2009 Toyota Matrix XRS
The Matrix pitches over bumps like an ox cart and suffers from torque steer even though there's not much torque to speak of, but I actually caught myself enjoying this unassuming little Toyota.
The main thing the XRS has going for it is a genuinely good manual gearbox, with short, reasonably precise throws. It matches up well with Toyota's 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which isn't all that powerful, but is at least willing to rev. And though it's no corner carver, a few suspension upgrades (control arms instead of torsion beam in back, along with a thicker rear anti-roll bar and quicker steering rack) allow you to toss it into bends and squirt through traffic with some enthusiasm.
Lots of flopping over road imperfections and inexplicable torque steer mean the Volkswagen GTI doesn't have much to worry about, but for a practical car, the Matrix XRS (and the Pontiac Vibe GT, while it's still around) serves up at least a bit of character and fun.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe was a decent car in its day, but to me it feels and looks slightly dated, even though it was redesigned not that long ago. It drives well enough, with a reasonably powerful engine mated to a decent manual transmission, but its suspension tuning leaves a lot to be desired as it wallows over even the slightest of road imperfections. The hatchback/wagon body style is useful, but there are a lot of other cars on the market, from the Mazda 3 hatch to the Hyundai Elantra Touring, that are more thoughtfully designed for hauling, are competitively priced, and drive much better to boot.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Stepping into the Matrix is a familiar routine--the latest Toyota dash, the tactile feel of controls, and the typical easy-to-use blandness that accompanies most of Toyota's newer, smaller models (read: xB, xD, Corolla).
Not as obvious, though, was the car's size in comparison to others in our fleet. I dropped off the Matrix in order to pick up the Four Seasons Honda Fit, and the Matrix felt positively ponderous and refined by comparison. Both are hatchbacks, and I guess I've reached some state of gopher ennui that dictates that all hatches should feel the same. I've spent a lot of time with the Fit but didn't notice how buzzy it was next to the more refined Matrix.
As Zenlea noted, yes, there is some torque steer, but only if you mash the gas. Clutch operation is smooth and precise, and I'm a fan of the center-mounted, rally-style manual. It makes you feel like you're NOT in a Corolla-derived hatchback, using a Corolla engine, and spices up the monotony of daily driving.
Jeffrey Jablansky, Intern
My wallet reels at the prospect of spending nearly $23,000 for a loaded Matrix. It's a pleasant mix of snappy style, dependability, gas mileage, and utility but doesn't excel in any particular category. And 20 large opens up a wealth of possibilities in the used car supermarket: lovingly-maintained Bimmers, full-sized pickups, and rumbling Mustangs galore.
While I own a dog and frequently haul purchases home from the big box stores, the crossover and SUV segments never seem to prompt a "buy me" itch. Few dogs care a whit about their means of transportation as long as the occasional ice-cream treat is involved. Piling building materials and landscaping supplies into elegantly finished interior space inevitably leaves a mess, permanent scuff marks, or both.
The Matrix is neither crossover fish nor SUV foul. It's a small wagon that never commits to driving fun, hauling utility, or sexy style. If it had a more efficiently configured cargo hold (a lower liftover, room for an upright bike) or a turbo under the hood (read MazdaSpeed3), I could get interested. So please wake me when/if the Matrix takes its job seriously.
Don Sherman, Technical Editor
Base price (with destination): $21,480
Price as tested: $22,839
JBL AM/FM in-dash 6 CD, XM, $1010
All weather guard package $150
Carpeted floor mats $199
21 / 28 / 24 mpg
Size: 2.4L DOHC 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 158 hp @ 6000rpm
Torque: 162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Weight: 3140 lb
18-in alloy wheels