The Toyota Matrix has always been a utilitarian choice — practical and durable, but ultimately less exciting than its voguish styling suggests. With its 2009 redesign, the hatchback remains true to those roots: A larger engine raises the performance bar a few notches, but utility is still the name of the game. This car is worth a look, but with competitors encroaching from every side, it doesn't bring as much to the field as it once did.
The Matrix comes in three trim levels: the basic Standard, a better-equipped S and a sportier XRS. All-wheel drive is optional on the Matrix S. Click here to see a comparison with the 2008 model. The Matrix shares roots with the Toyota Corolla and Scion xB, and Pontiac markets a related hatchback in the Vibe.
I drove a front-wheel-drive Matrix S with a manual transmission.
How it Moves
Most trim levels have Toyota's 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which provides a healthy 158 horsepower. A 132-hp four-cylinder comes only on the base model, and manual or automatic transmissions are available with either engine. Here's how the specs pan out:
|Base||S, XRS||S AWD|
|Engine||1.8-liter four-cylinder||2.4-liter four-cylinder||2.4-liter four-cylinder|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||132 @ 6,000||158 @ 6,000||158 @ 6,000|
|Torque (lbs.-ft., @ rpm)||128 @ 4,400||162 @ 4,000||162 @ 4,000|
|Transmission(s)||5-speed man. or 4-speed auto||5-speed man. or 5-speed auto||4-speed auto|
|EPA gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)||26/32 (man.); 25/31 (auto)||21/28 (man.); 21/29 (auto)||20/26 (auto)|
|Source: Automaker data|
My test car had the 2.4-liter engine, which provides ample low-end torque for quick launches from stops. Pedal-down acceleration produces mild torque steer, but it never overwhelms the driving experience. The five-speed manual has a solid, hefty feel. It's much like the transmission in the Mazda3, another favorite stick shift of mine, but its throws feel even more precise than the Mazda. The Matrix's clutch pedal is light enough for sustained rush-hour use, and when the highway clears, 60-to-70 mph acceleration is workable in fifth gear and energetic in fourth. Some compact cars run out of steam when loaded with people, but even with two adult passengers in tow, I never felt wanting for more. In any case, this engine's power feels eminently more usable than the original Matrix's 170-hp, rev-like-hell 1.8-liter's ever did.
During spirited driving, acceleration lag becomes an issue. Stab the gas pedal to match revs as you downshift, and the response can be tepid. At least it's consistent, so drivers will learn to be patient — though patience isn't a becoming trait in a car with performance leanings. Many of today's stick-shift-equipped compacts have the same issue, though that doesn't lessen its annoyance.
I didn't drive the 1.8-liter engine, but I've driven it in the new Corolla and it's a smooth, if unexciting, powertrain. The Corolla's four-speed automatic lags a bit in kickdown performance, however, so if you're buying a base Matrix with the automatic, make sure to see how it does with highway passing.
Four-wheel-disc antilock antilock brakes are standard; the Matrix S and XRS have slightly larger discs than the base model. The pedal feels a bit spongy in the first inch or so of travel; after that, its response is strong, and ABS never kicks in prematurely.
The base Matrix and front-wheel-drive S version have an independent front suspension and semi-independent, torsion beam rear. The setup yields reasonably firm cornering with less body roll than the xB, but the ride becomes a bit choppy over bumpy pavement. Potholes and speed bumps elicit unrefined noises from the rear suspension and occasionally a rattle or two from the headliner.
At highway speeds, road and wind noise are considerable, but the engine stays unobtrusive. The steering wheel starts to feel a bit jittery around 75 mph, but at slower speeds it retains a secure, on-center feel. Turn-in precision is impressive: Being a front-wheel-drive car, the Matrix tends to understeer during hard cornering, but I was surprised by how well it held the line. That precision isn't readily apparent at lower speeds, where the wheel turns easily — meaning there's a lot of power assist — and sometimes feels a bit numb.
The XRS and AWD S trims have a fully independent double-wishbone rear suspension, which likely offers a more refined ride. The XRS includes a strut tower brace under the hood to further manage body roll, and its 18-inch alloy wheels eclipse those on less-expensive trims. My tester came with 16-inch steel wheels.
Due to a revised steering setup, the XRS' turning circle is 38.1 feet. Base and S models turn in 36.0 feet, which seems more appropriate for a compact car; the AWD S comes in at 36.7 feet.
How it Looks
Toyota didn't reinvent the wheel with this version; the new face looks like a logical progression from the old model. The lights appear lower and leaner, and the bumper's chunky flanks seem on the verge of swallowing what lies between. The aggressiveness fits on this car, and it bears some resemblance to Toyota's forthcoming Venza crossover.
