2009 Toyota Matrix S AWD Review


2009 Toyota Matrix S AWD (select to view enlarged photo)
2009 Toyota Matrix

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2009 Toyota Matrix S AWD

The Matrix was introduced back in 2002 as Toyota's smallest crossover. The first SUV wave, trucks, had crested, and car-based crossovers, exemplified by Toyota's own and very popular Highlander and RAV4, were ascendent. "Crossover" was the type du jour.

Model year 2009 is upon us, and with it the next generation of the Matrix, and the Corolla on which it is based. I've reviewed the Corolla previously, and have just spent a week with a mid-grade Matrix S. As before, the Matrix is offered with front- or all-wheel drive. But it's been completely revised and restyled, and is lower and wider than the original. What few SUV-ish styling cues there were on the first-generation Matrix -- mostly faux skid plates and the look of cladding -- have disappeared, and the lower and wider proportions further distance Matrix version 2.0 from SUVdom. It now looks more like what it honestly is, a four- (or five-, if you count the rear hatch, as is the convention) door hatchback.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Hatchbacks, especially ones with rear passenger doors, are among the most useful and versatile vehicles made. They are just as useful and versatile as SUVs of any sort, if smaller. And the available AWD can be the ticket for all-season friendliness.

There are three grades, called Standard, S, and XRS. The Standard uses the newest version of the familiar 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, now with 132 horsepower and five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. The S has Toyota's 2.4-liter four, with 158 horsepower and, in front-drive trim, the choice of manual or automatic transmissions, each with five speeds. With AWD, it's four-speed automatic only, but the standard torsion-beam rear axle gets exchanged for an independent double-wishbone setup. The XRS is back, but the old high-revving 1.8-liter engine has been replaced by the 2.4, which trades a little horsepower loss for a healthy torque increase for better real-world drivability. It can be equipped with five-speed manual or automatic.

I've just spent a pleasant week with an AWD S. It seemed much sportier than I remember the mid-level Matrix being, with a firm suspension that was enhanced by the sticky tires on the optional 17-inch alloy wheels. It looks sleeker outside, and is also much-improved inside. Despite the slight loss of height, there is still plenty of space, and it's designed for maximum versatility and ease of use. The seating position is a little lower and more car-like. Actually, the entire car is more car-like, which I consider an improvement. The new engine is also an improvement over that of the late XRS, which needed to be seriously revved for any performance. This one is happy to oblige your need to move from nearly any engine speed, which also means that the four speeds of the S AWD are in no way deficient.

APPEARANCE: Matrix version 2.0 has an improved and sportier presence thanks to its re-proportioned styling. It makes excellent use of Toyota's current design language, with curves and creases disguising its basic two-box shape. Lower corner fascia extensions, slightly flared rocker panels, and noticeable humps over the wheels on the side shoulder line add a sporty look. Although a little lower and wider than its predecessor, the new Matrix is still too short to have wagon proportions. Ground clearance is more than adequate to deal with all the usual hazards of everyday life.

COMFORT: There's plenty of inside inside the Matrix. "Lower" in no way translates to deficient headroom. The new styling adds to the feeling of space and has the look of a contemporary small sports sedan, not sport utility, with a monochrome gray motif offset by subdued matte silver plastic trim. It's simple and functional, and the "optitron" backlit gauges are easy to see in all lighting conditions. Unusually for a car in its class, the steering wheel is adjustable (manually) for both tilt and reach. The shift lever is positioned in the lower part of the center stack, protruding from the dash. That's as much sports car as SUV for those of us who remember some of the quirks of Italian design. The front seats have been redesigned for a lower seating position, so headroom is not decreased, nor is comfort. Upholstery is the usual grippy cloth. The rear seat should be roomy enough for people up to six feet tall, although width limits comfort if three are back there. It's split 60/40 with plastic covering the back side for cargo duty, and long items can be carried inside if there is no front passenger by folding the front passenger seat forward, flat. Bicycles are not a problem. All doors have bottle holders, and although the glove box doesn't lock, it is large and has an auxiliary compartment above the main part.

SAFETY: All 2009 Toyota Matrix models have advanced front, seat-mounted front side, and full-length side-curtain airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, an engine immobilizer, and direct tire-pressure monitoring. Vehicle Stability Control and traction control are available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: There is sport in the handling department to complement the utility of the interior. The suspension is moderately stiff, and there is little lean in enthusiastic but license-friendly cornering. All versions have MacPherson struts in front, and S AWD and XRS models replace the standard semi-independent torsion beam rear axle with a fully-independent double wishbone system for improved adhesion. Brakes are now four-wheel antilock disc across the line, with Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist standard. The S AWD's all-wheel drive system is biased toward front-wheel drive, and sends torque to the rear wheels through an electromagnetic coupling when needed.

PERFORMANCE: Torque is your friend for good acceleration and easy driving characteristics. And with a maximum of 162 lb-ft at 4000 rpm and plenty all the way down to idle, Toyota's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has plenty of torque. As with all Toyota engines, it has an aluminum alloy block and heads and dual overhead cams. Now, both cams have VVT-i variable cam phasing for improved power and fuel economy. That means it works well with the four-speed automatic that is the only choice for the AWD model. As is common, the automatic keeps engine speed down to maximize fuel economy. If more power is needed, simply move the shift lever to manual mode and pick a gear. Any one of two or three will probably do just fine.

CONCLUSIONS: Toyota's Matrix has moved away from the wannabe-SUV look to find its inner sport hatchback, and that's a good thing.

SPECIFICATIONS- 2009 Toyota Matrix S AWD
Base Price			$ 20,400
Price As Tested			$ 22,440
Engine Type			dual overhead cam aluminum alloy
				 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
				 with VVT-i variable cam phasing
Engine Size			2.4 liters / 144 cu. in.
Horsepower			158 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			162 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		102.4 in. / 171.9 in.
Curb Weight			3360 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		21.3
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/45R17 87 W Goodyear Eagle RS-A
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, EBD, BA standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 part-time all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est 8.5  sec


OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Cruise Control					$ 250
17" Alloy Wheels with P215/45R17 tires		$ 880
VSC and TRAC with off switch			$ 250
Destination charge				$ 660

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