Overview

The 2009 Toyota Matrix is a new, second-generation design developed in tandem with the Corolla sedan. In essence, the Matrix is the wagon/hatch version of the Corolla. In fact, the company refers to it as the Toyota Corolla Matrix. With edgier styling inside and out and four versions to choose from, the Matrix makes a sensible choice for many people.

Perhaps the oldest piece of hardware on the new Matrix is the all-wheel-drive system introduced on the RAV4 for the 2006 model year. Everything else is newer, making the Matrix an all-new car. The 1.8-liter engine is new. Even better news is the high-revving version that was poorly matched to the previous-generation Matrix has been replaced by a larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the Camry. Gearboxes, brakes, steering and safety systems have all been redone. The body work is all new, also, though the design is an evolutionary update of the previous version.

The new 2009 Toyota Matrix is bigger than the previous version, but Toyota hasn't lost sight of this being its smallest crossover vehicle. You can carry four big people or drop three seats and slide a short board inside; four doors make loading kids, dogs and miscellaneous cargo a cinch.

All run on regular unleaded fuel and rate at least 20 mpg in the city; the 2.4-liter upgrade engine pushes 30 mpg on the highway, while the smaller engine and five-speed manual, which are as much fun to drive as the big automatics, run mid 20s in the city and low 30s highway. Given Toyota's history we can't imagine they will require much in the way of expensive repairs or maintenance. Engines were a weak point on the previous-generation Matrix, so the 2009 represents a big upgrade.

Check out the Matrix if you want the reliable reputation of the Corolla with less visual boredom, if you need a urban runabout that's cheap to buy and run, or just because it's logically all you really need in a land of average speeds hovering in the mid-30-mph range. The Matrix doesn't stand out anywhere as much as it provides a useful, better than average package for any purpose short of pickup-sized building materials or a trip to the red carpet. In short, the new Toyota Matrix is a very sensible choice.

By price and hatchback design, the Matrix slots into multiple categories for cross-shoppers, including roomy compact cars such as the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Subaru Impreza, and VW Golf; small vans and crossovers such as the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage/Hyundai Tucson, Mazda5, Nissan Rogue; and the less-easily categorized Chevrolet HHR, Dodge Caliber, Scion xD, and Suzuki SX4.

Model Lineup

The 2009 Toyota Matrix comes in three defined models, although we treat the Matrix S AWD (all-wheel drive) as a separate model.

The standard Toyota Matrix uses a 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual gearbox and comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, AM/FM/CD stereo compatible with MP3/WMA files, input jack and XM satellite radio, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Optitron (electroluminescent) gauges with tachometer, power mirrors, intermittent wipers, engine immobilizer, and cargo cover.

Options include alloy wheels, six-speaker radio upgrade, power locks/windows, keyless entry, cruise control, moonroof, lighter, an all-weather package (heated mirrors, intermittent rear wiper, rear-seat heat ducts), electronic stability control, and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Matrix S comes with the 2.4-liter engine and five-speed gearbox. Standard features include the six-speaker radio, power windows/locks, keyless entry and intermittent rear wiper plus a 115-volt AC outlet and larger rear brakes. Options include a JBL sound system or navigation with real-time traffic (you can't have both), moonroof, rear spoiler, cruise control, electrochromic interior mirror w/compass, lighter, 17-inch alloy wheels, the all-weather package, electronic stability control and a five-speed automatic.

Matrix S AWD uses the 2.4-liter engine, a four-speed automatic and all-wheel drive; it also includes a fully independent rear suspension, larger rear brakes, and the all-weather package. Options on the all-wheel drive are similar to S, excepting the all-weather and five-speed automatic.

Matrix XRS models come with the 2.4-liter and five-speed manual, plus seat fabric upgrade, 215/45R18 tires on alloy wheels, front strut brace, electronic stability/traction control, three-spoke leather steering wheel, rear spoiler, fog lamps, and the independent rear suspension and big rear brakes. XRS options are limited to the JBL sound system or navigation, moonroof, cruise control, lighter, all-weather, and five-speed automatic transmission.

Safety features that come on all models include front airbags, front side airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes with brake assist, tire pressure monitors, and daytime running lights. Electronic stability control is standard on XRS and optional on others.

Walkaround

The 2009 Toyota Matrix is just slightly larger than its predecessor though it looks significantly larger. It's a fraction of an inch longer and lower than the previous model.

