The Matrix offers peppy acceleration, particularly around town. It corners nicely yet offers a smooth, comfortable ride. It's practical, with a big cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the rear seats. And it's stylish.
While the high-performance XRS model has drawn some attention with its high-revving 164-horsepower engine, we preferred the 126-horsepower models for their more relaxed, more pleasant demeanor. Most popular is the mid-grade Matrix XR. (Note that horsepower numbers are lower for 2006 models due to a change in how power is calculated. Performance of the engines remains unchanged from 2005 models.)
Matrix is based on the Toyota Corolla and is built in California at a plant jointly owned with General Motors. Matrix was introduced as a 2003 model and it has proven to be a popular vehicle. It shares much in common with the Pontiac Vibe.
Toyota Matrix ($15,110); automatic ($15,910); AWD AT ($17,645); XR ($16,590); XR AT ($17,420); XR AWD AT ($18,985); XRS ($19,100)
The Matrix is 3 inches taller but 8 inches shorter in length than a Corolla. It uses the same wheelbase but a wider track. These dimensions give the Matrix a unique stance. It reminds us somewhat of the Ford Focus hatchback, which is slightly smaller. It is also similar in size to the Chrysler PT Cruiser, although the Matrix has slightly less interior storage capacity due to its lower roofline.
And it's that roofline that draws the eye. In a reverse wedge shape, the roof slopes down at the back while the belt line along the lower edge of the side windows slopes up, creating a sleek wedge shape to the windows.
The tailgate opens as a liftgate, similar to that of an SUV or minivan, and the frameless backlight (rear window) can be opened separately for quick access.
The front of the Matrix has a purposeful looking nose with a relatively high hood line accentuated by a big grille. Engine cooling is achieved through a large aperture under the front bumper which features two small foglights.
A wide track, along with generous tires fill the wheel wells nicely, helping give the Matrix an aggressive look. New wheel covers on the XR grade add to the sporty theme. All in all it's a car that looks substantial despite its relatively small size.
Last year (2005) the Matrix was revise with a new front bumper and grille that convey a more aggressive appearance. Clear lens combination tail lamps provide a sportier appearance.
The driver will find that the cockpit is unlike that of other Toyota cars. It's all but identical to the Pontiac Vibe, even down to the American Delco radio.
Four pods in front of the steering wheel house deeply set gauges. The gauges glow red at all times, even during the daytime, as insufficient ambient light reaches them. Chrome rims accentuate each pod. Plastic trim designed to look like brushed aluminum surrounds the switches on the dashboard and adorns the door panels. The combined radio and CD player sits directly to the right of the instrument pod, with the heating and ventilation controls immediately below.
The shifter is just a few inches from the steering wheel, conveniently located more than a foot off the floor in a position that's become fashionable in high-performance rally cars as well as the Lexus RX luxury crossover SUV.
There's 15 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. The rear seat is split 60/40 and pressing a button flips each seatback down to provide a completely flat floor capable of holding 53 cubic feet of cargo. The cargo floor is finished in a hard ribbed plastic designed to offer easy cleanup. Set something there and there's a good chance it'll slide around underway. A carpeted cargo mat is available that does a much better job of keeping cargo from sliding around. The cargo floor features four slots that contain movable hooks that can be used to tie down goods. There are several other tie-downs positioned along the sides. Storage compartments and cargo nets provide owners with maximum utility. All of this makes the interior as versatile as any station wagon and better than most SUVs. Even the front passenger seat can be folded down to provide another flat surface for storage, albeit at a higher level than the rest of the floor.
With its high roofline, the Matrix offers plenty of headroom for tall drivers and passengers. Shorter passengers sitting in the rear seats might find the view slightly claustrophobic due to the small side windows.
One cool feature is the available 115-volt power outlet located in the front dashboard alongside a regular 12-volt outlet. It's a low-power AC plug suitable for powering a laptop computer, but it isn't capable of running power tools.
The standard engine only delivers 126 horsepower, but it revs nicely. And for those who enjoy shifting a lot, it's fun to drive when equipped with the manual transmission. Shifting the manual transmission is smooth and easy. Although it might at first appear that the upright seating position and the high-mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, this is not the case. Equipped with the five-speed manual, the Matrix with the standard engine gets an EPA-estimated 29/35 mpg City/Highway.
Even with the automatic transmission the Matrix feels peppy around town. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people. The Matrix with the automatic gets an EPA-rated 28/34 mpg.
Steering is precise. And though the center of gravity is relatively high, the Matrix doesn't lean much in corners. The brakes are effective as well. All in all, it feels like a sporty compact car. That's not surprising as it uses many components straight from the sporty Toyota Celica.
The XRS with the 164-horsepower engine offers better acceleration performance, but you have to be willing to work the six-speed manual. The power increase comes from improved breathing by using Toyota's variable-valve timing and lift setup. At low revs the engine delivers no more performance than the standard 126-horsepower engine. The real power comes into play between 6000 and 8400 rpm, so you need to keep it wound up in the upper part of the rev range to tap into its performance. The six-speed gearbox comes from the Celica complete with the same gear ratios. However, the Matrix uses taller tires than the Celica effectively giving it taller gears. So you need to wind it up before shifting into the next gear to enjoy good acceleration performance. We quickly grew tired of the high-revving engine, however. We found that the XRS was not nearly as pleasant as the XR. The 126-horsepower engine seems a better match for the Matrix than the high-strung 164-horsepower engine. Matrix XRS is rated 25/32 mpg.
All-wheel-drive Matrix models offer superior traction on snow, ice and on slippery pavement. Though peppy, they aren't as sporty as the two-wheel-drive models. Part of that is packaging. All-wheel drive is only available with an automatic transmission and the standard engine. Another part of it is the power-to-weight ratio. With more weight (185 pounds) and slightly less power than the front-drive models (123 horsepower vs. 128), plus the friction from the all-wheel-drive system, the AWD models do not accelerate as quickly. They're still peppy, though. Fuel economy suffers as well. The Matrix XR AWD automatic is rated 26/31 mpg. The AWD models do comply with LEV-II evaporative emissions, however.
Toyota Matrix is a sporty wagon that offers utility and style at an affordable price. We prefer the base and XR models to the XRS, which features a more powerful engine with a peaky powerband.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California.