The 2009 Toyota Matrix is supposed to be very influential, just as the original Matrix proved when it was introduced in 2003. This tall wagon-style compact based on the Toyota Corolla had a sport-utility flavor but drove like a car, making it one of the first crossovers with an affordable price tag. Its big backseat and dog-friendly cargo bay made utility kind of cool. Without the Matrix, the Mazda3 five-door, Scion xB and even the Audi A3 might not have achieved the coolness they have today.
So you can imagine our surprise when David Terai, chief engineer for the 2009 Toyota Matrix, tells us, "During extensive meetings all over the country with customers, owners and dealers, we found that the current Matrix was seen far too often as a small, conventional, practical wagon."
We're not sure why this is a bad thing. Maybe it has something to do with the plan to sell the redesigned second-generation Matrix to males in the 20-to-35-year-old range when the 2009 Toyota Matrix goes on sale in February 2008. Probably you don't want to be talking about kids or strollers in front of these guys.
Same Size, Two Engines, Three Trims
The 2009 Toyota Matrix has much the same dimensions as the one before, just as the made-over Corolla doesn't vary a bit from the one before. The rear track is wider by an inch, but that's it.
Inside, there's just as much space as before, although increased front seat-track travel and a standard telescoping steering wheel provide a vastly better driving position. Toyota reports a major increase in overall passenger volume from 96 cubic feet to 114 cubic feet and also claims a total cargo capacity increase from 53 cubes to 61.5 cubic feet, but we can't find it when we're sitting in the cabin.
Expected to account for 40 percent of sales, the base-model Matrix has a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine good for 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels is standard, but the optional automatic transmission has just four forward gears.
More than 50 percent of buyers will choose the S, ostensibly to take advantage of its Camry-sourced 2.4-liter engine, which makes 158 hp at 6,000 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is again standard for the S model, but the automatic is now a five-speed as well. You can get all-wheel drive if you want, but you'll have to make do with a four-speed automatic.
That leaves just 5 percent of buyers for the 2009 Toyota Matrix XRS, the image car in the model lineup complete with an upgraded suspension and 18-inch wheels. This is the car Toyota will use to court that coveted male audience, not to mention current Mazda3 and Scion owners.
Stronger but Calmer XRS
If you've driven a 2003-'06 Matrix XRS (or its Pontiac Vibe GT counterpart), you'll remember it well. Motivating it was the Yamaha-built 1.8-liter engine from the now-departed Celica GT-S. You had to spin this hard-working little engine past 4,000 rpm to get any torque, and it was trying to do business in a chassis that was at best a reluctant co-conspirator. Schizophrenic was the only way to describe the result.
Toyota has largely resolved this contradiction with the 2009 Toyota Matrix XRS. The new 2.4-liter engine is more in keeping with the character of a small but chunky wagon, and it delivers solid, useful throttle response off idle. The power curve builds steadily through the midrange, and the engine revs smoothly and quietly.
Since AWD is not available for the XRS, our test car's manual transmission drives the front wheels. The clutch takeup could be a bit smoother off the line, but otherwise the gearchange is snappy, with a positive feel through the gates.
Toyota expects the XRS to get to 60 mph in the low 8-second range. No one's going to get excited over a number like this, though it puts the Matrix roughly on par with the four-door Volkswagen Rabbit, which has a 170-hp five-cylinder engine and takes about 8 seconds even to hit 60.
Fuel economy could be a sticking point for some, however, as the Matrix isn't able to deliver typical Toyota gas mileage when equipped with the 2.4-liter engine. With a manual gearbox, the Matrix XRS has a 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway rating, while automatics do one better on highway mileage.
While the drivetrain is kinder and gentler, the XRS suspension has more of an edge to it than before. The sportiest Toyota Matrix finally gets an independent rear suspension — a double-wishbone design — in place of the torsion beam used on most trims. (The AWD S model also has an independent rear suspension to enable the rear differential to be adapted to the package.)
In addition, the XRS has standard stability control, a strut tower brace up front, firmer springs and dampers at each corner, and 18-inch wheels with 215/45R18 tires. But these big wheels mean the XRS can't turn as tight a circle as other Matrix models with 16s — 38 feet versus 36.
Electric power steering is standard for every '09 Matrix. Although the steering ratio is pretty much the same on all trim levels, Toyota says it tuned the XRS for more positive on-center feel and a more noticeable build-up in effort off-center.
But Maybe Not More Speed
This all sounds encouraging, and indeed our Matrix XRS tester proved quite capable on back roads. Body roll is minimal, and the steering is nicely weighted just as Toyota said it would be. Even the feel of the brake pedal action is pleasantly linear.
For all its capability, the 2009 Toyota Matrix XRS fails to engage you in the process. This wagon can make time through the turns, but it doesn't give you much feedback through either the steering or the seat of your pants, so you're not inspired to pursue anything more stimulating than cruising speed.
As a commuter car, the Matrix XRS makes a lot of sense, given its compliant ride quality. But a car with a strut tower brace, big tires and a body kit should make you think of something more than a practical commute to work.
A Space for Living
Attractive, space-efficient interior design remains the best attribute of Toyota's compact wagon, even in XRS trim.
A three-spoke steering wheel and gauges in individual binnacles provide a suitably sporty ambience, and it's backed up by ample storage space, simple controls and quality materials. In addition, Toyota has reworked the exhaust packaging so front-wheel-drive models now offer a nearly flat floor, making it easier to seat three passengers across in back.
The one change that disappoints us is the deletion of the clever in-floor, adjustable cargo-track system, which we're told most owners weren't using. In its place you'll find fixed tie-down points and rubber inserts designed to keep cargo from sliding around.
As before, both the rear seats and the front passenger seat fold completely flat. The protective plastic coating on the seatbacks is even sturdier in the '09 model, so you can load up wet dogs and mountain bikes without a second thought.
Not the Car It Wants To Be
Despite its impressive levels of refinement, the 2009 Toyota Matrix XRS is not an athlete. Sure, the Matrix XRS is quicker and more agile than in years past, but it doesn't come close to matching the entertainment value of a Mazda3.
For us this is kind of disappointing, but we doubt it will bother the 70,000 people who will decide to purchase a Matrix in 2008. In base, S or XRS trim, this remains a perfectly practical small wagon that you'll purchase for rational reasons rather than emotional ones.
And there's no shame in that, because nobody does rational as well as Toyota.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.