The 2012 Toyota Matrix is a mixture of sporty hatchback and crossover SUV. Can something like that really be possible?

We can tell you that the Matrix is a versatile compact that doesn't follow the same formula as a lot of other entries in its very crowded category.

It's different. But is it better? The newly redesigned Ford Focus can give the Matrix a run for its money in nearly every area of comparison. The same thing goes for the Mazda3, especially with its better fuel economy, ride and handling. The Hyundai Tucson, a compact crossover is also worth a look.

One of the first things you notice about the Matrix is that it has a tall profile and a high roofline. That gives it lots of interior room for a small car. There's a generous 49 cubic-feet of cargo space with the split rear seat folded down.

That high profile really becomes evident once you're seated in the Matrix. Visibility through the windshield and in every direction is better than in most hatchbacks.... Now while the quality of interior materials is basic at best, the instruments are easy to read, and you'll find the back seat roomy enough for most adults.

There's not much in the way of electronic hookups in the Matrix, which we found surprising in a car that younger persons may be considering. iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity are only available as options in the S trim level. No nav system is offered at all.

The Matrix L has a 1.8- liter inline 4, the S version gives you a 2.4-liter 4, a bit more power, and all-wheel-drive if you like. Nobody will ever accuse the Matrix of being a hot rod even with the larger 4-cylinder engine. Three transmissions are in the mix depending on your engine and drivetrain preference, although the all-wheel-drive Matrix only offers a 4-speed automatic, which is pretty dated.

The lack of real power doesn't mean the 2012 Toyota Matrix isn't fun to drive. It responds well to steering input and maintains firm body control in the turns. You may find the suspension a little too harsh and you'll definitely notice road noise intruding into the interior.

And fuel economy is OK but not outstanding with either engine.

Six airbags, stability control, and active headrests highlight the Matrix safety equipment and 4-wheel disc brakes insure solid stopping power. In IIHS crash tests, the Matrix rated "Good" in frontal and side impacts.

The Matrix L model stickers at around $19,000 and the S version comes in at a base price of just under $20,000. Both models are covered by a 5-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Our choice would be the Matrix S with all-wheel-drive for the best combination of performance, available features, and all-weather drivability. It's a hatchback that thinks it's a crossover and we think you'll agree.

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Scott Markle is an experienced automotive enthusiast and industry observer who is passionate about creating compelling content for car shoppers. He has fifteen years of experience building top-tier websites for the automotive industry and beyond, and was part of the team that launched

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