Byron's 2003 Toyota Matrix Update | The good! The bad! The weird!

Byron Hurd
·7 min read

In December, I bought a 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS to keep as a highway-friendlier alternative to daily driving my 2011 Jeep Wrangler. While "daily driving" is a bit of a misnomer under the current circumstances (your Autoblog editorial team is working from home), the fact of the matter is that spending any measurable amount of time behind the wheel of a two-door oxcart with an umbrella for a roof is just not ideal. Since I sold my 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8 over the summer, the role of "highway car" has remained uncast. You can refer to the introduction linked above for the long version, but the Matrix slots into that role nicely. 

As I mentioned in that piece, this XRS spent pretty much its entire life in Texas and New Mexico. Consequently, its undercarriage is virtually spotless. Yep, I imported a rust-free, high-mileage car to Michigan. You'd think that would be all upside, right? In reality, though, while a dry climate does wonders for preventing corrosion, a hot and sunny one wreaks havoc in other ways, especially on cars stored outdoors, which is exactly where you'll find a commuter hatchback like this one. 

I bought it knowing it needed some items addressed, and the drive home from southern New Mexico to Detroit alone accounted for nearly 2,000 miles (and more than 25 hours on the road), during which I got to know my purchase fairly well. I've already started pulling out old spare parts from previous cars (such as the six-speed shift knob above, which originally replaced the OEM piece in my 2008 Mazdaspeed3). Here are the highlights and lowlights so far, and what I've done to address some of them. Let's dive in. 

The good!

Fortunately, all of the big stuff seems to fall under this category. The shared-with-Celica engine pulls strong, shows no leaks and warms up to a consistent temperature and stays there. The transmission shifts well, with the exception of some mild balkiness in fifth and sixth gears. The linkage is a little sloppy, so that might be contributing, and I have no way of knowing when the gear oil was last changed. That's one of the items on this car's short list. All of the underhood hoses and rubber are also in surprisingly good shape, especially considering how deficient those materials are elsewhere on the car. 

As you could probably discern from my comments above, the body is pretty much flawless too, apart from normal wear-and-tear, like minor door dings and such. It also has a fresh coat of paint, but not a very good one. It's a solid 10-footer, and they clearly pulled most of the body trim off to do it (breaking some in the process, I'll note) but they did paint over the liftgate badges and there are visible runs and other blemishes just about everywhere you look up close. This car's original finish was probably completely wrecked by UV, and whoever took it in on trade decided to throw a Maaco job at it. 

Oh, and the tires are new. More on that below. 

The bad!

Sun doesn't just punish paint. Just about everything in and on this car has been embrittled by light and heat. Removing the factory head unit was an event, and even taking excessive care to handle it delicately, I still managed to lose a good third of the retention clips. The remaining few still get the job done, but it was nonetheless a messy affair. The light pipe that illuminates the air bag indicator shattered into pieces at the first attempt to remove it. 

Just about all of the exterior trim has some sort of weathering, discoloration or damage, too. All of the window seals appear to be on their last legs, as does the sole remaining rain rail insert (the driver's side one already being absent). 

All of the interior trim is likewise pretty haggard. The center console cubby broke off entirely at some point, but still rests neatly between the seats simply because they hold it in place. A few parts, such as the dashboard electrical panel cover, the dead pedal and part of the interior liftgate trim, were missing entirely. 

Also AWOL are quite a few pieces of the front-end plastic underbody tray, notably where it connects to the wheel well liners. At some point, the front bumper was replaced cheaply, as evidenced by this half-complete plastic work and the missing lower bumper trim. The holes where the clips for the lower fascia would insert are there for the world to see. It also only came with one foglight.

Those tires? They're crap. New crap, but crap. They're Ironman iMove Gen2s — just the sort of niche-cheap tire you'd expect to find on a car being sold on a cheap used car lot. A customer review on says, "Don't drive with these tires in the winter if you love your family." Sounds about right. They seem to be afraid of rain, snow, cold and heat — at this point I can't completely rule out asphalt or concrete. They're just garbage. They'll be gone by spring. 

The weird?

I've yet to purchase a car more than 10 years old that didn't exhibit some oddball factory quirk that should have been addressed years before I took ownership, but I have to admit, the Matrix threw me one of the gnarliest sliders I've ever seen. The second or third night after I brought it home, I got a 5:00 a.m. text from my folks saying that my lights were on. I hadn't even driven the car, so that seemed strange. I went outside to investigate, and sure enough, the faded orange glow of headlights long left on greeted me as the driveway came into view. Still sleepy, I reached in and fiddled with the switch until they turned off, then headed off to start my day. 

My mind immediately went to all of the usual suspects: my younger brother out fiddling on a vape break, wandering junkies looking for a forgotten wallet, something out of "Breaking Bad" (this was New Mexico, after all), but no matter which way my thoughts drifted, the solution seemed clear: A brief drive the next day juiced the battery back up, and I remembered to lock the damned thing. That should be enough to prevent any future weirdness, right?

Ron Howard: "It wasn't."

The next night, my brother came knocking on the door of the RV to let me know that the Matrix was once again illuminating the front yard. Doors? Locked. Switch? Off. Naturally, my next stop was Google, where I learned that 2003 Matrixes (and Pontiac Vibes and Toyota Corollas) shipped with a faulty headlight switch that could allow the headlight circuit to complete if exposed to dramatic temperature swings. You know, like the ones you might find in the desert. There's a TSB for it and everything.

When I'd pawed at the switch the previous morning to turn them off, I'd actually turned the high beams on, which opened the low beam circuit, shutting them off. It had worked in the moment, but it wasn't a permanent solution. Fortunately, this documentation made for a simple fix. I went ahead and ordered a used switch from a later-production model, which took care of the issue. 

All-in, the Matrix seems like a solid get-around car; I'm even enjoying zipping around town in it. Gutless though that 1.8-liter may be, the gearing more than makes up for it. With a little more TLC, I think it'll enjoy a nice retirement career as a part-time commuter. Not a bad gig.