03 Matrix

Some consider this to be one of the first “compact crossovers” because of its relatively tall wagon shape and reconfigurable interior. The rear cargo area was flat and contained a cargo track system for securing cargo. The rear seats both folded down, as did the front passenger seat, to produce a fairly large cargo area for a relatively small vehicle. One novel feature that Toyota played up was the availability of a 115-volt AC outlet in the dash for a laptop computer or (as shown in the brochure) a DJ setup. It wasn’t the mythical enthusiast “brown manual diesel wagon” but it wasn’t that far off.

Cargo area of 2003 Matrix

Similar to crossovers of today, the Matrix came in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions, with AWD intended more for improved handling during poor weather conditions than for off-road trail busting. With a 130-hp 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine from the Corolla under the hood, there wasn’t much power available for Rubicon Trail navigation anyway – I would characterize the performance as “adequate” at best, even with the 5-speed manual transmission I chose.

Driver interior of Toyota Matrix

To keep the costs reasonable but not make my new ride a plastic-wheel-cover penalty box, I picked the mid-level Matrix XR 2WD model with a 5-speed manual and several “sport packages” that gave me a power sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels, and “ground effects” add-ons front and rear. My car also had the optional (?) cruise control and the aforementioned GM stereo, in my case a 6-disc in dash CD changer. As I was eager to trade cars, I picked the particular car off the lot at the big-box Toyota retailer as I didn’t want to wait for something else coming in future shipments. The dealer was willing to deal on this car as well, as I was looking to buy the car just after the major President’s Day blizzard of February 2003 which left several feet of snow on the ground (you can still see a bunch of snow in the photos I took of the car just after I bought it). The dealer was eager to get rid of some inventory just so they could maneuver cars around the enormous snow piles more easily. My car had already seen some damage due to the snowstorm because those ground effects add-ons were quite low and some lot jockey had already dragged the front bumper over a curb and scuffed the bumper underneath. Given that the dealer was willing to package up a deal for me to take the Camry and put me in a Matrix (in a purchase this time, not a lease) with a price that wasn’t heart-stopping, I decided a few scuffs were a small downside.

2003 Toyota Matrix XR Rear View

The dealer-inflicted scuffs on the front bumper ground effects weren’t the only damage the car sustained during my ownership period. These were low enough that they would drag across virtually any curb or parking stop no matter how careful you tried to be, and eventually this repeated impact would break some of the mounting points. Odds are if you see a Matrix XR or XRS from this generation today, it will be missing at least one of these add-ons (and may be missing all of them). By 2005, Toyota had redesigned the ground effects add-ons to be higher and prevent this kind of damage.

Overall, the car was very pleasant to drive. The relatively large wheels and Corolla underpinnings made for reasonable, if unexciting, handling. As I noted previously, the 1.8 liter engine and 5-speed manual were adequate but not scintillating. AWD models lost 7 horsepower and required a 4-speed automatic, and the combination of those two drivetrain changes would have made the performance unacceptable to me, I think. I found the car very versatile and useful – as I recall, we purchased more than a few long items from the hardware store by folding down the front passenger seat and the passenger half of the rear seat. This still left an open seat for a second passenger behind the driver – a better compromise than leaving my wife behind at the store while I ran home with the supplies!

This car was the first of many cars that I have owned that used paint protection film rather than a front end mask for rock chip prevention. For whatever reason, Toyota only offered a partial front end mask for the Matrix that didn’t cover the front bumper, so I found a company that sold do-it-yourself protection film kits that were reasonably priced (on the order of $300 for the whole front end, as I recall). The instructions made the installation seem relatively simple, but the instruction sheet used an early 1990’s Ford F150 pickup with a flat hood as the installation sample. Of course, the complex curves of the Matrix hood and bumper were quite a bit more difficult to negotiate as the film had to be stretched and pulled quite a bit to fit. I think I did a reasonable job with it, given that I wasn’t a professional installer and it was my first attempt at doing this myself, but I still made quite a few mistakes that required some cutting and repairing. Despite the mistakes, I was (and still am) very happy with the film as a better method for protecting the front of a car as it is virtually invisible, requires no additional maintenance (like drying out front end masks when they got wet), and protected the car in all four seasons (I didn’t use the front end masks in the winter as I was concerned they would get salt and road grit trapped under the mask and make a worse mess than just leaving the paint unprotected).

Although I was much happier with this car than the Camry, the Matrix didn’t stay around that long either. By 2004, Toyota had developed a vehicle that has become an icon (both good and bad) and I wanted one for myself. A story for another week, though…