Everybody knows that the Toyota Corolla is a paragon of economy and reliability--and, lately, it's not bad looking either. The only problem is that it has never caught on as a cool ride with young people. Back in 2002, before the Scion brand debuted, Toyota introduced the 2003 Corolla Matrix in an attempt to address this perceived shortcoming. In 2006, after a modest freshening last year, it remains an appealing item.
Americans in general are not keen on hatchbacks, so the Matrix is called a CUV, or crossover utility vehicle. That means it's a car that looks and acts a little like an SUV, but with more comfort and better mileage. The Matrix does a fine job with the utility part, with its flat, washable load floor, tie down hooks, and cargo net. The tall roof makes it easy to schlep bigger objects like TVs, and the 60/40 fold-down rear seats expand the cargo area from 21.8 to a generous 53.2 cubic feet. In addition, the front passenger seat drops forward, so you can haul long objects too, like surfboards (hint, hint).
The sport part of the picture is only partly there. If you order the Standard or the XR model, you get a 1.8-liter dual-overhead cam engine with 126 horsepower and 122 lb.-ft of torque-just like in the regular Corolla sedan. It's good for 30 mpg City, 26 Highway with the standard manual transmission, and loses 2 mpg when you order up the four-speed automatic.
Better news for sporty types is the XRS model, which gets a fatter 164 horsepower and 125 lb.-ft. of torque from its 1.8 liters. This model sports a six-speed manual, sport tuned suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and some macho body modifications. With the standard engine, though, the Matrix still scoots through traffic and hums contentedly on the interstate, but it will not get your blood boiling.
If you want to make your Matrix a little more like an SUV, you can order all-wheel-drive on the Standard and XR versions. A viscous coupling automatically sends power to the rear wheels when the front ones begin to lose traction. My Black Sand Pearl XR test car was thus equipped, and included the automatic transmission as well.
Although the Corolla sedan and Matrix are kissin' cousins under their bodywork, that skin is quite different to the eye. The Matrix, designed at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California, has a stretched, pulled look that, at least in 2003, really stood out. The roof tapers down to meet the rising window line, making those rear side windows skinny minis. The body sides feature a deep, rising crease that bursts over the rear wheels. The extended headlamp pods and chunky, shiny taillamp units display the look of today.
Inside, the tall roofline creates an airy ambiance, and the metallic gauge cluster and center console brighten up the acres of textured plastic nicely. The leather-wrapped wheel feels good in the hand, but it sits too close to the dash and there's no telescope adjustment. That may be a result of the higher sitting position compared to the Corolla sedan.
The transmission peninsula juts off the dash as in the much more upscale Lexus RX models. I didn't discover the handy bin underneath it until my last day in the car. Another upscale standard feature is a low tire pressure warning light. With today's minimal-maintenance cars, it's easy to forget to check the tires, and this light will help alert you. Proper tire pressure is safer and contributes to improved fuel economy.
One optional upscale feature is the Vehicle Stability Control system, available on the Standard and XR models. This system helps keep the car going the way you want it to during cornering by adjusting the torque of the engine and braking individual wheels as needed when it detects the tire is slipping.
Every Matrix gets air conditioning with a filter, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system, intermittent wipers, a tilt wheel, power mirrors, and more. The XR level puts in power windows and locks, and some other sporty and convenient features. The XRS gets more power, as well as fog lamps and cruise control.
My tester had an upgraded stereo with CD changer ($240), driver and passenger side and curtain airbags ($645), and an extra value package filled with things like alloy wheels, power moonroof, fog lamps, and cruise control. With the security system ($359) and transportation costs ($540), the bottom line was $21,737, after an Extra Value Package discount. You can get the basic car with no extras starting at just over $15,000.
The Matrix is the right car for today, with a charming personality, good fuel economy, and plenty of style. It is no hot rod, but neither was it intended to be one. If you like it, you will be able to drive happily and frugally without looking frumpy, and do it for a long, long, time.