Toyota's Matrix, Reloaded

The Corolla's more exciting kid brother may have the body of a five-door hatch, but it comes with the soul of a two-door sports car

Not long ago, as part of a review of Toyota 's new 2008 Sequoia full-size SUV, we reported that Toyota offered no fewer than six SUVs and car-based crossovers ranging from compact RAV4 through the mid-size Highlander, 4Runner and FJ Cruiser and full-size Sequoia and Land Cruiser.

Ooops! We completely forgot the seventh and smallest member of Toyota 's extended family, the Corolla-based Matrix, which arrived in 2003 before "crossovers" were in vogue and hordes of practical-minded Americans began rushing to them.

We could be forgiven for forgetting it, though, since the previous generation Matrix was, let's be frank, a fairly forgettable vehicle. It was mostly a somewhat aggressively styled small tall wagon offering a cooler, more youthful look and more cargo capability than its supremely boring compact Corolla siblings.

There was a sporty XRS version powered by a high-revving but torque-challenged (Yamaha-built) higher-horsepower 1.8-liter four, which most reviewers drove and wrote, then quickly forgot. That was discontinued after 2006, leaving just the standard 126-hp 1.8-liter four that (under) powered ordinary Corollas.

The Gen I Matrix was notable as the mechanical twin of Pontiac 's Vibe, which was being built (along with Corollas) at the California GM/Toyota joint-venture assembly plant known as NUMMI. While we personally preferred the Pontiac's styling, the Matrix outsold it due mostly (we believe) to Toyota 's much stronger brand image.

This new Canadian-built, Gen II Matrix benefits from a welcome restyling and numerous upgrades and improvements throughout. Most important are first time availability of a 2.4-liter four and all-wheel drive.

"The Matrix concept is based on blending the functionality of an SUV, the style, image and performance of a sports car and the affordability of a subcompact sedan," says Toyota Marketing Manager Tim Morrison. "It may have the body of a five-door hatch, but it comes with the soul of a two-door sports car."

Really? We'll see.

A coupe in wagon duds?

Toyota says the '09 Matrix offers "coupe-like styling with enhanced interior utility and improved dynamic performance." It is lower and wider than the previous model with virtually the same interior space, meaning reasonably comfortable room for four. You can squeeze in a third rear-seat occupant, but make it a smallish one. In side view, the new look is distinguished by a full-length, wave-shaped shoulder swelling over its wheels, ebbing along its doors.

When the Gen II Matrix hits the streets in early 2008, it will be offered in three grades: Standard, S and sporty XRS, with the option of all-wheel drive (AWD) on the mid-range S. Both S and XRS sport a front chin spoiler with a large mesh fog lamp bezel and a rear underbody spoiler, and the XRS wears a rear deck spoiler as well.

The redesigned interior offers improved appearance, comfort and utility with more comfortable seats, which are lowered slightly to maintain the previous amount of headroom within the lower-profile cabin. Dash, door and headliner materials seem better than before, though still somewhat cheap in look and feel in some places. The new three-spoke steering wheel has good size and feel, and the XRS version is leather-trimmed with spoke-mounted audio controls and available Bluetooth capability. A new, high-efficiency air-conditioning system offers reduced power consumption and larger vents for improved directional accuracy.

On all but the base model, the right-front seatback folds flat, a cup support section on the console is movable and removable, and the cup holder area can be used as a tray when the divider is removed. Importantly for that (small) fifth passenger, the 60/40 split folding rear seat includes a middle-seat headrest.

Good economy, mediocre speed

While the standard 16-valve, DOHC 1.8-liter four-thanks mostly to addition of Toyota's Dual VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on both intake and exhaust sides-puts out six more horses and six more lb-ft of torque than before at 132 hp and 128 lb-ft, that seems barely adequate to haul around the 2800-lb Matrix.

The good news is EPA fuel economy ratings of 26/32 city/highway mpg with five-speed manual and 25/31 with the available four-speed (yes, four-speed) automatic. Best news for those who want a bit more grunt is the optional 158-hp, 162-lb-ft 16-valve DOHC VVT-i 2.4-liter four. Married (thankfully) to a five-speed automatic, it offers 21/29 city/highway EPA mpg.

Base wheels are 16-inch steel with six-spoke full covers, while 17-inch five-spoke alloys are optional on the S and 18-inch alloys with a twin five-spoke design are standard on XRS.

Standard safety features include anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), dual-stage front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags, two-row side curtain airbags and active front headrests. Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with TRAC (and an off switch) is standard on XRS, optional on other models.

Also standard are power mirrors, power steering, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, daytime running lights, heavy duty rear window defogger, intermittent windshield wipers, a 12-volt power outlet, four cupholders, auxiliary audio input jack, a front center console box and an anti-theft engine immobilizer. The S models add power door locks and windows, a 115-volt power outlet, cruise control, an intermittent rear wiper, the fold-flat front passenger seat, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD six-speaker audio with MP3 capability, front and rear underbody spoilers and fog lamps. The most significant option is DVD navigation with XM NavTraffic.

Our favorite model, the sport-oriented XRS, features standard P215/45 R18 tires on 18-inch alloy wheels, a body stiffening strut tower brace, the previously mentioned VSC and the leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls. And yes, you can drive it somewhat aggressively on twisty two-lane roads, though - sorry, Toyota - it's no five-door sports car.

We do like this new Matrix better than the old one, primarily for its easier-on-the-eye exterior, upgraded interior, available 2.4-liter engine and (for those in northern climes) optional AWD. We haven't driven the mechanically identical '09 Pontiac Vibe so can't make that comparison, but we were generally underwhelmed by both standard and uplevel Matrixes.

Toyota 's modest sales expectation (about 70,000 units its first year) tells us the soon-to-come new Corolla from which it's derived will receive the bulk of its marketing attention. If you think of it at all, think of Matrix as a tall-wagon Corolla, a smaller, cheaper, more youthful and (especially with the base 1.8-liter engine) more fuel efficient crossover than the next-step-up RAV4.

2009 Toyota Matrix

Base price: $15,000 (est.)

Engine: 1.8-liter four, 132 hp/128 b-ft; optional 2.4-liter four, 158 hp/162 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual or four- or five-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 171.9 x 69.5 x 61.0 in

Wheelbase: 102.4 in

Curb weight: NA

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 1.8-liter four: 26/32 manual mpg, 25/31 automatic; 2.4-liter four: 21/29 automatic mpg

Major standard features: Power mirrors; power steering; tilt and telescopic steering wheel; daytime running lights; rear window defogger; intermittent windshield wipers; 12-volt power outlet; four cupholders; auxiliary audio input jack; front center console box and anti-theft engine immobilizer

Safety features: Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD); dual-stage front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags, two-row side curtain airbags and active front headrests

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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