The Toyota Matrix offers utility in a compact package with two engine choices and optional all-wheel drive. Developed in tandem with the Corolla sedan, the Matrix is essentially the five-door hatchback wagon version of the Corolla. Matrix makes loading kids, dogs and miscellaneous cargo a cinch. It can carry four big people or haul lots of cargo with the rear seats folded flat.
An aging design and ho-hum fuel economy make the Matrix a less compelling choice than in previous years, especially with many new, more efficient hatchbacks on the market.
This second-generation Toyota Matrix was launched as a 2009 model. For 2011, Matrix was freshened with new wheels and minor changes to interior trim and a Smart Stop Technology brake-override system was added as standard equipment. The 2013 Matrix L gets new audio systems on both trim levels. The 2013 Matrix now comes standard with a six-speaker sound system with CD player, satellite radio capability, auxiliary audio jack and USB port, while the 2013 Matrix S uses a premium sound system with 6.1-inch touchscreen.
The 2013 Matrix is available in two grades: base Matrix L and the sportier Matrix S. The base L comes with a 1.8-liter engine mated to a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. The Matrix S gets a more powerful 2.4-liter engine, with a choice of a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. All-wheel drive is optional on the Matrix S.
By price and hatchback design, Matrix competes with other compacts such as the Ford Focus hatchback, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda3, and Volkswagen Golf. Those shopping for a wagon with all-wheel-drive might also consider the Subaru Impreza wagon.
Fuel economy for the 2013 Toyota Matrix is an EPA-estimated 26/32 mpg City/Highway for a base Matrix L (1.8-liter) with manual gearbox and 21/29 mpg for a Matrix S (2.4-liter) with 5-speed automatic. The all-wheel drive Matrix S gets a mediocre 20/26 mpg City/Highway. By way of comparison, the all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza wagon achieves an EPA rating of 27/36 mpg city/highway with its 2.0-liter engine.
For the best combination of fun and efficiency, we recommend the 1.8-liter Matrix L with the 5-speed manual gearbox. The base engine isn't as powerful as the one found on the S, but we found it revs more freely and is more of a driver's engine. However, if driving stick isn't your thing, we recommend the 2.4-liter engine with the 5-speed automatic.
Check out the Matrix if you want the reliable reputation of the Corolla with more cargo space or if you need an affordable urban runabout. The Matrix isn't a standout, but it's practical and economical.
The Toyota Matrix is essentially the wagon/hatch version of the Corolla. The Corolla is about seven inches longer, but the Matrix sports more cargo space and a more upright stance, which allows a better view of the road and makes loading awkward objects relatively easy.
Matrix S is distinguished by a longer, lower front fascia with outer black fog lamp housings and a darker center grille section. The Matrix S also has different lower trim all around the body and the dark material that shows on the seams between the panels and main bodywork gives a hint of the add-on look, a situation more pronounced on light-color cars.
In profile, the front side windows resemble a wine glass on its side; the upper side curved along its length and the lower side scoops downward, for a good view of the mirror without the mirror blocking any forward or side vision, and then begins the taper upward to the rear. Painted mirrors and door handles, lack of any side moldings, and just two pieces of glass keep visual clutter to a minimum.
Seventeen-inch wheels make the best of big wheel wells while the rear spoiler serves as a punctuation point to an otherwise near-hemispherical rear end, and auxiliary sunshade for rear-seat riders.
Matrix L and S models with the Sport Package are distinguished by a special S badge.
The Matrix cabin is more stylish than what's found in the Toyota Corolla, with sweeping metal-look surfaces on both sides of the instrument cluster. Two large omni-directional vents peer out the top like bug eyes and frame the gauges that include round dials for speed and engine revs and an oblong unit for ancillary information.
The cabin is trimmed with fabric upholstery and door panels, with plastic used to lower doors. It doesn't look cheap or like this is where the money was saved, and all the switchgear has a quality feel to it. A variety of storage spaces are within driver's reach, and most have a nonskid, quieting rubber mat on the bottom, a nice feature.
Manually adjusted front bucket seats fit a wide range of body styles. Taller drivers will have enough headroom, while shorter drivers still have good visibility. The illuminated gauges are easy to see. The direct rear view isn't bad either, thanks in part to the lack of a center rear headrest, but the large C-pillars make for a rather large blind spot in the rear corners.
Three-ring climate control knobs deliver air where and when you want it without excessive fan noise. Primary operating controls are on steering column stalks, with less-frequent items like the optional stability control defeat on the dash; the shifter (automatic or manual) rides on a perch off the lower dash, while a conventional handbrake is in the console.
