Review: 2011 Toyota Matrix S

By Roger Boylan

I was curious when a 2011 “Spruce Mica” (pine-green) Toyota Matrix tester rolled into my driveway. Not that it was unexpected; it had been on my testing schedule for weeks. It was just that the Matrix, as a model, had pretty much fallen off my radar at around the same time its cousin, the Pontiac Vibe, ceased to exist. The highways aren’t exactly teeming with Matrices, and Toyota hasn’t seemed to know precisely how to market the car. Is it a sporty hatchback? A sports wagon? A station wagon? A cute ute? Opinions are divided, as opinions tend to be. “A very sensible choice,” opines one distinguished reviewer. “Enthusiasts should look elsewhere,” sniffs another.

After a week in its company, I agree with both of the foregoing. True canyon-carving enthusiasts should go for a Golf GTI. More restrained enthusiasts, if such a species exists, can enjoy in the Matrix a nippy and practical little car with more merits than defects. The base model, starting at around $18K, comes with a 132-hp, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, but under the hood of the upmarket S model I tested (going for around $22K) are 158 ponies, more than sufficient to propel the car forward at a brisk pace. I’d enjoyed the same engine, Toyota’s 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, in my previous test vehicle, the Scion xB, which moved along with some authority. In the Matrix, the engine’s equally authoritarian, clearing air out of the way at a brisk rate of just under 8 secs from 0 to 60. That makes the Matrix a nippy little carriage, in my book. Not a sports car, of course—hold the hate mail–but sporty. It’s fun to drive. This suits its image as a more dashing version of the Corolla. Handling is excellent, but the somewhat bland steering gives no better than average feedback. Brakes, however, are excellent, and exhibited no fade, even after several consecutive sudden applications. The S variant is available with all-wheel-drive, but this inhibits fuel economy and performance to such a degree that I’d only advise going for it if snow and ice are a big part of your life. (Such is not the case in the Texas Hill Country.)

Speaking of fuel economy, the Matrix S with the 5-speed automatic with manual shift mode, like mine, has decent, if not stellar, EPA ratings: 21 city, 29 highway. My observed average over the week, with extensive highway and back-country driving and judicious application of cruise control, came to a little over 25, on regular of course. Not great, but this isn’t a hybrid, so not too bad.

The Matrix was introduced in this market in 2002, refreshed in 2009 with an all-new appearance, and refreshed again in 2011 with details such as new 17-in. alloy wheels (not on my tester, which in the interest of keeping prices down had the dreaded plastic wheel covers–aaarrrgggghhhh) and the “Toyota Care” complimentary maintenance plan. The exterior was also tweaked here and there. Overall, I think the little wagon looks good, with an aggressive front end, graceful lateral moldings and swept-forward D-pillars combining to give it a sporty profile. My tester also flaunted front and rear underbody spoilers and foglights, as well as those plastic wheel covers, through the apertures of which the plain old black steel wheels could be clearly seen. I say no more. (Takes deep breath.)

Inside, the Matrix boasts well-bolstered seats capable of sustaining weary old thighs over long road trips, 49.4 cu. ft. of cargo space if the rear seats are folded down in their 60/40 configuration (61.5 cu. ft., if you include the space provided by the fold-forward front passenger seat), and decent storage otherwise, with lots of cubbies and a huge glove box. There’s room for four adults to travel in comfort. Interior décor is decent, with a grainy plastic dashboard surface and large, legible gauges. The audio system in my unit sent forth good sound and offered Bluetooth phone and streaming audio connectivity and a six-speaker sound system with an iPod/USB audio interface. I appreciated the ease of use of the controls, especially the idiot-proof HVAC knobs.

As is usual in Toyotas, and in most modern vehicles, safety features abound, including Smart Stop technology to help untangle misapplication of gas and brake pedals (this is new for 2011: the 2010 Matrix was implicated in those bizarre sudden-acceleration reports ); many airbags, including front and rear side-curtains; active front head restraints; stability and traction control; and antilock brakes with brake assist. All of these helped garner “Good” ratings for the Matrix from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The small hatchback and sporty-wagon segment is a competitive field and includes the cleverly-packaged Honda Fit, the sporty Mazda 3, and the radical-looking Nissan Juke. But there are those, and I suspect I’m one of them, who may not like the weird looks and grinning visages of some of these vehicles, but prefer the concept of a car that boasts solid reliability and performs its duties well–and looks good doing it. The Toyota Matrix is made for them.

Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Author: Roger Boylan

Aside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.

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