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The Toyota Matrix XRS Is an Underappreciated Hot Hatchback

I’ve come to the recent conclusion that the Toyota Matrix XRS is a vastly underappreciated hot hatchback. As you’re reading this, you probably have very little idea exactly what the Toyota Matrix is, and you think I’m completely wrong. This merely proves my point on how underrated this thing is.

Let’s hit the basics: the Toyota Matrix was a small, 5-door hatchback based on the Toyota Corolla, which came out for the 2003 model year. That alone doesn’t really have the makings of a “hot hatchback” — but the XRS model was.

The Matrix was sold along with the mechanically identical Pontiac Vibe, and the Toyota version was offered in three trim levels: an unnamed base model, a mid-level XR and the hot hatch XRS. The base versions of the Matrix and the Vibe used an unremarkable 130-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, but the XRS (and Vibe GT) had something a bit better: a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 180 horsepower, mated to a mandatory manual transmission. Yes, that’s right: these versions didn’t even offer an automatic option.

That alone proves the “hot-hatchiness” of the Vibe GT and the Matrix XRS, but the other big benefit was the engine: while 180 hp may not seem like a lot now, it was a strong figure back then. More importantly, the powertrain was also the one used in the Lotus Elise — a Toyota engine with the same high revving and variable valve timing. Imagine this now: a Toyota Corolla hatchback trim level only offered with a manual, using the engine from a fantastic sports car. It’s hard to even believe it ever existed!

But it did indeed exist, and Toyota (and Pontiac) offered the Matrix XRS and Vibe GT for the entire first generation of those models, until 2009 — and a few years into the second generation, too. These days, they’re getting harder to find: Autotrader currently shows only a handful of Matrix XRS models for sale, and a few more Vibe GT models — but they’re out there, and they’re surprisingly exciting.

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  1. An 03′ XRS was the car i learned to drive stick on, and what a car it was. Got it as a hand-me-down from an aunt and it remains the most fun car i’ve ever had. Looking back now I realize how lucky i was. The handling and acceleration were superb, you felt totally one with the vehicle. Would buy another in a heartbeat.

  2. The 2003 Matrix XRS did indeed have an automatic version. In fact, the automatic was available only in 2003. I believe the reason the automatic was only offered in 2003 is that the transmission couldn’t handle the engine, and would develop problems on or about 100K miles (if not before). I’ve had two of these very rare 2003 XRS Automatics and they were definitely fun to drive. Having the transmissions rebuilt was less fun. I have yet to try the manual transmission XRS, which I believe was offered from 2003-2008 – but I would suspect it has none of the transmission issues.

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Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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