There's a youth movement afoot at Toyota as the brand attempts to broaden its base and bring new buyers into the fold. Witness the Matrix.

Matrix comes from blending the qualities of a compact sedan with those of a small SUV. Powered by a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that drives the front wheels, it was designed at Toyota's California styling studio. It is, in the company's words, a "Street Performance Utility."

With a short nose, sloping windshield and a tall roofline, it resembles a miniature minivan. Matrix comes in standard, XR and XRS models. Prices start at $14,670 and range to $19,330 for the top XRS, which has the 180-horsepower engine and six-speed transmission of the Celica GTS. An all-wheel-drive model is offered with the base engine and automatic transmission for those who want all-weather security.

The Pontiac Vibe is a similar car, and it uses most of the same components and interior design. The Vibe is built at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in California, while the Matrix is built in Canada. Toyota and General Motors jointly own NUMMI.

The first thing you notice about the Matrix XRS is bold styling you wouldn't normally expect from Toyota. The front spoiler, ground-effects side sills and high waistline give it a street-fighter look that has its roots on the West Coast. The base model looks smoother because it doesn't have the deep front spoiler.

The XRS has plenty of spunk. Its 180-horsepower engine performed strongest when revved hard, but it also had more than adequate midrange power. The six-speed transmission provides a gear for every driving situation. I found the XRS to be just as adept at slogging along in town as it was screaming through the gears to hurry down a freeway ramp. It takes a watchful eye on the speedometer to keep from going too fast on the freeway.

Inside, the Matrix and Vibe are nearly identical. The instrument panel has gauges with red numerals and bright chrome trim rings. The gearshift is mounted in a pod that comes out of the bottom portion of the instrument panel. The stubby gear lever is close to the driver's hand and shifts easily. Selecting reverse can be a bit of a challenge, however. The shift pattern has reverse forward and to the left, next to first gear. To keep the driver from grabbing reverse instead of first, a strong detent is built into the linkage. Also, a beeper sounds when the car is in reverse.

The tall cabin has a number of benefits. Not only is it easy to get in and out, but there is generous leg- and headroom in both front and back seats. The upright seating position gives a commanding view of the road without sitting up as tall as an SUV. The front seats were quite comfortable, and the back seat folds down quickly to create a flat load floor. Two parallel channels in the floor have sliding anchors to facilitate fastening down cargo. The front passenger seat folds forward and has a hard surface so it can be used like a table, but it a lso enables long items such as a step ladder, skis or lumber to be slipped inside. The center console has a 115-volt standard plug outlet for powering computers, phones and the like.

The center console has dual cupholders and a two-level storage bin. Rear-seat passengers get fold-out cupholders, too.

The Matrix XRS has a nicely buttoned down ride, and it takes turns surprisingly flat in spite of its tall silhouette.

The Matrix is only the first wave of Toyota's effort to connect with young buyers. About a year from now, the company will unveil the Scion brand, which is "a youth-oriented complement to the Toyota-brand banner." Scion, says Toyota, will target those "who seek out the newest trends in style and motion." In the meantime, the Matrix will be Toyota"s youth magnet.

Price
The base price of the test car was $19,330. Options included the all-weather package, premium AM/FM with six-disc, tilt moonroof, floor mats, bumper protector and cargo mat

The sticker price was $20,345.

Warranty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: Matrix is a small car capable of holding five people or plenty of gear. It is as practical as a small SUV, yet drives like a compact sports sedan. The XRS has 180 horsepower, a six-speed gearbox and gets good fuel mileage.

Counterpoint: The West Coast-oriented styling that may take a while to catch on in the Midwest. Selecting reverse is a bit awkward, but that is intentional so drivers won't mistake it for first.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 1.8-liter, 180-hp 4-cyl.
Transmission: Six-speed Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Curb weight: 2,800 lbs.
Base price: $19,235
As driven: $20,345
Mpg rating: 25 city, 30 hwy.
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