2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR; photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge
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2009 Toyota Matrix

Winnipeg, Manitoba – A model that has been on our roads since 2002, the Matrix is now entering its second generation with an evolutionary yet thoroughly updated package. On its own, one can easily identify it as a Matrix, which isn’t a bad thing given the car’s popularity and attractive proportions. But line it up with last year’s version and it’s immediately clear that this one has a cleaner, more low-slung shape than its predecessor.

With a starting price of $15,705, the base Matrix is easy on the pocketbook and comes equipped with a 1.8-litre four-banger and five-speed manual transmission. But while the starting price may be low, so is the standard equipment list. Toyota saw fit to provide me with a mid-level XR tester with more power and creature comforts: a 2.4-litre engine boosts horsepower from 132 to 158 and, more significantly, torque goes up to 162 lb-ft from 128 in the base motor. The equipment list grows to include 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, variable intermittent wipers, and keyless entry.

2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR. Click image to enlarge

The XR’s base price is $19,180 for the manual-equipped version, or $20,735 with the new five-speed automatic transmission (the base Matrix gets a four-speed slushbox as an option). Also on the options list for the model we drove was the “B” package adding stability and traction control, attractive 17-inch alloys, steering-mounted audio controls, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, bringing the price to $22,745.

So as you can see, even though the Matrix starts way down in the mid-teens, one has to choose options carefully to keep that price under $20K – a loaded Matrix XRS stickers for almost $27,000.

Along with the subtly restyled exterior comes a cockpit that is also instantly recognizable as that of a Matrix. A relatively high seating position and short hood makes for an expansive view out the front, although I should note that those moving from the old Matrix into the new one may notice that they’re not sitting quite as high as they used to be. It’s a side effect of the new lower roofline: Toyota tells us that interior room is the same as last year.

Deep-set gauges with metallic rings and crisp markings mean that information is only a short glance away. And only a short reach of the fingertips away is the cruise control stalk, connected to the steering wheel hub and located at the four-o’clock position when the wheels are pointed straight ahead.

2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR. Click image to enlarge

The cargo hold is, like last year’s car, of the hard-plastic-surface variety which makes it easy to clean but allows objects to slide around more easily than they would were they surrounded by carpeting. There are rubberized strips that add to the friction coefficient between cargo and car, but I found those became quickly scuffed. The 60/40 rear seats easily fold flat with a pull of the seatback-mounted knobs.

Last year there was only one engine offered in the Matrix: a 1.8-litre four-banger. It was economical, but didn’t provide for very sprightly acceleration as it was lacking in the torque department. For 2009, that base engine gets a few more horses, while the aforementioned 2.4-litre unit in our tester is now standard on XR, XRS, and AWD models. The old XRS, discontinued in 2007, was powered by a high-strung version of the 1.8-litre unit that was certainly exciting but had a character more in keeping with the sleek Celica GT-S from which it was transplanted. A tall wagon is simply not the best home for a high-revving screamer.

2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR. Click image to enlarge

The new 2.4 is a refreshing change: smooth, powerful, and with a decent soundtrack to make the Matrix a car with great get-up-and-go. Of course, there’s a trade-off in the fuel consumption department. While the base 1.8 is more economical than last year’s less powerful version, at 8.1 and 6.2 litres per 100 km in city and highway ratings respectively, the big-bore four’s numbers are 9.7 and 6.9 in those same situations: thirstier, yes, but frugal nonetheless.

The five-speed automatic did a decent job of finding the right gear for the right situation. If there were times when I felt it wasn’t keeping up, I simply tapped the shift lever to the left into sport mode where it still shifted automatically but held lower gears longer for better overall response. A tap up or down from there activated manual mode for even better control of which ratio was being selected. Like many such “manumatic” transmissions, though, this one preferred to be left alone.

There’s a sporty flavour to the Matrix’s road manners: it certainly doesn’t float over bumps or allow a lot of body roll in the corners, but those looking for a comfortable ride will find it to be a bit too busy on undulating roads. Nonetheless, the Camry could take a few pointers from its spunky little sister in the handling department.

2009 Toyota Matrix XR
2009 Toyota Matrix XR. Click image to enlarge

I was surprised to learn that the Matrix has electric rather than hydraulic power assist for the rack-and-pinion steering. Such systems sometimes tend to dilute the response and communication that we like to feel from the driver’s seat, but the Matrix is immune to such drawbacks. Electric power assist is gaining popularity because it’s a simpler system that also happens to reduce engine load and therefore fuel consumption. And now as electric systems improve, designers can cater their response to enhance certain performance characteristics that buyers look for.

Pricing: 2009 Toyota Matrix XR

Base price (XR): $19,180
Options: $3,565 (automatic transmission, $1,555; “B” package (stability and traction control, 17-inch wheels, wheel mounted audio controls, leather steering wheel), $2,010

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $ 1,140
Price as tested: $23,985
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
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