There’s speculation among those who pay attention to these things that Toyota’s Matrix, the sort of crossover-ey, wagon-ey, hatchback-ey compact, won’t make the cut when the next generation of the Corolla – on which it is based – arrives in 2012 or 2013.
Apparently our American cousins, who are averse to anything with a hatch in the back, have virtually stopped buying them, which could be the kiss of death for this pleasant enough to drive and very practical vehicle that we pleasant enough and generally practical Canadians have been buying in more than acceptable numbers through two generations now.
Toyota Canada officials won’t comment on the Matrix’s fate – it’s a decision that will be made above their corporate pay grade anyway – but it’s a safe bet they’re casting a strong vote for a continuation of this made-in-Canada model. Matrix, plus the Corolla and RAV4, which are built in Canada (as is the Lexus RX350) account for about 50 per cent of Toyota sales. The Canadian company would confirm there will be a carryover 2012 model Matrix.
The second-generation Matrix arrived for the 2009 model year and received minor tweaks for 2011 that included alterations to grille and fascias on the sporty XRS version and restyled wheel covers, new safety features, standard flat-bottomed steering wheel with audio controls, audio upgrades and a few other odds and ends on the other models.
The most significant across-the-range addition is Toyota’s Star Safety System, which includes Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist and Smart Stop, which cuts engine power if someone plants their feet on both brake and gas pedals in a panic situation. Backing these systems up are a six-pack of airbags.
The Matrix, which Toyota markets as a crossover, likely to help potential buyers get over any hangups with it actually being a hatchback Corolla, is available in three variants. The base front-driver, with 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine, starts at $16,715, the Matrix XRS with its sporty pretensions and a 2.4-litre, 158-hp engine lists for $24,075 and the AWD with the same motor for $24,070.
The subject of this review is the base front-drive model, but equipped with a $1,010 automatic transmission and the “S” package of goodies, which loads it down with a considerable amount of stuff, for a not-inconsiderable $6,405 and revs the price (plus freight and PDI) to the $25,655 redline.
As you might imagine, the base Matrix comes with a decent enough but pretty utilitarian level of equipment – a five-speed manual gearbox and wind-up windows for example – basically all the things you need plus an audio system to keep you amused but not, obviously, all the things most of us would like.
The “S” package takes care of that by adding all the usual power assist features, keyless entry, air conditioning, a better and more fully featured audio system, Bluetooth capability, moon roof, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob inside. And outside, adding a little more flare to styling that’s already pretty neat, are a sports grille, 17-inch wheels, colour-keyed mirrors, fog lamps and other dress-up touches topped off with a roof spoiler and a chrome exhaust tip.
The Matrix’s interior has room aplenty for four people – driver and front passenger seats are comfortable and moderately supportive – and, while put together with compact category plastic, it doesn’t look cheap.
The instrument cluster treatment is pretty gee-whiz, but works, and adding to the crossover-like flavour is a gear change lever and gate that protrude from an extension of the centre stack. The new steering wheel fills the hands nicely and looks sporty, interior noise levels are low at highway speeds and under the rear hatch there’s 1,365 litres of cargo space with the rear seatbacks folded.
Responsible for dragging all this around by its front wheels is a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine that’s rated at 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. With only four ratios available in the automatic transmission plus the added weight of all that “sport” package paraphernalia, performance falls decidedly into the adequate category. It goes well enough to keep up with downtown traffic, but be prepared to plant your right foot hard on the carpet when faced with a short-ish freeway on-ramp or passing on a two-lane road’s dotted line. Fuel economy ratings of 8.1 litres/100 km city and 6.3 highway are certainly competitive but you’ll need a light foot to come close to replicating them.
The optional package 17-inch alloy wheels are shod with P215/45R17 all-season tires but that seems to be the extent of the handling upgrades to the independent front/twist-beam axle rear suspension. Response to input through the electric power steering is fairly direct and body roll controlled well enough that the Matrix changes direction and corners confidently.
The Matrix, like most Toyota products, isn’t a vehicle you’ll work up a lick of lust for, but also typically it covers all the bases it’s supposed to with a reassuring degree of competence.
2011 Toyota Matrix
Type: Compact hatchback
Base Priced: $16,715; as tested, $25,655
Engine: 1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 132 hp/128 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city/6.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf wagon, Kia Soul, Chevrolet HHR, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Mazda5