Overall length has increased by less than an inch, and ride height is about half an inch lower. Sadly, the liftgate no longer incorporates the previous model's glass hatch.
Sixteen-inch steel wheels with plastic covers come on the base model and Matrix S. For its price, the S really ought to have alloy rims, but they're optional. The XRS has standard 18-inch alloys.
True to its roots, the Matrix's cabin has a utilitarian bent, though it feels more refined than the also-utilitarian xB's. Though the dashboard plastics are hard to the touch, their quality is respectable, with wraparound textures that look rich from any distance. The gauges and stereo controls have first-rate quality, too, and panel fit is generally excellent.
Perhaps because there is so much obvious quality there, the cabin's weaknesses stand out even more. The climate controls are simple but awfully clunky, and the ceiling is a vast canopy of mouse fur. Toyota had an opportunity to leapfrog the competition with features — and outgrow the old Matrix's basic feel — but things like extending sun visors, illuminated vanity mirrors and a rear center armrest are still absent. Though rare in this class, those sorts of amenities are beginning to pop up here and there; the Volkswagen Rabbit and the forthcoming Hyundai Elantra Touring have all three.
The upgraded JBL audio system in my test car belted out decent sound, but it lacks a USB port for iPod integration, which Toyota says isn't even available as a dealer accessory. Instead you'll have to make do with a basic auxiliary jack. The xB has an iPod port standard.
The seats are well-padded, but I thought the fabric felt sandpaper-rough in certain areas. I'm a fan of the furrier stuff in the new Corolla; senior editor David Thomas, on the other hand, preferred the Matrix's upholstery for its durability. The Matrix XRS gets its own sport fabric, which we haven't tested out.
Roominess & Utility
Toyota says the seats sit slightly lower than before, but I still found the driver's seat high for a compact car. Headroom is good in both rows (I'm about 6 feet tall, and my test car did not have the optional moonroof). The inboard side of the dashboard, which extends downward to incorporate the shifter, encroaches on the driver's legroom. Legroom is better in back.
If rough-and-tumble utility is your thing, the Matrix comes through in spades. The rear load floor is covered in durable plastic, as are the second-row seatbacks. When the seats are folded, the cargo area becomes a veritable deck. Rubber strips along the floor keep cargo in place, and most trims have a fold-flat front passenger seat with a hard plastic backing. Drivers with boatloads of plug-in electronics will appreciate the 115V household outlet that's standard on the S and XRS.
|Cargo Room Compared (cu. ft.)|
|Cargo volume behind 2nd row||Cargo volume behind 1st row|
|VW Rabbit 4-door||15.0||46.0|
|*With rear seats folded; 63.1 cubic feet w/rear seats removed.|
Source: Automaker data for 2008 models, excluding Matrix (2009).
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the Matrix. Standard features include all-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. That's a major improvement over the '08 model, which offered these features as options. All five seats have head restraints, and active head restraints are standard up front. An electronic stability system runs an affordable $250 — compare that to $450 on the Rabbit, $440 on the Caliber and $650 on the outgoing Matrix. The system is standard on the Matrix XRS.
Latch child-seat anchors are located in the outboard rear seats. Parents will appreciate the clearly marked top-tether anchors, accessible by flipping up plastic covers in the cargo floor behind the seat.
Features & Pricing
Excluding the destination charge, the Matrix starts at $16,190, roughly the same as the outgoing model equipped with similar features. Major standard features include A/C, a basic CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack and power mirrors. Power windows and locks with remote entry run $990. For $18,260, the Matrix S includes those features along with the 2.4-liter engine, a rear wiper and more. All-wheel drive adds $2,140, but it also includes an automatic transmission, which costs $1,190 otherwise.
The Matrix XRS starts at $20,660 and comes with 18-inch rims, a sport-tuned suspension and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. Many of those features are optional on lesser trims. Other options include a navigation system, a moonroof and a premium stereo. Cruise control runs $250 on any trim.
Fully loaded, expect the Matrix to top out around $24,000.
Matrix in the Market
I suspect the Matrix's biggest hindrance will be its price. For the cost of a base model with power accessories and cruise control, many competitors throw in alloy wheels, larger engines or better stereos. The Matrix's cargo area compares favorably, but the car makes no waves in driving dynamics or cabin quality.
The Matrix may ultimately draw those who need maximum utility in a small package, and its sporty character might snag a few performance junkies. For those who want a grocery-getter with a bit more cargo space than their last sedan — including my grandparents, who own the outgoing Matrix — there are a lot of competitors that do it for a lot less cash.
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