The Toyota Matrix combines cargo utility and fuel economy in a compact car that offers a choice of engines and all-wheel drive. Developed in tandem with the Corolla sedan, the Matrix is essentially the five-door hatchback wagon version of the Corolla. In fact, Toyota refers to it as the Toyota Corolla Matrix.
Whatever you call it, the Matrix is a sensible choice for many people. It can carry four big people or drop three seats and slide a short board inside; four doors and a hatch make loading kids, dogs and miscellaneous cargo a cinch.
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 equipoment. The 2012 Matrix carries over unchanged, though for 2012 Matrix includes free maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles.
Matrix is available in two grades: base Matrix L and sporty Matrix S. Matrix L comes with a 1.8-liter engine, while the Matrix S gets a more powrful 2.4-liter engine. Front-wheel drive is standard and the Matrix S is available with all-wheel drive. Matrix L offers a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. Matrix S comes with 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. Matrix S AWD comes with a 4-speed automatic.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 26/32 mpg for a Matrix L (1.8-liter) with manual gearbox, 21/29 mpg for a Matrix S (2.4-liter) with 5-speed automatic. All models run on Regular unleaded gasoline.
We recommend the 1.8-liter Matrix L with manual gearbox as the best model. We found the base Matrix 1.8 with 5-speed manual more fun to drive than a 2.4-liter Matrix S with an automatic. The 1.8-liter engine isn't as powerful, of course, but it revs more freely and is more of a driver's engine. However, if choosing an automatic transmission, we think the 2.4-liter engine with 5-speed automatic is the best choice. Matrix S AWD is best for the Snow Belt with its all-wheel drive.
Check out the Matrix if you want the reliable reputation of the Corolla with less visual boredom, if you need a urban runabout that's cheap to buy and run, or just because it's logically all you really need for bumping around in heavy traffic. The Matrix doesn't stand out anywhere as much as it provides a useful, better than average package for any purpose short of pickup-sized building materials or a trip to the red carpet.
By price and hatchback design, Matrix competes with roomy compact cars such as the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Golf. It's also an alternative to small vans and crossovers.
The 2012 Toyota Matrix L ($18,845) uses a 1.8-liter engine and comes standard with fabric upholstery, air conditioning, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, AM/FM/CD stereo compatible with MP3/WMA files, input jack and XM satellite radio, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Optitron electroluminescent gauges with tachometer, power mirrors, intermittent wipers, engine immobilizer, and cargo cover. A 5-speed manual gearbox comes standard, a 4-speed automatic transmission is available as a separate model ($19,685). Matrix L comes with 16-inch steel wheels with 205/55HR16 tires. The L Sport Package includes front and rear underbody spoilers, integrated fog lights.
Matrix S ($19,565) comes with the 2.4-liter engine and is upgraded over the base model with sport-fabric upholstery, six-speaker audio, power windows and locks, keyless entry, intermittent rear wiper, 115-volt AC outlet and larger rear brakes. Options include a JBL sound system or navigation with real-time traffic, moonroof, rear spoiler, cruise control, electrochromic interior mirror w/compass, 17-inch alloy wheels, all-weather package. A 5-speed manual is standard; a 5-speed automatic is available ($20,755). Matrix S comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels with 205/55HR16 tires.
Matrix S AWD ($21,715) comes with the 2.4-liter engine, a 4-speed automatic and all-wheel drive, plus a fully independent rear suspension, larger rear brakes, and the all-weather package as standard.
The Sport Package for Matrix S includes five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/45WR17 tires, underbody spoilers, color-keyed rear spoiler. A Premium Package for Matrix S models includes tilt/slide moonroof with sliding sunshade, overhead console with maplights, sunglasses storage and moonroof functions, upgraded audio with six speakers, SiriusXM Satellite Radio capability, auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod connectivity, auto sound leveling, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, Bluetooth streaming music, steering wheel with audio and phone controls.
Safety features that come on all models include front airbags, front side airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes with brake assist, VSC electronic stability control with traction control, and the federally mandated tire pressure monitor.
The Toyota Matrix is essentially the wagon/hatch version of the Corolla. The Corolla is about seven inches longer and half that lower, excepting headroom has larger interior dimensions but a smaller trunk. The Matrix hatchback eases loading awkward objects, the upright stance gives a slightly better view of traffic, and it offers all-wheel drive and a rear wiper for inclement weather.
Matrix S is distinguished by a longer, lower front fascia with outer black nacelles for 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 are well-placed for tall-driver headroom and short-driver visibility, and provide good support for the length of time it takes to burn a tank of gas, which is a long time in one of these. The wheel tilts and telescopes but the latter's travel is limited and, with the clutch pedal much closer than the brake pedal, may require some minor driver adaptation.
The illuminated gauges are easy to see regardless of conditions, and forward viewing is good unless you need to actually see the hood to gauge where it is. Direct rear view isn't bad either with no big central headrest in the way, but your first head turn to check a rear quarter lane change will show just how big those C-pillars are.
Three-ring climate controls deliver air where and when you want it without excessive fan noise; AC is standard. 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. There are three belts, used simultaneously only by small kids, and 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. If you want to hide cargo from view there's an optional tonneau you attach at the corners. Fold the rear seats down and cargo space expands. The floor and rear seatbacks have plastic runners to ease the loading of cargo and there are tie-down rings to secure it. The front-passenger seatback folds flat for long items or to provide a place to work the laptop (when parked, that is).
The Toyota Matrix offers a choice of 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.
All the automatics behave nicely.
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 functions 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. (And we aren't blaming electric steering as a concept because other cars use it with better results.) 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.
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 correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report after test driving all the various models of the Toyota Matrix in North Carolina.