The rear seat is large enough that we put a pair of 6-foot-3-inch riders back there who reported satisfactory head clearance. The rear-seat floor is almost flat with only a slight rise up to the console. The rear bench seat is a 60/40 split with the narrow part behind the driver where it should be, and easily folds down unless the front seat is far rearward.
Matrix has nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, with some small bins underneath the floor. Cargo space is expandable with folding rear seats and a flat-folding passenger seat. The floor and rear seatbacks have plastic runners to ease the loading of cargo and there are tie-down rings to secure it.
Matrix offers two engines: We found the 1.8-liter engine in the Matrix L sportier and more enthusiastic than the 2.4-liter in the Matrix S. It's not as powerful, but it's more eager and entertaining in response, more of a driver's engine.
The smaller engine also gets significantly better mileage than the 2.4-liter, averaging 4-5 mpg higher ratings. With the 4-speed automatic you'll lose 1 mpg or so from the 1.8-liter and be pushing it fairly hard for onramps or carting a full load up a hill. We found the 5-speed manual version quite happy to have you beat the snot out of it and still get decent mileage. So we recommend getting the manual if you get the 1.8-liter.
Fuel economy ratings for Matrix L with 1.8-liter engine are 26/32 mpg City/Highway mpg with 5-speed manual transmission, 25/32 with 4-speed automatic. The 1.8-liter is rated at 132 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 128 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. This 16-valve four-cylinder engine features Dual VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on both the intake and exhaust camshafts that helps it balance performance and economy.
The 2.4-liter used in the Matrix S is a 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder engine with VVT-i is rated at 158 hp at 6000 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. The 2.4-liter Matrix S offers a choice of 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic except the Matrix S AWD version which only comes with a 4-speed automatic. The 2.4-liter engine nets 26 hp over the 1.8 but it's the additional 34 foot-pounds of torque you'll notice and use the most because winding it up doesn't add a lot of speed or any pizzazz, it simply adds more noise. Both engines use Regular unleaded, significant given that some cars call for Premium. The 2.4-liter engine with 5-speed automatic transmission gets an EPA-rated 21/29 mpg. Matrix S AWD with 4-speed automatic is rated 20/26 mpg. Matrix S with 5-speed manual is rated 21/28 mpg.
The midrange power makes the 2.4-liter practical for scooting around town but it's less of a driver's engine as it merely goes about its business. Clutch and shifter effort from the manual transmission are relaxed, the latter giving the gear requested but not as precise as class leaders.
Regardless of drive system or engine, the Matrix comes across quite polished for an economy car, the only negative is a tendency to catch and grab on bumpy roads and surface transitions under acceleration.
The Matrix AWD is the best choice for the Snow Belt. Its 4-speed automatic transmission and hardware in the electronically controlled all-wheel drive are similar to the system used in the RAV4 (though the Matrix doesn't get the RAV's 4WD Locked mode). Normally, the all-wheel-drive system in the Matrix S AWD sends all power to the front wheels, which is best for fuel economy. But when slippery conditions demand it, the system automatically diverts up to 45 percent of the power to the rear wheels. There is no driver action required and you'll never know it's working until you see a front-wheel-drive Matrix stuck in the snow next to you while you move onward. Any dynamic change you note on test drives is more likely a result of the extra weight than the added rear drive. We couldn't feel much difference in the way they drove unless we drove really hard. The Matrix S AWD might handle or ride slightly better because it comes with an independent rear suspension, which delivers finer control of suspension travel, and perhaps more suspension travel, maintaining rear tire contact and a softer ride.
Disc brakes are used on all models and they come with ABS and brake assist to help the driver maintain control in emergency stopping situations. The disc brakes get bigger as you move up the model line, yet all get the job done fuss-free; you're not going to be going that fast in a Toyota Matrix.
If there's a weak point in the Matrix driving dynamics, it's the electric power steering. Steering effort is low for parking maneuvers and gets higher with speed and cornering load as you would expect, and it goes where you point it. We found the steering feels relatively dull and doesn't have a lot of return-to-center force, so you may find yourself steering back to straight ahead more than you're used to, though it's subtle.
The Toyota Matrix provides the economy-minded pricing and operation of a compact car with the practicality of a hatch. We like the Matrix L with 5-speed manual and Matrix S with 5-speed automatic. Matrix S AWD comes with all-wheel drive, an important option for those who need it.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents G.R. Whale and Laura Burstein contributed to this report.