Wagons have a bad stigma that they don’t deserve. They are a symbol of giving up in life. Our parents never fondly looked back on the wagons that our siblings and we forced them to drive. The vehicles our parents loved were the cool little cars they had in their pre-wagon days. This has scarred our image of wagons to the point we will only drive SUVs or crossovers. So, when Toyota wanted to add more utility to the Corolla, they didn’t call it the Corolla Wagon, they called it the Matrix.
The Corolla feeling is not an accident and is not a problem. The 2009 Corolla we had in our test fleet was frugal friend, and our Matrix XRS has a larger engine and a sport-tuned suspension. So, it was no surprise that the Matrix won over some staff members as a desirable everyday car.
The Matrix shares a strong resemblance with its Corolla sibling. Many bits are instantly recognizable as Corolla: the front doors and door handles; the slope of the hood line; and the bug-eye headlights that stick out from the bodywork. But it is the sum of all the parts make a distinct car.
This is more that just a Corolla with a body kit and a hunchback. Toyota took the Corolla’s lines and made them more aggressive. The car has a smooth and stretched look that shows Toyota is going after a younger market. The doorline rises as it moves down the car while the roofline slopes downward. The overall effect is a performance look that Toyota hopes will bring in younger customers.
The interior is what truly sets the Matrix apart from the Corolla. It is still made up of instantly recognizable Corolla bits, but they are arranged in a different places. The neat and clean center stack of the Corolla is replaced by a sensible, but stereo oriented set-up in the Matrix. A convenient and youth oriented touch is the standard 12-volt power outlet that can power anything from an iPod to a guitar amp.
The ergonomics is a great improvement over the already competent Corolla. The same three-spoke sport steering wheel from the Corolla feels much more at home in the sport-minded Matrix. Even more surprising is that the gearshift leaver looks like it is in an odd place sticking out far from a panel in dashboard. But when you sit down, your hand rests very comfortably on the leaver (elbow is on the center armrest.) Because of this placement, The Matrix really encourages the use of the sport shift mode of our automatic transmission.
The best part of the interior is also what makes the fundamental difference between Corolla and Matrix: the wagon back end. The flat-folding back seats and front passenger front seat, plus the extra clearance of the hatchback, provides real utility. This is the Corolla that can hold your skis or surfboard, which makes it very youth friendly.
The Matrix drives like a more aggressive Corolla. We were not disappointed with the performance of our test Corolla, but we also had no plans to take it rallying. The Matrix helps to rectify that.
Our Matrix’s stiffer ride was not jarring, but it did offer an extra feeling of the road — that’s something we really like. It probably didn’t hurt that we have the XRS model, which comes with a Corolla XRS-sourced 2.4-liter engine that makes 152 horses (a 26 hp gain over the 1.8-liter standard engine.) Another necessary part of the XRS package was an upgrade to disk brakes on all four wheels.
The Matrix is quick and sure-footed. It can’t the quickest or nimblest machine in its segment, but it does everything well. The Matrix gives a feeling of value/security by driving like solid car. There are no squeaks, rattles or plastic flexing sounds when the Matrix goes over the bumps.
The driving impression gives the Matrix the feeling of a weekend warrior car. It is nimble, small and quick for the weekday use in an urban setting, and it is also as feels as reliable as washing machine. But when the weekend comes, the Matrix is quick, nimble and large enough to hold whatever are the weekend’s activities. Not bad from a car that starts at under $21,000.
The Matrix is not a sports car, but it is a car for sports. This car offers the everyday reliability of the Corolla, but it can now fit a lot more.
It’s lively; it’s fun; and it can hold plenty of sports equipment. That’s exactly how Toyota wants people to see the car. But a little secret for the older Toyota fans, the Matrix is as reliable as the Corolla, and it will also fit a lot more treasures found antiquing.