Most crossover vehicles attempt to offer buyers multiple layers of utility and convenience. And while they are increasingly popular with families, they generally don’t appeal to young buyers who want driving excitement to go with their practicality. So Toyota has come up with the 2002 Matrix, a crossover concept that mixes elements of SUVs, even minivans, all with sporty compact cars. But can a machine that covers so many bases hit a home run with American’s youth?
Toyota thinks it can, and claims that the key is making the 2003 Matrix ‘‘active, accommodating, adaptable and affordable.’’ And active is actually a perfect description of Matrix styling. With a ground-hugging, rally-car style front end, especially on the top XRS, it pays more than a little homage to the Celica sport-coupe, curvy, creased side panels, with a sharply sloping window line, and the smoothly shaped rear liftgate, with its minimal glass, the Matrix looks like a machine in motion, even when it’s not.
Based on the all-new Corolla sedan, the Matrix, dubbed a Cross-Over Utility Vehicle by Toyota, rides on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase. A chassis it also shares with the Pontiac Vibe. 16-inch wheels and tires are standard, with 17-inch aluminum hoops available for the performance XRS.
To accommodate the active lifestyles of the young buyers that Toyota wants to sell the Matrix to, the very roomy, and well equipped, Matrix interior has been designed to be both stylish and versatile. Dash controls are split into two well-organized pods, with titanium-look trim. And even the Standard-grade version includes tilt wheel and an AM/FM stereo with a CD player, while red lit gauges are set deep in four chromed-ring tunnels. The shifter sits in an abbreviated rally-style center console much like its larger Highlander cousin.
The front seats are firm, supportive buckets, with a tall, minivan-like seating position. There’s tons of head room, but we found leg room to be a bit tight on the driver’s side. The same goes for the rear. Plenty for the head, a bit less for the legs. The rear bench features a standard 60/40 split seatback, and folds completely flat to expose a hard plastic load floor. That durable floor includes an adjustable cargo-track system, which allows the active Matrix owner to mount racks for bikes, snowboards or other sports equipment, or carry lots of camping gear. Up to 53.2 cubic-feet of it with the rear seats folded, and poles up to 8 feet long with the front passenger seat flat. A very adaptable setup indeed.
Matrix cargo hauling might depend on a pair of 1.8-liter, all-aluminum, dual-overhead- cam, 4-cylinder engines. Standard and XR-models get the one that makes 130 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. The performance XRS borrows its I4 from the Celica GT-S, with a much more potent 180 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque. The hot XRS comes standard with a 6-speed manual, an automatic is optional, and only in front-wheel drive. The standard and XR come with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.
The automatic points power either to the front-wheels, or through an all-wheel drive system that Toyota mislabels full-time 4-wheel drive. Since Matrix has no serious off-road intentions, there’s no transfer case, just a simple viscous coupling to transmit up to 50% of the power to the rear wheels when needed for slick roads.
Unlike in the Celica GT-S, the 180-horse engine in the Matrix feels soft on the bottom end, and revs slowly. But once it hits 6,000 rpm, there is a serious kick, and the sporty ride side of its personality emerges with a vengeance! Handling also leans towards sports car with the XRS model’s front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam suspension delivering tight, flat cornering, with little understeer. Toyota insists the Matrix is a crossover utility vehicle. But in XRS form, it handles more like a spirited high-performance compact car than a utility vehicle of any kind.
And it’s priced right, too. Base price for the standard Matrix is $14,670. Step up to the XR, and the price begins at $16,180. Choose the high-performance XRS, and pay $18,750. That puts it right in line with mini-sport-utes like Toyota’s own Rav 4, as well as hot compact sedans like the Nissan Sentra SE-R. So the Matrix is indeed affordable, as it is active, accommodating and adaptable.
Whether that will guarantee a home run in the hotly contested small car game is up to today’s young buyers. But we love the concept, and think that with the Matrix, Toyota has delivered a machine that really does cover all the bases.
Engine: 1.8-Liter, Dohc, 4-Cylinder
Torque: 125 Lb Feet