ASHLAND, Ala. -- Strips of white paint defining edges of the asphalt become our guide so we can keep all four tires on track while tearing through curves on twisty route 281 in the Appalachian Mountains of northeastern Alabama.
Objective of this Alabama jaunt on pavement ranging from urban streets and multi-lane freeways to snaky two-lane mountain roads is to assess the poise and capability of a sporty new crossover utility vehicle (CUV) which carries the badge of Toyota.
It's the 2009 Matrix, a five-door CUV for the compact class in the first redesign since a debut in 2002. This car with its unusual canted roofline disguising boxy parameters of a hatchback-style wagon was created in conjunction with Toyota's Corolla four-door notchback sedan and you might think of Matrix as a hatchback wagon variation of the Corolla sedan.
But it looks different from any other vehicle in Toyota's extensive product line. Wheels plant at perimeters of the platform and fenders bulge to cover them, setting up the sturdy stance of a bulldog. The external package is then decorated with rakish lines marked by an aggressive face with angular corner headlamp clusters, a windshield canted severely and the sweeping roofline that crimps rear edges and curls low into thickened back pillars.
Matrix seems way-cool and it feels fun to drive yet brings usable space in the cabin which adapts for hauling sports gear for active lifestyles.
Toyota builds four different models of Matrix for 2009 with two powertrain choices and front-wheel-drive (FWD) or all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
The new treatment improves Matrix in virtually every aspect, from the overall size of the package to the performance of a new fuel-efficient engine, the proliferation of standard safety features and a new chassis and suspension to enhance the ride quality.
Structure for the Matrix stretches long and wide -- it's a half-inch longer than the original Matrix with the rear wheel track an inch wider but the body is half an inch lower in height so the center of gravity decreases to set an aggressive road-hugging stance.
The chassis is more rigid and strong now, due to high tensile-strength steel used for gussets and crossmembers, and underbody rails running from prow to tail. This creates a solid platform for attaching suspension components, so the overall ride characteristics improve.
Suspension components draw from MacPherson struts up front with stabilizer bar and a torsion beam in back for the entry-level Matrix and Matrix S FWD editions, or a double wishbone arrangement in back for AWD S and FWD XRS models.
Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, gains power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, and also pares excess pounds.
Numerous modifications to the structure were taken to reduce noise and vibration -- from raising a cowl louver to stem the air flow on windshield wipers to a flush-mounted windshield made with sandwiched layers of clear acoustic material, extensive insulation wrapping the passenger space, even improved air management below the car with engine undercovers added.
Expanding the structure becomes apparent inside the five-seat cabin, which feels quite spacious now despite the compact-car classification. The cockpit is a more efficient design and shows improvements in styling and the tone of materials, with more comfortable seats in place and more useful instruments and controls plus more standard equipment aboard.
The conventional layout includes a pair of buckets up front flanking a center console which holds the transmission shift lever, with the rear bench built for three but scooped for two.
That right front passenger seatback folds flat and forms a seatback table on Matrix S and XRS editions, and the rear seatback splits 60/40 and each section folds forward to increase space for cargo in the rear bay.
Cargo room tallies to 19.8 cubic feet with rear seatbacks raised but expands to 61.5 cubic feet with rear seatbacks folded. Handy equipment in the cargo area includes shopping bag hooks mounted on side panels, D-rings fixed in the floor for roping a load of luggage and a folding tonneau lid to cover the stowed gear.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Matrix, with eight air bags aboard including curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for front and back seats. All trims tote computerized ABS (anti-lock brake system) with EBD (electronic brake-force distribution) and an EBA (electronic brake assist) system to add maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
Additional electronic vehicle controls are offered optionally (yet standard for Matrix AWD S or FWD XRS issues) -- vehicle stability control (VSC), which corrects lateral skidding, and traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin.
Trim tiers for 2009 models consist of Matrix Standard, the upgraded Matrix S (with optional AWD) and top-model XRS. Matrix S and XRS issues carry a bigger engine with stronger brakes and larger wheels/tires.
The standard four-cylinder powerplant, composed of lightweight aluminum, displaces 1.8 liters and packs dual cams on top plus Toyota's valve wizardry, labeled VVTL-i for variable valve timing and lift with intelligence.
It generates up to 132 hp at 6000 rpm, an improvement of two power points over the previous generation's 1.8-liter four. Torque climbs to 128 lb-ft at 4400 rpm, with more pep in the mid-range of gears used for stop-and-go city driving. This plant also earns large fuel economy figures -- as high as 32 mpg for highway driving.
Transmissions include the standard five-speed manual or an optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Matrix S and XRS models pack a four-cylinder plant lifted from Toyota's Camry sedan.
The twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with dual VVT-i produces 158 hp at 6000 rpm plus 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. It qualifies for Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status and hits fuel economy numbers up to 29 mpg. Transmissions for the 2.4-liter engine extend to a manual five-speed or an electronically controlled five-speed automatic, yet the AWD model gets the four-speed automatic. Toyota casts price points down to $16,190 for Matrix Standard with a manual five-speed shifter. Top issue Matrix XRS with a five-speed automatic lists for $21,850.