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

Windsor, Ontario – Alongside the all-new, tenth-generation 2009 Corolla, Toyota has another new model up its sleeve: the equally redesigned 2009 Matrix.

The Matrix is the Corolla in a more cargo-friendly package; the first generation car was introduced in February 2002 as a model-year 2003, and is now entering its second generation. The 2009 version also marks the return of all-wheel drive and the sporty XRS model, last seen in the 2006 version.

Although the Corolla is a global product – it’s offered in some 140 countries – the Matrix was designed specifically for North American sales, and it’s only sold over here. Not only that, but it’s only built in one factory, at Toyota’s facility in Cambridge, Ontario; about 25 per cent of production traditionally remains in Canada. As before, the all-new Matrix will also be transformed into the Pontiac Vibe, which happens at the General Motors/Toyota joint venture NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) in California.

2009 Toyota Matrix
2009 Toyota Matrix. Click image to enlarge

As with the outgoing 2008 model, the Matrix offers a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine, but it’s a new version; it makes 132 horsepower to the previous 126, and 128 lb-ft of torque to the old engine’s 122 lb-ft. Another difference this time around is that it’s only offered in the base, front-wheel drive model. The front-wheel XR and XRS, and the all-wheel drive model use a new 2.4-litre four-cylinder that makes 158 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. The FWD models all start with a five-speed manual transmission that can be optioned to a four-speed automatic in the base FWD; the XR and XRS upgrade to a five-speed automatic with manual mode. The AWD model, which comes in a single trim line, uses the four-speed automatic exclusively.

Pricing has yet to be announced, although if it’s true to form it should prove to be an affordable little runabout; the 2008 models start at $17,200.

As does the 2009 Corolla, the Matrix rides on the same wheelbase as its predecessor, with much of its platform changed but not completely all-new. Unlike the Corolla, which grew wider and lower, the Matrix’s overall measurements change only slightly: it’s 15 mm longer than before, 10 mm narrower, the height comes down by 20 mm, and while the front tread is 3 mm narrower, the rear wheels move further apart by 20 mm. Still, it looks entirely changed, thanks to sleeker styling, a more raked windshield, and new front and rear styling with wraparound taillights and rear glass. Despite the lowered roof, there’s still plenty of headroom inside.

2009 Toyota Matrix
2009 Toyota Matrix. Click image to enlarge

All models use a MacPherson front strut suspension. In the XRS model, as well as the AWD, the torsion-beam rear suspension found in the base and XR models is swapped out for an independent double-wishbone rear suspension. Oddly, the Corolla XRS doesn’t share that rear-end treatment; Toyota has expressed hope that younger buyers will find their way to the Matrix, and perhaps this will broaden its appeal to the still-important tuner-car crowd.

Like the Corolla, the Matrix also receives some long-overdue safety updates, including standard anti-lock brakes (including brake force distribution and brake assist, and discs on all four wheels), active front head restraints and six airbags on all models. Previously, ABS could only be added as part of a package on the up-level XR, and side and curtain airbags weren’t available at all. Vehicle stability and traction control, also previously unavailable, are now standard on the XRS and available on the XR and AWD models.

Also new for 2009 on all models are standard electric power steering, tilt and telescopic wheel, power mirrors, MP3/WMA-compatible CD stereos with auxiliary input jacks, and a new soft tonneau cover that cleverly folds in half and stores under the floor when it’s not needed (and, with a little dexterity, can double as a sunshade for the front window when parking).

The AWD’s system shares its transfer case with the Toyota RAV4, and runs in front-wheel drive until torque is required at the rear wheels, whereupon it can split the power to a maximum of 45/55. It’s the same theory as the previous 2006 AWD model, but it senses slippage and transfers torque much faster than before.

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

Inside, as before, the Matrix differs considerably from its Corolla cousin. The overall design of the instrument cluster and centre stack is similar to the previous-generation Matrix, but with new switchgear that gives it a smoother appearance. The instrument cluster now incorporates three pods instead of four, with a new brushed metallic edge to them; the previous cluster used chrome accent rings that could be blinding if they caught the sunlight, but I didn’t notice that with the new version. All models use glowing Optitron gauges, with needles that sweep the gauges on start-up. As before, the vents open and close readily, and spin for ease of use, while the new round climate control dials are easier to grasp with gloves than the old ones. The 1.8-litre-equipped Matrix has an electric pre-heater that sends out warm air immediately upon start-up until the coolant heats up sufficiently to do the job.

The redesigned seats are comfortable, and only the base model lacks a flat-folding front passenger seat. As before, the rear seats fold easily and completely flat. The rear cargo area has also been improved; previously, the cargo hold was a hard plastic surface that was easy to clean but very slippery. It’s still all plastic, but now there are anti-slip strips that keep large objects from sliding around. The previous movable cleats are gone, but there are still rings on the sides should you want to tie anything down – and there’s probably less chance of that, given that it’s less likely your things will slip-slide away. Under-floor storage includes a removable panel behind the rear seats that hides a trough with dividers. The liftgate, which opens as one piece (the rear window is fixed) is perfectly balanced and closes on its own with just a tug.

There’s a lot of small-item cargo storage up front, too, with cupholder inserts that can be removed to turn the space into a larger cubby, along with door pockets that will hold water bottles and a nicely-sized glovebox.

The Matrix remains a very smooth driver. It’s nimble, and the electric power steering is dialed in very well; these systems can have a numb, artificial feeling to them, but Toyota has done a good job with this one. The XRS is tweaked for a sportier feel. My time in the Matrix was limited and I didn’t get to drive that model, although I piloted the Corolla XRS and noticed the snappier touch to it there. The Matrix isn’t a sports car, but it was never meant to be one; the majority of its audience wants a comfortable and reliable car that goes in the direction it’s pointed with a minimum of fuss, and it delivers that in spades.

An unexpected snowstorm had the company scrambling to equip our cars with winter tires, and so the ride was a bit noisier than with the standard all-season radials, but overall, the Matrix proved quiet, with no wind noise, rattles or squeaks, and with very little growl from the engine.

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

The combination of 1.8-litre and four-speed automatic works very well, but when that transmission is mated to the 2.4-litre in the Matrix AWD, it’s obvious that a cog is missing. The AWD really wants the five-speed automatic available on the XR and XRS, but Toyota engineers told me that it won’t fit on the AWD transaxle, and that the four-speed was all that was available to them. Hopefully a future update will include a five-speed unit.

During the vehicle’s launch, Toyota took us out to a test track set up in a snow-covered parking lot, where we were invited to “drag race” two Matrix models in front- and all-wheel drive. Normally I’m not a fan of these “slip-and-grip” types of all-wheel systems, but with both vehicles wearing identical snow slippers, the AWD dug in and left the FWD in its wake, with virtually no wheel spin evident when the tracks in the snow were examined. It’s not a substitute for proper driving in poor conditions, but it’s a pretty impressive system nevertheless.

Despite the growing popularity of crossover vehicles, the tall wagon remains a viable segment with vehicles like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Suzuki SX4, Chevrolet HHR and Nissan Versa. The Matrix has always been near the top of the heap, and this redesign can do nothing other than strengthen that. This is a well-done makeover, with enough changes to make it interesting, but with familiarity that will be comforting to longtime fans of the model. Even if you liked the old one, you’ll probably like this one a whole lot better.

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2009 Toyota Matrix
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