Three factors add to its visual size: First, the nose is sleeker, with lights that more closely parallel the Camry, S and XRS models have a deeper chin than before, and the grille opening sweeps cleanly up and outboard on the hood, becoming the base of the windshield pillar. The second contributor is the inch-wider rear track which carries more visual weight further aft. Finally, the C-pillar (the roof support behind the back door) is very thick and the side window has been removed, with just a sliver of curved glass at the end, leading into the hatch glass.

The longer, lower front end of S and XRS models employs outer black nacelles for fog lamp housings and the center section is dark to the bottom for a more aggressive look. The S and XRS also have different lower trim all around the body and the dark material that shows on the seams between the panels and main bodywork gives a hint of the add-on look, a situation more pronounced on light-color cars.

In profile the front side windows resemble a wine glass on its side; the upper side curved along its length and the lower side scoops downward, for a good view of the mirror without the mirror blocking any forward or side vision, and then begins the taper upward to the rear. Painted mirrors and door handles, lack of any side moldings, and just two pieces of glass keep visual clutter to a minimum.

Seventeen-inch wheels make the best of big wheel wells while the rear spoiler serves as a punctuation point to an otherwise near-hemispherical rear end, and auxiliary sunshade for rear-seat riders.

It's no stretch to consider Matrix the wagon or hatchback version of the Corolla, indeed the official name is Corolla Matrix. The Corolla is about seven inches longer and half that lower, excepting headroom has larger interior dimensions but a smaller trunk. The Matrix hatchback eases loading awkward objects, the upright stance gives a slightly better view of traffic, and it offers all-wheel drive and a rear wiper for inclement weather. Expect a Matirx to cost about $1,000 more than a similarly equipped Corolla.

Interior Features

Inside, however, any relation to a Corolla vanishes at the first glimpse of the dash, the Matrix trading conservative for a more stylish look with sweeping metal-look surfaces on both sides of the instrument cluster. Two large omni-directional vents peer out the top like bug eyes and frame the gauges that include round dials for speed and engine revs and an oblong unit for ancillary information.

At this price point the materials include fabric upholstery and door panels, with plastic on trim pieces such as lower doors. It doesn't look cheap or like this is where the money was saved, and all the switchgear has a quality feel to it. Colors carry a fire theme, with either Ash (light gray) or Charcoal (very dark gray) to choose from. A variety of storage spaces and sizes can be found within driver's reach, and most have a nonskid, quieting rubber mat on the bottom, a big improvement over the slippery surface that came standard on the previous-generation Matrix.

Manually adjusted front buckets are well-placed for tall driver headroom and short driver visibility, and provide good support for the length of time it takes to burn a tank of gas, which is a long time. The wheel tilts and telescopes but the latter's travel is limited and, with the clutch pedal much closer than the brake pedal, may require some minor driver adaptation.

The rear bench seat is a 60/40 split with the narrow part behind the driver where it should be, and easily folds down unless the front seat is far rearward.

Despite the loss of a half-inch in rated headroom and four inches in hip room because of measurement standards, the rear seat is generally bigger than before and we put a pair of 6-foot-3-inch riders back there with head clearance. There are three belts, used simultaneously only by kids and waif-like models, and the rear-seat floor is almost flat with only a slight rise up to the console.

The illuminated gauges are easy to see regardless of conditions, and forward viewing is good unless you need to actually see the hood to gauge where it is. Direct rear view isn't bad either with no big central headrest in the way, but your first head turn to check a rear quarter lane change will show just how big those C-pillars are.

Three-ring climate controls deliver air where and when you want it without excessive fan noise; AC is standard. Primary operating controls are on steering column stalks, with less-frequent items like the optional stability control defeat on the dash; the shifter (automatic or manual) rides on a perch off the lower dash, while a conventional handbrake is in the console.

New for 2008 is an entry-level navigation option (S, XRS only) that does not use voice-recognition or Bluetooth. However, it does voice guidance, offers XM real-time traffic (for subscribers), a clear 7-inch screen, and the intuitive operation set by Lexus. Unfortunately, there is only so much space in the dash, so you can not get the navigation system and the high-level JBL sound system in the same car.

Matrix has nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo area behind the rear seats, with some small bins underneath the floor; if you want to hide cargo from view there's an optional tonneau you attach at the corners. The floor (and rear seatback) has plastic runners, there are tie-down rings, and the right front-seat backrest folds flat for long items or a place to work the laptop on break.

