"Matrix has wagon versatility and is definitely more youthful looking...but at heart, it's an economy car."
Good: all-wheel drive, roomy, cool styling
Bad: red instrument lights, ride, visiblity

 

The Toyota Matrix has a number of things going for it. It has a neat looking "tall SUV-ish wagon" exterior. It has good, versatile interior room. It has Toyota reliability. It has optional all-wheel drive. And it's cheap -- relatively cheap. The basic two-wheel-drive Matrix has a Cars.com target price of $14,430, while the fancier, all-wheel-drive version we drove has a target price of around $18,400. What it doesn't have is much in the way of sporty handling or excess power. But what do you want for 18 grand?

Toyota used to make a Corolla wagon, which had many happy customers. Well, not that many, I guess, because Toyota dumped it. Now, the Matrix fills that slot in Toyota's lineup. It's based on the new Corolla platform. It's got wagon versatility and optional all-wheel drive. It's definitely more youthful looking, with a tall roofline and SUV inspired design details. But at heart it's an economy car. This is good...if you're looking for an economy car. But if you're looking for a sporty wagon, we'd have to send you elsewhere.


The engine in the Matrix is adequate. It's the same 1.8 liter, 130-horsepower four-cylinder that's used in the Corolla. It's incredibly smooth, and feels like it has plenty of pep for errands around town. But out on the highway, the engine feels a little under-prepared. The Matrix starts to run out of steam on uphill grades on the interstate, often forcing the transmission to shift down a gear just to maintain speed.

Toyota does offer a souped-up version of the Matrix, the XRS, with a 180-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- the same engine used in the Celica GTS. We're sure it's a lot faster and perhaps it handles better (we haven't driven one yet), but you can't get all-wheel drive on the XRS, which makes it a lot less appealing to us.

Unlike most Toyotas, we found the Matrix's ride to be a bit harsh. We also found the body lean in corners to be irritating, and the lack of passing power unfortunate at times. It wasn't awful, but it was a reminder of the Matrix's economy car roots.


 

For a small car the Matrix has a generous amount of room inside. How did they do it? Mirrors? Powerful magnetic fields? No, Toyota did it by wisely giving the Matrix a tall roofline, much like the Echo and the Ford Focus. The result is a spacious feel with plenty of head room. The seats themselves are covered in a rugged-looking synthetic material that looks like it could be washed off with a hose (not that we'd suggest doing that). It did seem nearly Zuzu-proof in our extensive canine scientific tests (hypothetical tests, that is -- you know we would never allow a dog into a test vehicle).

There's 22 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, which expands to a little more than 53 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. That's decent, but not huge; it's less than you'd get in a Toyota RAV4 or even a Subaru Impreza wagon. But it's sufficient for most Home Depot search-and-retrieve missions. Scattered through the interior are a plethora of cubbies large and small, from a reasonably sized glove compartment to hard bins under the seats to a chintzy storage console between the front seats.

 

We have one gripe about the interior, and it's not something that's usually a problem with station wagons: The visibility to the sides and rear isn't so hot. There are two reasons for the mediocre visibility. First, the "belt line"-- the line between the body of the car and the windows -- rises from the front of the car to the back, making the windows get progressively smaller from front to back. Second, the driver's seat is quite low down, close to the car's floor. The combination of those two factors makes it hard to see what's directly next to you. So when you're pulling into or out of a parking space, for instance, it's hard to see where the car right next to you on the passenger side ends. It's an odd sensation.

The Matrix comes with anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, an air-filtration system, AM-FM-CD player and a tilt wheel. Power windows and locks are standard on the XR model and optional on the base model. Side air bags are available only on the XRS model.


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In general, Toyota did a pretty good job in terms of ergonomics. The shifter juts out of a little pod on the dashboard, like it does in the Lexus RX300 and the Toyota Highlander. It's a pretty benign change, and one that we had no trouble getting used to. The ventilation controls are three easy-to-use dials, and the dash vents make satisfying clicks as you adjust them.

 

But, then, there's the red lighting of the instruments. It's not that we object to red lighting, per se. It's just that in order to read the numbers in daylight, you have to crank the dash brightness to its highest setting. Then, when you start the car in the evening, you get blinded by the glow and have to turn it down again. In its effort to be stylish, Toyota has created a daily hassle for drivers.

 

The radio was a pain in the tuchus to operate and nearly impossible to read in direct sunlight. Even after driving around in the Matrix for five days, we still couldn't remember which of the identical little buttons switched between AM and FM, for instance. It's not awful, and we'd never suggest that it's a reason not to buy a Matrix, but it certainly could be better.

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Toyota went to great lengths to make this vehicle look distinctive. In general, they were able to do quite a lot with what is basically a small wagon. The body panels rise up toward the back of the car, while the high roof comes down toward the back to meet them. That, and the creases in the side panels create a sense of motion. It's a cool looking little car.

Like every other Toyota, the Matrix should prove to be exceptionally reliable. We'd expect it to be as reliable as every other Toyota -- which means that you'll be tired of it long before it throws in the towel.


And, like every other Toyota, it looks like the designers have given some thought to service and maintenance. Major components like the water pump, timing belt and alternator are easy to reach. And, there's plenty of room inside the engine compartment. Those factors should make service and maintenance costs quite manageable.


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Sporty little wagons are hot right now. There's the Ford Focus ZX, the Mazda Protege, each about $2,000 less than the Matrix, and the bargain-basement Hyundai Elantra GT, a vehicle that we liked very much at its price of $13,200. Pontiac sells the Matrix's sister car, Vibe, with minor styling differences and different standard options, for slightly different prices. And there's the venerable VW Golf. All of these wagons are versatile vehicles, offering room for dogs, groceries and stuff you want to haul to the Antiques Road Show. But only the Matrix, Vibe and Impreza can offer all-wheel drive. And that's a real plus in parts of the country where it snows. These are not vehicles you're going to take off road. But for relatively little extra money, you can have the peace of mind that AWD offers in lousy weather.The Matrix is an economy car that offers a lot. Aside from the versatility and all-wheel drive, you get Toyota's reputation for reliability and quality. We'd recommend driving one. And if the driving position and visibility don't bother you, we'd have no reason to dissuade you from buying a Matrix.

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