- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

Consumers may not agree on what to call the 2003 Toyota Matrix a small wagon, a hatchback, a little car. But many of them use the word "fun" to describe how the Matrix looks.
It's quite a compliment for the new model, which is based on Toyota's long-running Corolla and carries a manufacturer's suggested starting retail price, including destination charge, of $15,155.
In fact, whereas the median age of Corolla buyers is 45 and a majority are women, the targeted customers for the Matrix are younger, in the 20- to 30-year range, and male.
Matrix is the result of listening carefully to what is most important to young, new-car buyers, Alan DeCarr, group vice president of sales at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., said in introducing the 2003 Matrix.
Whether they are singles, couples or families, young buyers want vehicles that are high in image and high in functional utility, he said.
The Matrix combines the Corolla platform, with a 102.4-inch wheelbase, and Corolla suspension with a short wagon/hatchback body.
The Matrix is expressive, looking like it's moving forward even when it's parked. And when jazzed up with optional sport-plus package that adds fog lamps and front and rear underbody spoiler, the Matrix exterior looks like it has some customized touches, too.
All of it is done with smartly styled body panels. There's no cladding or roof rack here as there are on the Matrix sibling, the Pontiac Vibe. The two vehicles were developed together as part of the continuing Toyota-General Motors Corp. relationship at a joint manufacturing factory.
But where the Vibe has sport utility styling cues the cladding, for example the Matrix takes on a more urban youth flavor.
Inside, the Matrix continues the theme with three expressive, deep circles in the instrument panel that highlight the gauges.
Each circle is accented by a surrounding ring of shiny silver trim that, unfortunately, reflects onto the windshield in a distracting way, even on cloudy days.
The gearshift for either manual or automatic transmission Matrix vehicles is up off the floor, positioned at the lower edge of the center dashboard.
Stereo and ventilation controls are highlighted in a gray plastic area above the shifter. Four circular air vents across the dashboard are extremely adept at directing and controlling air flow.
Seats in the test XR model didn't come with quite as much bolstering on the cushions as I expected in such a fun-looking car.
But the high seat position in the tallish, nearly 61-inch-tall Matrix made entry and exit easy and allowed me to see through and around other cars. I couldn't see around trucks or SUVs, though.
If you're my size 5 feet 4 or shorter and riding in the back seat, you may feel that the sheet metal of the rear doors rises up quite high, to chin level. I noticed this as I looked out the rear-door windows.
I also noticed, though, how generous the headroom is in the Matrix. There are 40.6 inches of headroom up front and 39.8 inches in back.
Legroom is an impressive 41.8 inches in the front seat of the Matrix. This is as good as in some sport utilities.
The Matrix is available in two- and four-wheel drive. There are two four-cylinder engines offered, too, and three trim levels.
The test model had full-time, four-wheel drive, which required no input from the driver.
I drove normally, with front wheels pulling the Matrix along, and the viscous coupling between the rear differential and drive shaft worked to sense any wheel slip and would redistribute the power to the rear as needed.
It's not an off-road kind of system; it's more for helping maintain traction on slippery roads as it did during a heavy rainstorm one evening during my test drive.
I didn't lose a bit of traction and felt well-connected to the road at all times.
The ride in any weather is quite pleasant in this affordable vehicle. The Matrix feels nicely put together, with a surprising number of road bumps muted.
I felt like I was riding above the bumps and only had sharp jolts a couple times on major road expansion joints that were poorly patched.
The Matrix uses a MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam at the rear. Tires on the test XR were 16-inchers and conveyed some road noise to the interior. Wind noise, though, was minimal.
A 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder is the engine in all base and XR models and was in the test Matrix.
It had some spunk but also could sound buzzy when pressed. I didn't make highway passes very quickly, but the Matrix didn't feel like a laggard, either. I noticed that I heard the engine just about all the time.
Peak torque is 125 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm.
The Vibe has this same engine and performance numbers as the Matrix.
There is a second engine available in the Matrix. The top-of-the-line Matrix XRS comes with a 180-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-banger and six-speed manual transmission for a more sporting ride. But the XRS isn't available with four-wheel drive.
Fuel economy can be quite good in the base Matrix with two-wheel drive and manual transmission. It's rated at 29 miles a gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.
But the ratings drop on models with four-wheel drive and on the sportier Matrix XRS.
With an emphasis on functionality, the Matrix includes easy-to-fold rear seats, so cargo room grows from 15.1 cubic feet with the seats up to a maximum 53.2 feet.
Still, I have to concede I dislike the hard plastic that covers the floor of the Matrix cargo area. It's in the Vibe, too, and makes items back there from suitcases to grocery bags slide around noisily.
Toyota and Pontiac sell optional cargo kits that attach to the plastic and help customize the area, but I'd prefer a standard carpet or vinyl mat that could be removed easily for cleaning.

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