Matrix is a wagon that looks like a SUV

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Car shoppers don't have to give up cargo space and utility when they give up their gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

They just need to look for a wagon -- especially a small one like the 2009 Toyota Matrix that's rated at 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway.

These numbers make the four-cylinder Matrix the top-ranked wagon in gasoline mileage in the United States. Only the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta SportWagon gets a better mileage rating.

Best of all, the Matrix has an SUV-like 61.5 cubic feet of cargo space and is affordable, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,850 for a base, front-wheel drive model with manual transmission.

The lowest starting price for a Matrix with automatic is $17,660, and an all-wheel drive Matrix starts at $21,060.

These prices put the Matrix amid other small wagons and five-door hatchbacks. For example, the Matrix twin, the 2009 Pontiac Vibe, starts at $15,895 but isn't offered in all the trim levels of the Matrix. The Matrix starting price is lower than that of the 2008 Mazda3 hatchback, which starts at $19,625.

Revamped for 2009 with more powerful four-cylinder engines and updated interior and exterior, the Matrix looks like a five-door wagon whose styling tries its darndest to look young and hip. The car has lower body kit pieces and an expressive lower front bumper area, like what you'd expect on a car that has been customized.

And on the top XRS model, a rear spoiler at the back of the roof is standard.

The XRS, which was the test car, also comes standard with big, 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires.

But the Matrix -- sold in base, S and XRS trim -- is more than looks.

At a compact size of just over 14 feet long, it's nimble and maneuverable.

The test Matrix neatly fit into compact parking spaces, and it squeezed around double-parked cars on small, congested city streets without fuss.

The electric power steering on the test car had a light feel and so took directions easily.

Surprisingly, even with the low-profile tires, the test Matrix was quieter inside than expected, and the ride was a commendable combination of comfort and surefooted fun. The exception was on rough roads with potholes when passengers were jolted.

The XRS differs from base Matrix models and front-drive S models by using an independent, double wishbone rear suspension for improved sporty ride. There's a front strut tower brace, too, in the XRS to better control body motions.

As a result, the test Matrix XRS moved crisply around corners and handled long sweeping curves well.

My only complaint was occasional torque steer -- that jerking of the front wheels to one side when the front-drive car got more power to the wheels than it could evidently handle.

Both Matrix four-cylinder engines are more powerful than in previous Matrix models.

The XRS and mid-level S models get a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder with Toyota's variable valve timing that operates on both intake and exhaust camshafts for optimal performance and fuel economy.

Torque peaks at 162 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm -- enough to give the 3,100- to 3,200-pound Matrix good "oomph" and a satisfyingly sporty feel for a lower-priced four-cylinder car.

Note this engine also is used in the Scion xB five-door wagon, which weighs about the same as the Matrix S.

The base Matrix engine now is a 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder with variable valve timing. This engine, with 128 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm, also is used by the Scion xD.

But trim models, engines and transmission selections are oddly complex.

There are three transmissions offered -- including four- and five-speed automatics. Shoppers will find that all-wheel drive is on just one model, the Matrix S, and this all-wheel drive Matrix S has the four-speed automatic.

Front-drive Matrix S as well as Matrix XRS models use the more modern five-speed automatic.

The base, 1.8-liter Matrix engine is the one with top gasoline mileage, but even the top-of-the-line Matrix XRS has a decent government rating of 21/29 mpg.

Though Toyota updated the Matrix interior, there's still a sense of too much hard plastic inside.

But the new front seats are great, providing improved comfort. I especially enjoyed the higher-than-usual seat positioning in the Matrix that helped me have good views ahead.

However, the back metal pillar by the cargo area still obstructs views out the back and side.

The maximum cargo capacity comes when the rear seats are folded down. This cargo area is covered by hard plastic, which can get scratched as items are slid inside and out.

I had to be sure to attach the plastic cover at the back so it was held in place. Otherwise, it drove me crazy by rattling as I drove.

Most safety equipment is standard in the Matrix, including antilock brakes, curtain air bags, front-seat side-mounted air bags and front-seat anti-whiplash head restraints.

Electronic stability control is standard on the XRS but optional on other Matrix models.

In federal government crash test ratings, the Matrix earned five out of five stars for frontal crash protection for driver and front passenger.

In side crash testing, the Matrix received five out of five stars for protection of the driver and four out of five stars for protection of the rear passenger.

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