Driving Impressions

As mentioned, two engines are available, but the 1.8-liter engine is used only in the base model. However, we found the 1.8-liter engine sportier and more enthusiastic than the 2.4-liter. It's not as powerful, but it's more eager and entertaining in response, more of a driver's engine.

The smaller engine also gets significantly better mileage than the 2.4-liter, averaging 4-5 mpg higher ratings. With the four-speed automatic you'll lose 1 mpg or so from the 1.8-liter and be pushing it fairly hard for onramps or carting a full load up a hill. We found the five-speed version is quite happy to have you beat the snot out of it and still get decent mileage. So we recommend getting the manual if you get the 1.8-liter.

The 1.8-liter engine EPA fuel economy ratings are 26/32 city/highway mpg for manual transmission models and 25/31 for the automatic transmission model powered by a 1.8-liter engine. The 1.8-liter is rated at 132 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 128 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400 rpm. This 16-valve four-cylinder engine features Dual VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on both the intake and exhaust camshafts that helps it balance performance and economy.

The 2.4-liter engine comes on all other models. The 2.4 offers a choice of five-speed manual or five-speed automatic except the AWD version which only comes with a four-speed automatic. The 2.4-liter engine nets 26 hp over the 1.8 but it's the additional 34 lb-ft of torque you'll notice and use the most because winding it up doesn't add a lot of speed or any pizzazz it simply adds more noise. Both engines use regular unleaded, significant given that some cars call for premium. The 2.4-liter engine with five-speed automatic transmission gets an EPA-rated 21/29 City/Highway mpg. The 2.4-liter is a 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder engine with VVT-i is rated at 158 hp at 6000 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm.

The midrange power makes the 2.4-liter practical but more the non-driver's engine as it merely goes about its business. Clutch and shifter effort from the manual transmission are relaxed, the latter giving the gear requested but not as precise as class leaders. And the automatics all behave nicely.

Regardless of drive system or engine, the Matrix comes across quite polished for an economy car, the only negative is a tendency to catch and grab on bumpy roads and surface transitions under acceleration.

The Matrix AWD is the best choice for the Snow Belt. Its four-speed automatic transmission and hardware in the electronically controlled all-wheel-drive are similar to the system used in the RAV4 (though the Matrix doesn't get the RAV's locked 4WD mode). Normally, the all-wheel-drive system sends all power to the front wheels, which is best for fuel economy. But when slippery conditions demand it, the AWD system automatically diverts up to 45 percent of the power to the rear wheels. There is no driver action required and you'll never know it's working until you see the front-drive Matrix stuck in the snow next to you while you move onward. Any dynamic change you note on test drives is more likely a result of the extra weight than the added rear drive.

That isn't to say the all-wheel drive might handle or ride slightly better because it shares the independent rear suspension with the XRS. The IRS delivers finer control of suspension travel, and perhaps more of it, maintaining rear tire contact and a softer ride on the S-AWD.

The XRS keeps the control factor, but the ride isn't quite as good because the 18-inch wheel/tire package has far less sidewall and because the XRS uses firmer suspension calibrations. Those 18-inch wheels also take away steering lock to a point where the wee XRS needs just a few inches less space for U-turn than an eight-passenger Sequoia. Interestingly, we found the 18-inch BFGoodrich TA KDW tires that offer such prodigious grip and account for much of the XRS better handling also run quieter than the Bridgestone Turanzas.

Disc brakes are used all 'round on all models and they come with antilock (ABS) and Brake Assist functions. The disc brakes get bigger as you move up the model line, yet all get the job done fuss-free; you're not going to be going that fast.

If there's a weak point in the Matrix driving it's the electric power steering, and you can't blame the electric steering because other cars use it with better results. Steering effort is low for parking maneuvers and gets higher with speed and cornering load as you would expect, especially on the XRS, and it goes where you point it, but it feels relatively dull and doesn't have a lot of return-to-center force, so you may find yourself steering back to straight ahead more than you're used to.

Summary

The Toyota Matrix provides the economy-minded pricing and operation of a compact car with the practicality of a hatch. All-wheel drive is available, an important option for those who need it that not all competitors offer. One never feels something is missing or left out, especially with the addition of a navigation system, and the new styling won't be dated before the next version of Windows or iPhone.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report after test driving all the various models of the Toyota Matrix in North Carolina.


Copyright © 1994-2008 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

G.R. Whale

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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