Toyota Matrix – a rekindling of the 5-door hatchback

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Most car shoppers are motivated by two things these days — frugality and utility. When gas prices in many areas exceeded $4 a gallon, frugality was a good thing. It still is and with good reason - $4 a gallon is probably going to be back with a vengeance so good gas mileage still reigns supreme. At least for those with good sense!

But utility is next in line. For instance, the tiny new European Smart car is a real cutie, loaded with sex appeal and delivering exceptional gas mileage. But there is very little utility. The two-seater is as impractical as a golf course in northern Alaska. Frugality without utility is a deal breaker. Most people want decent gas mileage AND room for passengers and cargo.
That brings us to perhaps the most practical car on earth, the 4-cylinder five-door compact hatchback. With the right dimensions, the small hatch can comfortably haul four adults and when necessary 50-to-60 cubic feet of cargo while returning gas mileage that will please most budgets.

Hatchbacks were hot back in the ’70s during the nation’s first gas crisis, and now that we are smack-dab in the midst of another crisis of sorts, the hatchback is making a comeback mostly in the form of what have been tagged crossover utilities.

We consider these vehicles the small station wagon of the 21st Century. Crossover, we agree, is a more sexy tag, and Toyota maintains that its five-door high-roof hatch — the Matrix — that reached market in 2002 as a 2003 model was in the forefront of the exploding segment.

Since the Matrix — and its stablemate, the Pontiac Vibe — first hit the streets nearly six years ago, the segment has exploded. Choices in small five-door hatches abound including the Mazda3, Saturn Astra, Volkswagen Rabbit, Honda Fit, Chevrolet HHR, Nissan Versa and Kia Rondo just to name those we can think of.

For the 2009 model year, the Matrix gets a complete makeover. But don't look for a new direction. The funky-looking high-roof hauler retains basically the same dimensions and is powered by only slightly upgraded four-cylinder engines. In other words, Toyota liked its original concept and decided to stick with it.

The axiom “if it ain't broken, don't fix it,” seems to fit.
In this case we applaud the decision. Bigger dimensions, more horsepower and extra weight are not the most practical ways to go in the new world order of autos.

Toyota originally aimed the Matrix at 30-somethings predicting that it would be sexy and attractive to the younger set, much like the Scion lineup that followed. But the car’s great utility, which includes a flat plastic load floor, attracted older customers. The median age of the Matrix buyer is 52. The mid-lifers, it seems, know a good thing when they see it — and they buy it. Just as they have with the xB and the Element, and before those the PT Cruiser.

For the new Matrix the engine and transmission choices have been slightly upgraded. The
1.8-liter engine returns in the base model, now generating 132 horsepower, a six-pony jump from the previous Matrix, and 128 pound-feet of torque. The base powerplant was the only one available in ’07 and ’08.

An all-wheel drive option and a larger engine have been returned to the lineup for the first time since the 2006 model year.

Most people will probably opt for either the mid-level S trim package starting at $18,920 or the top XRS trim beginning at $21,320. Both come with a new 2.4-liter engine generating 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque.

We drove both engine variants in the fall and found the smaller engine, mated to a carryover four-speed automatic, adequate. The bigger engine, which is hooked up to a new five-speed auto, is fairly enthusiastic and when pushed can propel the Matrix up to highway speeds from the on ramp in very acceptable fashion. All three trim levels can be outfitted with five-speed manual transmissions for those who like to shift for themselves.

The XRS carries sporty pretensions with 18-inch alloy wheels and sport-tuned suspension. We enjoyed the driving dynamics of the XRS, but don't mistake it for a performance car. It’s mildly entertaining when you get to feeling frisky holding the road quite well on tight curves. The engine has a nice power curve yielding performance in eight-second territory in 0-to-60 runs. Really not bad for what it is.

What you get with the smaller engine is better gas mileage measured at 25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway with the automatic. The bigger engine is rated at 21/29 with the automatic.

The all-wheel drive version of the S trim, which runs about $1,000 more than the two-wheel drive car, should appeal to people in cold weather climates. Unfortunately, AWD makes do with the four-speed automatic, and un-Toyota-like gas mileage of 20/26.

Where the Matrix really shines is inside where four adults can ride in relative comfort with scads of head room, and when needed where 62 cubic feet of cargo can be hauled behind the front seats. And even with both rows of seats in use, there is a considerable 19.8 cubic feet of luggage room.

One of the endearing aspects of the Matrix is its commanding view of the road. For those people who say they like SUVs because they sit up higher, give the Matrix a whirl. You may find it to your liking.

You may also find a high level of interior solitude inside at highway speeds to your liking. This is no Lexus —there is some obvious road noise — but we applaud Toyota for its efforts in strengthening the body structure to help eliminate noise as well as body squeaks and rattles.

There is more storage in the new Matrix including a cubby at the front of the center console, a large glove box, an overhead console and a dual-tier center console. The center storage features a 115-volt three-prong auxiliary power outlet.

The interior is attractive with an abundance of low gloss satin-metal accents and textured plastics. Fit and finish is good. The dashboard is well thought out with easy-to-read recessed gauges and uncomplicated switch gear.

Toyota has upgraded standard safety features over the previous model making antilock brakes, front side airbags and side-curtain airbags standard across the lineup. Stability control and traction control were a low-cost $250 option on our test car.

Our all-wheel drive S model carried a base price of $21,060 and a bottom-line price of $22,179 with several options including an upgraded audio unit with six-disc changer and MP3 capability.

We found the new Matrix to our liking, a car we could live with for most occasions. We could, however, live without the all-wheel drive saving $1,000 on the purchase price while increasing gas mileage by more than 10 percent. You never know when that savings will come in handy!


Base price, $16,750; as driven, $22,179
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 158 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 162 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 173 inches
Curb weight: 3,360 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Cargo capacity: 62 cubic feet
Luggage capacity: 19.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA Mileage: 20 mpg city/26 highway
0-60: 8 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Pontiac Vibe, Mazda3, Saturn Astra

The Good
• Excellent cargo hauler with flat load floor
• Attractive dashboard layout
• Upgraded safety equipment

The Bad
• Gas mileage suffers with all-wheel drive

The Ugly
• Base model lacks many amenities such as power windows and keyless entry