Toyota’s long-running Matrix four-door hatchback continues to deliver what’s important to the majority of small-car buyers: economical operation, spunky looks, easy maneuvering in traffic, and decent comfort for the money. The Matrix shares its basic platform and drivetrain with the popular Corolla sedan, but differentiates itself with hatchback versatility and available AWD. If Toyota still made a Corolla wagon, it would probably look and feel a lot like the Matrix.
Two models are offered for 2013: valued-minded L and sporty S. The L carries most of the standard equipment buyers expect in today's passenger cars like air conditioning , power windows, and a modern sound system with younger buyers in mind. It also starts just below $20,000, an important threshold for buyers on a budget. The L’s 1.8-liter four cylinder produces 132 horsepower, and a four-speed automatic is available in place of the standard stick.
The Matrix S comes with a 2.4-liter four, providing a considerable boost to 158 horsepower, in addition to sportier exterior trim and larger tires. The optional automatic transmission has five speeds, one more than the L’s automatic. The greatest mechanical advantage of the S is the availability of AWD. Of course, the added power of the S takes some of the luster off its gas mileage. An automatic-equipped Matrix S returns about 24 mpg in mixed highway and city driving, whereas the the L's 1.8-liter with auto gets about 28. You'll probably be able to eek out an extra mile per gallon from either model by sticking with the standard manual tranmission. Note that a manual is not available on AWD models, which get about 22 mpg.
The Matrix is a familiar face in the small car field and has built a reputation for reliability. Along with its longevity comes the fact that newly redesigned competitors such as the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra offer fresher styling and more modern drivetrains. It’s expected that the Matrix will either be redesigned next year along the lines of the new-for-2014 Corolla or discontinued. If you’re interested in a reliable and reasonably sporty hatchback, especially one with AWD, this might be your last chance to get one from Toyota.