The Toyota Matrix is essentially a tall yet compact wagon, with a dash of sporty style thrown in to give this practical vehicle some “cool” factor. It’s typically been marketed toward younger car shoppers, though in actuality, buyers of all ages have been drawn to this car’s desirable mix of attributes.
There are two generations of the Toyota Matrix, the more recent one debuting for 2009. Both generations, however, follow a similar formula. Based on the Corolla sedan, the Matrix has enough space inside to carry items up to 8 feet long. This, along with the cargo area’s durable plastic load floor, presents the opportunity to carry varied items, from home improvement materials to large sporting goods such as bikes or a kayak. Comfortable front buckets and a roomy, well-shaped rear seat make the Matrix just as adept at transporting people.
The main downside to both Matrix generations is that they’re not particularly rewarding to drive. But for the practical-minded, this will likely be of little concern. Boasting high fuel economy, a smooth ride, a roomy cabin, available all-wheel drive and reliable Toyota genes, the Matrix is one of the best choices available — new or used — for a small wagon or hatchback.
The newest Toyota Matrix is available in three trim levels: base, S and XRS. Base models have a respectable amount of convenience and safety features as standard or optional, though the S comes with more of them as standard equipment. The XRS is the top-level trim and also boasts bigger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension.
On the base Matrix, you’ll find a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 132 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic is optional. The S and XRS models upgrade to a 2.4-liter engine that makes 158 hp. On the XRS and front-drive S, you can get a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. An all-wheel-drive version of the Matrix S is also available; it comes with a four-speed automatic only.
Compared to older Matrix models, the new one boasts a vastly better driving position, with credit going to the new telescoping steering wheel and increased seat-track travel. The controls are laid out to ergonomic near perfection. In back, the tall, deep bench is comfortable for children and adults alike, and it folds completely flat in 60/40 sections.
On the road, the base Toyota Matrix feels a bit pokey in terms of acceleration, though its engine does provide superior fuel economy. The extra torque from the 2.4-liter engine makes the driving experience more relaxed, particularly in regards to passing. Around corners, the Matrix is balanced and predictable, and overall ride quality is very comfortable. But even in XRS trim, the Matrix is still not a very exciting car to pilot, largely due to its low-feedback steering.
The first-generation Toyota Matrix was introduced for the 2003 model year. Toyota offered it in base, XR and XRS trim levels. The lower two trims came with a 130-hp, 1.8-liter engine and either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The XRS came with a high-winding 180-hp 1.8-liter engine and an exclusive six-speed manual transmission. In 2006, the XRS’ final year, the engine was re-rated to 164 hp due to new testing procedures, but actual performance was unchanged.
In editorial reviews, we noted that the 1.8-liter equipped Matrix offered adequate acceleration in most circumstances, but its dearth of low-end torque was apparent on uphill grades. Manual-equipped Matrix wagons tended to offer more pep than those equipped with automatic transmissions. Handling was somewhat less than engaging; still, commuters and road trippers will likely appreciate the wagon’s smooth, comfortable ride.
Inside, this Matrix charmed with its solid quality and versatility. Fit and finish was above average, and the cargo area and backside of the rear seats were finished with an easy-to-clean plastic as well as specialized cargo tracks.
If you’re interested in a used Toyota Matrix, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, early Matrix models were missing a couple of important safety features: side airbags and stability control. These features were added (as options) in model-year 2005. Also note that stability control was offered only on models equipped with an automatic transmission. You also might encounter all-wheel-drive versions of the Matrix or Matrix XR; they produced slightly less power and came with the automatic only. All-wheel drive was discontinued for the 2007 model year.