"It's cool. It's hip." Or as the Brits would say: "It's got street cred." (That's street credibility: popularity and acceptance among fashionable urban people, especially the young.)
These are not the sort of words normally used to describe Toyotas. Until now that is. Toyota is hoping that its new Matrix, a Street Performance Utility, as it's being called, will be a hit with younger buyers. Part car, part wagon, part minivan, part SUV, the Matrix occupies a new niche.
Although it looks radically different from the Corolla, it is based on the same platform, which means that it will prove to be a solid reliable car just like the plain Jane sedan.
Toyota quite rightly says it is a car that combines the style and performance of a sports car, the functionality of an SUV, and the affordability of a compact sedan. It's for young buyers who want a vehicle with a sporty image and high functionality.
Despite its boxy, almost mini-minivan, looks there is no denying that the Toyota Matrix is a sporty car. For this reason it seemed appropriate to try the Matrix with a manual transmission. Although it might seem that the upright seating position and the high mounted gearshift would take some getting used to, it did not. In fact, the car felt sporty right away. Shifts are smooth and the engine revs nicely.
Although the Matrix is quite light it's not as fast as expected as the base engine only delivers 130 horsepower. Nonetheless judicious use of the gears allows one to have fun. The engine is buzzy, which will appeal to younger buyers but might become a little annoying to older people.
Steering is precise and even if the center of gravity is relatively high there is little body roll. In fact the Matrix feels just like any other small sporty car. That's not surprising as it uses many components straight from the sporty Toyota Celica.
In keeping with the car's sporty attributes, the brakes are effective.
We also drove the sporty XRS with the 180-horsepower engine. The power increase comes from variable valve timing and lift, which comes into play between 6000 rpm and the 8400-rpm redline. At lower revs the engine delivers no more performance than the stock 130-horsepower engine, so you need to keep it wound up in the upper part of the rev range to tap into its performance. The engine does not generate much additional power until you rev it to about 6500 rpm. The six-speed gearbox ratios are the same as those used in the Celica, but the Matrix uses taller tires effectively giving it taller gear ratios. So you need to wind it up before shifting into the next gear to enjoy good acceleration performance. After screaming around with the engine running at 7000 rpm all day, I came to the conclusion that the XRS was not nearly as pleasant as the XR.
For this reason, I recommend the standard or XR models unless you like screaming around at high rpm.
The 4WD model is not as sporty as the two-wheel-drive models. Slightly less power (7 horsepower less), more weight (185 pounds more) and friction from the all-wheel-drive system reduce acceleration performance. Also, four-wheel drive is only available with an automatic transmission. It should offer benefits to people living in the snow belt, however.
Whether we call the Toyota Matrix a crossover utility or a street performance utility or a hatchback or a baby SUV or a wagon, it's one cool car that should appeal to drivers looking for a practical car with street credibility. Dare we say it? This is a modern iteration of the PT Cruiser.
Even more impressive than the cool looks and sporty appeal is the starting price of $14,670. It's a lot of car for a great price.