2009 Toyota Matrix XRS Review
By Alex Kalogiannis
As many of you may know, or will soon come to know in the near future, your college years are usually when one learns many harsh lessons of frugality and practicality. Mommy isn’t there to make you mash & peas and Daddy isn’t around to dole out allowance. You are left to discover how to subsist on ramen noodles and to be clothed in whatever is available to you, perhaps a free t-shirt from a student government association event that you volunteered your precious time to. This is all well and good since it’s now pretty fashionable to wear audacious freebies or live on food additives, but when it comes to choosing a sensible and affordable car, things start to look a little…beige. Not only beige in color but in attitude, style (if there is any) and appeal. Mercifully, there are a couple options out there for those who have freshly vacated the nest.
The Toyota Matrix is the brand’s ongoing attempt to pursue the children of Corolla owners by placing a stylish wagon on said corolla’s platform. The sportiest trim level is the XRS, which features a number of options as standard, a fully independent rear suspension and a 2.4 liter inline 4 capable of 158 hp. My test car was an eye-catching red, with optional sun roof, attractive rear lip spoiler and alloy wheels. At first appearance the Matrix looks rather hip, particularly in this hue, and gives off the kind of vibe (no bad pun intended) that says “I have many MP3s by DJs you’ve never heard of.” Speaking of vibe, the Toyota Matrix is the near identical twin to the Pontiac Vibe, which will now be phased out along with Pontiac itself, leaving the Matrix to carry on the legacy.
Inside you will find the seats are covered in cloth and everything you touch to be very plastic-feeling, save for the leather on the steering wheel. The center stack in the XRS can feature an optional navigation unit, however this particular example didn’t, but it did still have Bluetooth connectivity, much to my surprise. More often than not, connecting your phone via Bluetooth to the car’s speaker system is usually done visually, going through menus on some LCD screen, but in the Matrix, the only indication of Bluetooth connectivity are the “answer” and “hang-up” buttons on the steering wheel. After pressing one by accident, the disembodied lady voice in my Matrix ran down a list of voice commands that I would need to connect my phone. Connection was established all by following a few simple voice commands and entering a code on my phone, all done easily within a couple of minutes. Incredible. I was so pleased that this system worked so well, that I was equally disappointed when it failed on me. To be fair, it only happened once in my time with the Matrix, but when driving and receiving a call, pushing “answer” on your steering wheel confidently leads to panic and distraction when it doesn’t work.
Entertainment isn’t a problem in the Matrix. It can be equipped with satellite radio, and if you should opt out, there is an MP3-ready CD player, along with an auxiliary jack for your iPod located beneath the shift knob. You will find the sound quality to be decent, which is important since driving will not be at all enjoyable. Please note that this car will not, no matter how hard Toyota tries to convince you, bring any joy to the act of driving. The fact that it drives at all is simply meeting its required function. 158hp sounds like a fair amount of power and indeed, the Matrix will take you to and fro with little fuss, but don’t let specs like fully independent suspension fool you. The car is FWD and therefore prone to some serious understeer, which feels just awkward as you attempt to round the corner and your front wheels are spinning one way while sliding another, the back wheels just tagging along. If you decide to disengage traction control, for some reason, it wisely re-engages itself quickly. Torque steer is quite noticeable as well. One of my favorite games at stops was to press the pedal, and mind you, I didn’t say stamp, and watch the steering wheel turn violently to one direction, and then another, before I finally had to intervene. You’ll feel the torque pull slightly at a fair pace, and it’s manageable, but noticeable.
As a happening man or woman about campus, your Matrix will most likely be filled with other people of your ilk without the fortune of personal transport. Don’t be surprised to find yourself shuttling a load of compatriots to an independent production of King Lear. If you do, you will be pleased to find that the Matrix will fit four passengers in relative comfort. The car has ample headroom for all and the rear seats will fit and belt three without an atrocious amount of squeezing. There’s even plenty of legroom and cargo space behind for various items. The rear seats also fold down to maximize cargo space, giving you a full 23.5 cubic ft of capacity if the need to transport Ikea boxes or liberal arts projects arises. The space may be ample, but rear seat passengers will feel every bump and groove you find yourself rolling over, as the ride is a bit stiff.
Starting price is $16,500 for the 1.8 liter I4 and can go to upwards of $22,000 for a fully loaded XRS with the larger engine, but the car will rarely, if ever, justify that price. Quality, or lack thereof, can be felt in the doors that close with a hollow, sheet metal “bong” noise. The windows will auto down, but not up, and the interior, as mentioned, is built to merely function, not impress. On a more positive note, the Matrix averages about 25 mpg, so you might fill up once a week with heavy use. The driver and passenger doors sport water bottle- sized cup holders, which is a better location for them than in front of the arm rest. Visibility is good, just be mindful of the wicked blind spots.
Now, I’m all for throwing horsepower at an uninspired car in hopes to remedy its shortcomings, but it’s well known that Toyotas tend to be more purchased more for their economy than their driving prowess. No sprinkling of HP on a dishwasher will magically turn it into a hot hatch, nor will it turn anything built on the Corolla platform to an enthusiast’s go-to choice. For a front wheel drive car that actually goes around corners and carries things, be prepared to spend a couple thousand more for a base VW GTI. If you happen to not concern yourself with such things, and are looking for a rather interesting, affordable, functional car that does everything else, give the Matrix a good long look.
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