The launch of the Mazda Protegé5 brought a raft of imitators and competitors – the Toyota Matrix and its Pontiac Vibe clone being among the first out of the blocks. The appeal of these vehicles is simple: The five-door hatchback design brings most of the versatility of a small SUV and none of the compromises in the ride and, more importantly, handling departments.
Opting for the range-topping Matrix XRS underscores the sporty side of the breed. Along with an aggressive body kit – front and rear fascia extensions and sill extenders – comes a stylish set of rims and wheel well-filling P215/50R17 tires. It all combines to deliver a sporty appearance that gives up nothing in terms of practicality.
Indeed, the versatility is there for all to enjoy. With the 60/40-split seats up, the Matrix will carry 15.1 cubic feet of cargo, folding them down bumps the capacity to a very usable 53.2 cu. ft. The nice part is the hard plastic backing on the rear seats. This not only makes the flat floor easy to clean, it allows for two sets of adjustable tie-down rings. When properly adjusted and the cargo lashed down, it stays put even when the Matrix is flexed. There’s also additional storage in either sidewall and beneath the load floor, so there’s plenty of spots to stash junk. Even the front seat folds forward, which allows longer items to be carried with the tailgate closed.
There is one minor gripe with the layout – the 60 side of the rear seat is on the wrong side of the car, and so if you fold it and the front seat flat the seating capacity is limited to two people. If the 40 side were lined up with the front seat, the Matrix would accommodate three riders – mind you, the centre spot might prove to be a bone of contention because of its tight confines.
The sporting flair continues when you slip behind the wheel – the front seats are nicely bolstered without being confining and offer superior support in all the right places. The funky-looking instruments (Optitron in Toyota talk) are clean and uncluttered, which makes gleaning the information a simple task night or day. Likewise, the centre stack is logically laid out – the soulful audio package sits right at the top – and all the knobs and dials are large enough to operate with gloves on. The XRS also comes loaded to the gunnels – power everything, including a moonroof, as well as cruise and a really welcome feature in the form of at 115-volt outlet. This simple extra allows a computer to be charged when on the go, which, in this business, is a Godsend.
The XRS’s sporty theme continues with an up-level 1.8-litre engine that begs to be revved to within a whisker of its eyebrow raising 9,000-rpm redline. The need for the elevated redline is down to the variable valve lift. At low speeds the intake valves follow a cam profile that’s designed to maximize low-end pull. Above 6,000 rpm, which is where many engines begin to poop out, this one switches to a more aggressive profile, which improves the passage of air to the cylinders. As the lift shift occurs, the engine and exhaust notes take on a more purposeful tone indicating the 170 horses on tap are begin to gallop.
The downside to the engine’s personality is the mediocre low-end torque – 127 pound-feet at a lofty 4,400-rpm. This tends to make the initial launch feel a little thin, however, once through these early-morning blahs and into the meaty part of the rev range the Matrix pulls very nicely – it will sprint to 100 km/h in a quick 7.6 seconds and bridge the 80-120 km/h gap in an equally sporty 5.8 seconds.
The one weak spot with the powertrain is the six-speed manual transmission. First, the close ratio box has a very mechanical feel to it (especially the 2-3 shift), which makes a quick shift seem clunky and less than refined. Second, reverse gear is in the wrong place – it is forward and to the left of first gear. This makes grabbing reverse instead of first a very real problem. Recognizing this Toyota added a very annoying beep to warn the driver they are about to back up and not blast forth. Putting the reverse gate to the right of fifth or sixth gear would eliminate a potential mistake and that aggravating beep.
As for the dynamics, the Matrix XRS pleases. The suspension is tuned to keep the amount of rock, roll and understeer to a minimum, yet manages to deliver a comfortably compliant ride. The set up also benefits from a toe-control function that limits the tendency for the rear wheels to steer the car during hard left-to-right transitions. The upshot is a sure-footed feel and a fast response steering input – those large, low-profile tires help enormously.
Stopping power comes from four-wheel discs and a good anti-lock system. Repeated high-speed stops did not reveal any signs of fade, and the pedal remains firm and crisp under foot. At this end of the market, few systems come close to matching the Matrix’s performance.
The Matrix is a nifty number if you need flexibility but do not want to give up the fun of driving a truly sporty vehicle. It will tote a ton of stuff and yet runs rings around the likes of Toyota’s own RAV4 when challenging a tight cloverleaf. The Europeans had it right all along – hatchbacks rule!
Specs: Matrix XRS
Engine: 1.8L DOHC, VVT-L, I4
Power: 170 hp @ 7,600 rpm, 127 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Base price/as tested: $25,560
Destination charge: $
Fuel economy, L/100 km: 9.2 city, 6.8 hwy.