2009 Toyota Matrix Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz
2009 toyota matrix review

Do you know how many Matrices Toyota sold in the United States last year? That’s not a rhetorical question; I have no idea. Toyota rolls the number into Corolla sales. No surprise there. The Matrix shares its underpinnings with the Corolla– and the Pontiac Vibe (same car, different wrapper). Even if the Matrix accounts for a fraction of Corolla sales, a fraction of a lot is a lot. And so, just as Toyota is bringing out the new Corolla, they’re unleashing the sequel to the Matrix. Let’s call it The Matrix: Rebloated.

Although the Toyota website gallery only shows blue pill imbibers the sporty version of the Matrix, the basic box ain’t bad. It’s still a tall, narrow, stumpy sort of wagon thing (a.k.a. a snail from outer space). The new sheetmetal swaps the “grandma’s high trousers” look for gangsta chic. I’m not convinced about that swoopy swage line, and I’ve seen less steeply raked coffee tables, but at least there’s not an Echo in there.

The Matrix’ cabin is the eHarmony.com of interiors. Sure, it LOOKS OK. The radio head unit doesn’t make me cringe (i.e. no Ford-style digital toothpicks readout) and the steering wheel-mounted radio buttons are a plus at this price point. The gauges are models of legibility. But when you actually meet the polymers in person, it’s time for an emergency phone call from your buddy. The silvery plastic sprinkled throughout the cockpit is just abominable, guaranteed to scuff-up and look like crap in a year.

In terms of practicality, the Matrix’ rear hatch opening is (like the Saturn Astra) narrow at the bottom, leading to inconvenient fumbling with large objects. The cargo area is even worse. While the rear seats fold flat, the seat backs and cargo area are plastered with “bureaucrat gray” hard plastic, offering less traction than Ron Paul. And how about the scuffs, digs, scrapes, divots, lacerations, and other nasty marks that sliding hard goods will make as they rumba around the cargo area?

Our test car holstered the 2.4-liter four-cylinder mill currently doing its anti-Civic duty in the Camry, Corolla, Scion xB, Scion tC, RAV-4, and so on. The 158hp powerplant’s definitely a willing and smooth dance partner. But the Matrix’s 5-speed automatic transmission is hopped-up on blow. “WHAT? ME? YOUWANTMETOCHANGEGEARS?” Confused, hyper, and generally out of whack, the erstwhile slushbox was always in the wrong gear. Switching to the optional manumatic mode improved smoothness slightly, but herky-jerky throttle tip-in and limited gas pedal feel still ensure a less-than-satisfying driving experience.

The Matrix’ steering and suspension are standard-issue ToMoCo; which is to say they’re solid and firm and more than merely adequate for drivers who aren’t in a hurry and have never driven a Honda. Take a corner too quickly and you risk scraping the Matrix’ side skirt on the pavement. Never mind. The economy car’s greatest virtue is its ride. It delivers an ideal balance between soft and non-nauseating.

Aside from the usual prospect of excellent mechanical reliability and non-catastrophic resale value, there is very little about the new Toyota Matrix that’s inherently good. In fact, at the risk of jamming the red pill down your throat, it’s a terrible car. While we can quibble about quality, the biggest reason that the Matrix is a complete non-starter: Toyota sells not one but two competitors that are significantly better. (Not including the less-expensive, aforementioned Pontiac Vibe.)

If you still fancy a $22k Matrix (despite all that I’ve said here), please note that you can get the new Scion xB for less than $18k. Same platform, same 2.4 liter engine. The Matrix’ “advantages” over the killa B: an extra gear in its automatic transmission (which bites anyway), an optional sunroof and optional AWD– for yet another $1100 and $1000 respectively. And the Matrix offers a slightly more fuel efficient 1.8 liter engine (by a paltry four mpg city, two mpg highway).

So how about fuel economy? You could spend the same amount of money as you would on the Matrix 2.4 and enjoy vastly better fuel economy in the Prius.The Matrix’s entry level 1.8-liter engine (with the autobox) returns 25 city/31 highway. The Prius is rated at 48 city/45 highway. Not only will you be able to swan about in the carpool lane, but the Prius is a flat-out superior automobile. It’s a genuinely usable hatchback with a novel, space-age interior that offers its own variety of fun (passing pumps in a single bound).

Folks, this is pretty simple. You can get the same car for less money with the Scion xB. Or you can get more car for the same money in the Toyota Prius. Either way you win. And the Matrix loses.

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2 of 80 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Mar 20, 2009

    I'll dig up this old review just to post a more long-term observation on the Matrix. I have a friend with a '09 Matrix XRS. The first time I drove it, with 800 miles on the odometer, the auto transmission did shift way too often, and was never in the right gear. Basically it was just as bad as this review states. However, this week I got a chance to drive the Matrix again and the transmission was a lot smoother, never giving me any trouble. Throttle tip-in was a lot cleaner too. The car had about 9200 miles on it. I'm not sure what caused the drastic improvement with age, but if you're looking a 2.4 auto Matrix/Vibe/Corolla I wouldn't let the spastic activity of the transmission on the test drive be a major issue.

  • Verbin Verbin on Jul 10, 2009

    I own a 2003 Matrix XR and I LOVE this car. I've got 130,000 miles with no maintenance issues. Just change the oil etc. So far I've changed the spark plugs once, the v-belt once, the front brake pads and that's it! other than just regular oil changes/maintenance etc. We bought this car to replace our 1985 4WD Nissan truck which we miss dearly. I surveyed, camped and lived out of our truck. But it was getting old and we were looking for a car that could take us over the mountains but be more passenger friendly yet haul a load too. I have gone back and forth over the Sierras (not off roading) in snow without chains many times with the Matrix XR. I have packed deceptively large loads in the Matrix and with the back seats down and pillows stuffed at your head you can comfortably sleep in this car (I'm 5'8''). It has performed superbly and has met my needs exactly. Biggest upsides for me: Absolutely reliable AWD does well in snow/bad weather Really can hold a lot of s__t Minor downsides that don't really bother me anyways: I don't pass anyone going uphill. Look carefully when changing lanes due to the rear window profile. Yup, that cheap chrome on the door handles and paint that wears off the radio knobs are annoying. I feel the wind during strong gusts. That's about it. For me, this has been the perfect, headache free replacement car.

  • KevinB Starbucks for a doppio espresso and gruyere and bacon egg bites in the morning, and a salt caramel cold brew in the afternoon, because I am eating and drinking myself silly at my destination.
  • MaintenanceCosts The previous generation is one of the best ways in the last 20 years to enjoy flagship-level luxury in complete anonymity.This generation is all tacky ostentation and I'd feel embarrassed to be seen in one.
  • Gene I agree that sedans sell well. Kia, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti, etc. I was very disappointed when Ford and Lincoln dropped Sedans and coupes (other than the Mustang that I have for summer weekends). I don't know where I'm going to buy my next "car". Sorry, no pick-up, suv, cuv , pms or xyz's for me. Gone thru that already.
  • Inside Looking Out "it's a Bolt that has Ampera badging and the Ampera grille." EVs do not have grills.
  • Inside Looking Out "Dmitry Medvedev recently took a trip to China and praised the country’s cars as being on par with Mercedes-Benz."That's all you need to know about Medvedev. He is not trustworthy because it is lie.