Mathematics on a level as simple and intuitive as addition are taken for granted by most of humanity, and we depend on that to survive and guide what we call instinct. If you have two apples and add another two apples, you get four apples. This concept is applied subconsciously throughout our life to inform many of our decisions, both minute and massive, on a daily basis. Of course, an automobile is the perfect place to play around with mathematics. Trying to squeeze more lateral G’s and horsepower out of a platform is what manufacturers build their names and reputations on, and how tuners make a living after the manufacturers are satisfied with their creations.
Usually, mathematics works. Add some individual pieces together that, taken separately, all are a net gain, and the sum of their parts is an equally excellent combination. A nimble platform, a high-quality turbo, and a good transmission transform a good car into a great one.
However, this is a story about a car that so drastically fell short of what the math implied that it had the potential to raze mathematics all the way down to the 20,000 year old African foundation of the science.
This is a 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS. The Matrix was, depending on who you ask, a small wagon, one of the first modern crossovers, or a minivan that forgot it needed sliding doors. Regardless, it was built on the same shared architecture as the ninth-generation Toyota Corolla and was a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, with GM building the uniquely-bodied but same-underpinnings Pontiac Vibe. Both worked together at the beacon of the American-Japanese automaker corporate partnerships, the NUMMI plant, which is now where new Model 3s are blasted into shopping malls from.
(image: Toyota USA)
The base Matrix was an excellent car. It used one of the it used one of the most reliable Toyota powerplants of all time: the 1ZZ-FE, a dual cam 1.8 liter I4 that was used in cars ranging from the Toyota Corolla to the Lotus Elise. It got fantastic mileage for its cavernous size, and offered the headroom and utility that later crossovers promised, but without the wannabe SUV appearance. It even came as a 4WD model, which was and still is an uncommon feature of most hatchbacks. Manuals and automatics were available, and every owner of a base Matrix or Vibe I have ever encountered has told me that they drove a rolling life hack because it was such a trouble-free and convenient vehicle.
(image: Toyota USA)
The XRS trim took that base Matrix and juiced it up into a hot hatch. A ground effects kit for appearance was the only indication anything was different from the outside, but open the hood, and the 1ZZ-FE’s Mr. Hyde was swapped out for its Jekyll-esque sibling, the 2ZZ-GE. Using the same block but a different bore and stroke, the 2ZZ pumped 180 HP out of 1.8 naturally aspirated liters, no small feat for 2003. It also featured VVTL-i, which is basically the Toyota implementation of VTEC - a cam profile change that would engage via oil pressure at high RPMs, to give the valves more time to do their job and bump up the power at the top end. And what a top end - Toyota set the fuel cut at 8,200 RPM on this motor in the Matrix XRS. The 2ZZ, like many of Toyota’s finest performance motors, featured a head developed by Yamaha, and I can assure you that the sound this engine created was exquisite.
So where do you go wrong with the XRS? A great, livable base model, and one of Toyota’s greatest four cylinders, all in one sporty package. I bought mine for a paltry sum after doing this mental math and assuming that they were one of the most overlooked cars of the 21st century, but before I test drove it more than half a mile. And it only took a month or two of ownership to realize that kindergarten arithmetic had misled me.
The first and most obvious problem was that the 2ZZ-GE, with its high compression ratio of 11.5:1, needed exclusively 91 octane or higher to not detonate itself into oblivion, and regardless of how hard or gently the car was driven, it returned an average 20 mpg. Right off the bat, the idea of low cost of ownership was taking a significant beating, since my MK3 Supra Turbo I also owned at the time at least gave me 22 highway. This terrible economy would have been more tolerable if the car actually felt like it was fast or in any way fun… but it never felt close to either. Even the impeccable motor missed the mark in this car: the VVTL-i cam switch was tuned to engage so late that it was difficult to actually keep the car in the more aggressive cam profile under full throttle at redline shifts.
(image: Toyota USA)
The six-speed manual the XRS had optionally was positioned oddly in the dash, in a similar fashion to the EP3 Civic Si, but without a modicum of the comfort the Civic offered. Additionally, rowing gears constantly felt like playing the world’s cheapest Initial D arcade cabinet. I genuinely felt like I was going to snap every single linkage if I attempted anything more intense than a granny shift. I seriously have never in my life driven a manual transmission that felt this horrible, and I need you to know there is zero hyperbole here. I never have felt poor design through the palm of my hand like I did with this car.
The open differential up front meant that every time I attempted to get a halfway decent stoplight launch to hear the engine rev out, I mostly just heard one single wheel peeling away. The still-stock-Matrix fuel tank size (just a tiny bit over 13 gallons) meant that on any decent length road trip, I was stopping for gas, the gauge fully on E, every 200ish miles. The suspension was supposedly upgraded from the stock Matrix, but the nearly 60/40 weight split, front/rear, meant that “handling” was defined by ploughing like an ox under power, and snap-oversteering like an SW20 under braking.
I don’t take glee in writing this story. The Matrix XRS was brilliant, on paper, and I think with either some choice upgrades, or a bit more development of a few select components from the factory, it could have been a true Si or GTI competitor for buyers who preferred a little more room. A Toyota five-door, manual, NA screamer hot hatch is something that absolutely should be a home run for any Japanese car enthusiast in theory; the math just didn’t work out on this one in practice.