Pros: Higher seating position than a normal hatchback; ample cargo capacity; roomy back seat; available all-wheel drive
Cons: Mediocre fuel economy; sparse standard features; weak base engine; outdated four-speed automatic
The 2012 Toyota Matrix may not be the newest or most memorable small car on the market, but it's definitely a dark-horse candidate-there's a lot of goodness here. The Matrix isn't just another compact hatchback. Built from the ground up to be a different kind of car, the Matrix has what's known in the trade as an elevated hip point, which means you sit nice and high in the driver seat as opposed to falling down into it. The same goes for the back seat, which is more hospitable to long-legged passengers as a result. The Matrix's tall body also yields an unusually large cargo capacity.
This Toyota is somewhere between a hatchback and a compact crossover SUV in practicality, especially with the optional all-wheel-drive system, and that's not a bad place to be.
There are reasons why more people aren't raving about the Matrix. For example, the base 1.8-liter engine, borrowed from the Corolla sedan, is underpowered, in our opinion, and its fuel economy isn't anything special. Also, despite the fact that the Matrix's youthful target demographic loves portable technology, you can't get iPod/USB or Bluetooth connectivity from the factory with the base 1.8-liter model, and these features are extra-cost options even on the pricier 2.4-liter Matrix.
But we still think the Matrix deserves more attention than it gets. If you're looking for a practical all-around car that won't break the bank, give this Toyota a chance.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Toyota Matrix comes in two trim levels, L and S. The L has the 1.8-liter engine, while the S has the 2.4-liter engine with available all-wheel drive. The base L has standard features like 16-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable driver's seat, power accessories, cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary audio jack. Foglamps and underbody spoilers are the only factory options. The S gets sportier exterior styling cues, variable intermittent wipers, a six-speaker stereo, and a handful of notable options, including 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, and iPod/USB and Bluetooth integration.
In part because of the high-mounted seats, the Matrix's outward visibility is unusually expansive for a compact hatchback. The S model technically has "sport" front seats, although we didn't notice a huge difference in bolstering. The gauges are easily read at a glance. While the dashboard has some stylistic flair, the materials are strictly basic. However, the Matrix's back seat is impressively roomy compared with other economy cars.
Cargo space measures 19.8 cubic feet in the trunk and 49.4 cubic feet with the 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded down. That's a lot for a small hatchback; the mid-size Honda Crosstour, for instance, has a maximum capacity of about 51 cubic feet.
The Matrix is a little thin on high-tech goodies, even by economy-car standards. It's a shame that iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity is not available with the 1.8-liter L model, as that's the one that young budget-minded shoppers will likely set their sights on. At least you can get these niceties with the bigger engine, though they still don't come standard-and your Toyota dealer can install a separate Bluetooth system on the L as an accessory.
The L's audio system does have an auxiliary input jack, but such jacks don't deliver the same sound quality as a dedicated USB port, and they also require that you control your music exclusively through the MP3 player itself. A navigation system simply isn't offered.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Matrix L features a 1.8-liter inline-4 rated at 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, while the Matrix S steps up to a 2.4-liter inline-4 good for 158 hp and 162 lb-ft. You can get a five-speed manual transmission with either engine. The L has an optional four-speed automatic that's outdated by current standards. The S can be equipped with a five-speed automatic on the front-wheel-drive version or a four-speed automatic on the AWD version.
On the road, there's no nice way of saying this: the Matrix L is pretty slow, especially with that four-speed automatic. Fuel economy isn't stellar, either, checking in at 26 mpg city/32 mpg highway with the manual and 25/32 mpg with the auto. The Matrix S certainly has more moxie, especially off the line, where its unusually strong torque will easily chirp the front tires if you're not careful. Fuel economy naturally suffers, dropping to 21/29 mpg with the five-speed automatic, 21/28 mpg with the manual, and 20/26 mpg with AWD and the four-speed automatic.
The Matrix comes with six airbags, standard stability control and active front head restraints. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, which means Toyota didn't scrimp on costs when it came to the Matrix's braking ability.
The government hasn't crash tested the Matrix, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded it the top Good rating for both frontal offset and side impacts.
The Matrix is rather entertaining to drive at moderate speeds thanks to its responsive steering and good body control. The manual shifter mounted rally-style next to the driver's hand, adds to the fun. Bumps are firmly transmitted by the suspension, however, and road noise is pronounced. The Matrix is far from a cushy Camry in the way it rides.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Focus - The recently redesigned Focus is available as a sleek hatchback, and we love its premium driving character. It has great fuel economy as well. Watch out for the tight back seat, though.
Mazda 3 - The 3 hatchback's new SkyActiv 2.0-liter inline-4 makes almost as much power as the Matrix's 2.4-liter engine, and it gets much better fuel economy. We prefer the Mazda's ride and handling, too.
Hyundai Tucson - If you really want that elevated driving position, check out the Tucson, which is a proper crossover SUV with compact dimensions.
The Matrix model that stands apart is the AWD S with its peppy engine and all-weather capability. Yes, the gas mileage isn't great, but if you live in a harsh climate, you might be willing to sacrifice a few mpg in return for the Matrix's many virtues.