Toyota Matrix — More than a movie

By Al Vinikour

Mention matrix to someone under 30 and chances are they’ll equate it to the series of hit movies starring Keanu Reeves. Mention matrix to a mathematician and he’ll get all wild in the eyes and start to hyperventilate. Mention matrix to a car guy and he’ll think Toyota Matrix, a compact hatchback developed off the Corolla platform (and often referred to as the Corolla Matrix).

The first generation Matrix debited in 2002 and was sold as a 2003. It was built in conjunction with the Pontiac Vibe at the NUMMI plant in California. Other than sheet metal and some interior touches the vehicles were identical. When General Motors killed the Pontiac Motor Division, Matrix production was moved to Canada, where it remains today. The all-new second generation Matrix started selling as a 2009 vehicle.

The 2010 is essentially a complete carry-over from the 2009. Matrix is a versatile vehicle that best serves the younger set. It comes in three trim levels: Standard, S and XRS. My test vehicle was a Matrix S so I’ll concentrate this review on that.

Even though I’ve “contributed” to more than my fair share of all-you-can-eat buffets, the Matrix didn’t seem confining to me…nor did I have to shoehorn myself in or out of it. Granted, if I had a white down jacket I’d probably look like I was sitting in a vehicle where all the airbags just went off but I couldn’t see what I looked like so if I’m comfortable then screw the clean and jerkers. 

The FWD S comes with a 2.4L, 4-cylinder 16-valve DOHC VVT-i w/aluminum alloy block and head. Its 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque provided plenty of power for this 3,140-pound vehicle. It’s mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and even though the trend is to more gears (5, 6, 7 and even 8), four seems adequate for Matrix. Mileage estimates are pretty decent; 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway. Everything about me is heavy including my foot so overall I averaged about 22 mpg.

Matrix doesn’t have as smooth a ride as other vehicles…but then again it doesn’t cost as much as other vehicles, either (Base S model starts at $19,550 plus $720 destination and delivery). On smooth highways it’s a pleasure to drive but over rough railroad tracks and crummy roads like we have in Michigan its ride is definitely affected. One annoying aspect is how noisy the engine is. During acceleration it’s almost impossible to hold a conversation in a normal tone of voice. Some sound-proofing is desperately called for here.

Matrix is aesthetically pleasing. Its sloping roofline removes the boxy look so often associated with station wagons. It has a high-mounted spoiler over the rear door that’s both functional and appealing. The rear hatch opens high enough to easily allow easy loading of cargo or whatever else you want to shove into its 61.5 cubic feet cargo capacity (w/no sunroof and the rear seats folded).  You can also pull a small boat or trailer, as its maximum towing weight is 1,500 pounds.

For 2010, Toyota has made standard Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC). These are added to the already-included Anti-lock Brake System and Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist. This technology makes up the Toyota Star Safety System.™ It also has standard advanced frontal airbags and front seat-mounted side airbags, plus front and rear curtain side airbags.

I really liked the stylistic instrumentation. The fact the gauges were easily read enhanced the looks. The center stack had three very large and legible HVAC controls. My test vehicle had the standard radio that had an aggravating tendency to make loud interference noises on the AM dial when passing under overhead wires. Not good. It sounded fine in the FM and XM Satellite bands. Maybe the radio hates talk shows, found primarily on AM.

The S sits on standard 16” tires with alloy wheels. Optional are 17s w/alloy wheels. The larger tires might produce a better ride so if you’re serious about this vehicle I’d recommend them.

Matrix comes in one of eight exterior colors. My test vehicle was Blue Streak Metallic, a very polarizing medium bright blue. Although my tastes go to darker hues this color makes a statement for a vehicle like Matrix; people my age are not the demographics for this car. Other colors (except maybe Radiant Red) are more subdued.

Basic limited warranty coverage is 3-year/36,000-mile comprehensive; 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain; and 5-year/unlimited-mileage corrosion perforation.

There are a lot of competitive vehicles in this segment and some are better priced. But no matter what problems Toyota may be experiencing there is no denying the brand’s cachet, which is worth the extra money for a Matrix. 

Base price: $19,950; price as tested, $21,539 

Engine:  2.4L DOHC 16-valve VVT-i  

Horsepower: 158 @ 6,000 rpm 

Torque: 162 pound feet @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front-wheel drive
Transmission:  4-speed automatic

Seating: 2/3 technically; 2/2 realistically

Wheelbase:  102.4 inches

Length: 173.0 inches

Curb weight: 3,140 pounds

Turning circle: 36 feet
Cargo Volume: 61.5 cubic feet (behind 1st row); 19.8 cubic feet behind 2nd row

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (87-Octane unleaded)

EPA rating: 21 mpg city/29 mph highway

0-60: 7.6 seconds 

Also consider: Suzuki SX4 Crossover, Kia Soul, Scion xB 

The Good
• Decent looks
• Ergonomically-friendly comfort features
• Terrific instrumentation
• Smooth powertrain 
• Maneuverable  

The Bad
• Radio’s AM band lacks strength under wires

The Ugly

• Extreme engine noise