2013 Toyota Matrix road test
Practicality rules for this compact hatch
Years ago, at a wedding in Ottawa, the groom's father stood up and struggled to say nice things about his son's choice of bride. It wasn't that she was a bad woman or could really be faulted in any way - more that she was just a bland woman, not especially memorable. But he pushed through regardless.
"What can I say about my new daughter-in-law?" he said. "Such a welcome addition to our family. I love her as a daughter. She'll be a marvelous wife, too — she's just so... hygienic."
The bride and groom are still happily married, though they're not especially memorable. And they probably drive a Toyota Matrix.
It's tough to find words to best describe the 2013 Matrix. The marketing material suggests "versatile" and "confidence," though they describe many vehicles on the market these days. At the end of a week in Toyota's hatchback, the best word to come to mind was "practical."
The Matrix is surely practical. It's the hatchback version of the best-selling Corolla, which means it's popular in Canada and probably doomed after a decade now in the U.S. "If we don't have the Matrix, it won't be the end of the world," said Bill Fay, Toyota USA's vice-president, at a recent press event for the RAV4 SUV.
But here in Canada, where the Matrix is built in a plant at Cambridge, Ontario, alongside the RAV4, there are no plans to discontinue it. It's just so — practical.
Almost everything's an option
The rear seats fold flat, as does the front passenger seat, and they have plastic-covered backs so that they'll wipe clean of any mess, together with rubberized strips to stop things from sliding too much. There's almost 1,400 litres of cargo area available behind the front seats, though with the front down as well you could lay a telephone pole inside, lash down the hatch with a bungee where the pole pokes out the back, tack a little red flag on the end and carry it anywhere. Like I said - practical.
There are seat belts for five people, though the person in the middle on the back seat shouldn't be too large if everyone's to be comfortable. They can be tall though; there's plenty of headroom.
All-wheel drive is an option, as is seemingly everything else. The much-touted base price of $16,795, unchanged from 2012, does not include an automatic transmission, air-conditioning or even power windows. If you want those features, you need to upgrade to the four-speed automatic ($1,010 extra) and the "Convenience" package that provides the air, power windows and door locks, and a few other things, including Bluetooth and USB connectivity for your music player and phone. The sound system has been improved for 2013, which comes at a price: the Convenience package costs an extra $3,235, which is $235 more than last year.
Of course, the extra outlay for these now-basic conveniences will pay off when it comes time to sell or trade-in the car. Not many people want to own a stick-shift with no air and wind-up windows.
Choice of engines — and fuel consumption
Many drivers will also want more power than the base 1.8L four cylinder engine provides, which is shared with the Corolla and creates 132 hp, though they may well be appeased by its combined fuel efficiency of 7.0L/100 km for the manual and 7.4L for the automatic. There's a 2.4L four-cylinder available that makes 158 hp and comes with either a five-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission. It's intended to be a sportier option and its combined fuel economy is 8.4L/100 km, though your consumption will be a fair bit worse if you drive in a "sportier" style.
I drove a test car with the base 1.8L engine and got used to working my way up to speed on the highway. The Matrix cruised comfortably at 100-120 km/h, though it wasn't too keen on overtaking even within those speeds. Most Toyota drivers these days, however, will gladly trade power for cheaper fuel costs and will learn to live with the gutless powerplant.
The Matrix is a fairly tall car, which offers higher seats for looking through traffic and greater headroom and luggage space. It blows around a bit on a gusty day, but any vehicle with a large side surface area will do that. It's not nearly so noticeable as on a Nissan Cube, the squared-off youth-oriented version of a practical hatchback, nor as bad as with many large SUVs. The considerably more expensive, and much larger, Mercedes SUVs even include an electronic "side wind assist" feature to manage this, but it's not that big a deal on the Matrix. Just hold the wheel tighter on a windy day.
My tester had the four-speed automatic. It's getting to be unusual for a car to offer only four speeds instead of the more common five or even six (and expensive premium makers use as many as eight). It means there's less hunting between the gears to find the right ratio to deal with conditions; instead, you just live with the lack of available torque and settle in behind the car in front, or accept the slower haul uphill.
Instrument cluster can be deceptive
Inside, there's little fancy about the fit and finish of the plastic dash or the fabric seats — certainly nothing memorable — but it's all very practical and does the job it's intended for.
The deeply-recessed "Opritron" instrument gauges look impressive but in fact they're a bad idea because they have to be lit to be readable; the red needles of the speedometer and the tach just can't be seen properly against the black backgrounds of the dials. When lit they're OK, but this creates the perception to the average driver after dark that all the lights are on when in fact only the front daytime running lights will be lit unless the full system is switched on. This is why so many cars drive at night with no rear lights or proper headlights, because their drivers are led to believe that all is well by the deceptive, though overly bright, light coming from the dashboard instruments.
With systems like this, Toyota and other makers should at least wire the rear lights to be lit at all times, as well as the front daytime runners. It's just negligent to build a car in any other way.
And while I'm on a rant, what's with the central amber light that tells the driver that the passenger airbag is activated when somebody heavy enough sits in the seat? The light stays on for as long as the airbag is ready to go, which becomes just annoying after dark. The light glows at you, refusing to blink, although it does dim slightly when the instrument lights are activated. If I owned this car, I'd stick some black electrical tape over that light to shut it out.
Fortunately, for the last couple of years Toyota has had a policy (learned perhaps from Honda) of providing all safety features with all versions of the car. It doesn't matter which options you buy: even the wind-up-window Matrix will come with six airbags, stability and traction control. Every version will even have Brake Assist, which increases braking power when it senses a sudden hard push on the pedal, and Smart Stop, which overrides the throttle when both the brake and accelerator pedals are pushed together.
All-wheel drive the most costly option
The most you can pay for a Matrix will include all-wheel drive, which comes almost at the top of the options ladder and costs $24,560, or an extra thousand and ten for the automatic. It has all the Convenience features and many of the styling features that are also available.
New for 2013, the AWD now includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, as well as the upgraded audio system. When the manual AWD is topped out with an "S package" of larger 17-inch wheels and a sports grille etc. (not available with the automatic), it'll cost $27,815.
No matter how much you pay, though, there is no Navigation package available for the Matrix, even in the models that offer a 6.1-inch central display screen. Buyers are probably too frugal for such an option and prefer to stick $200 Garmins and Tom-Toms to their windshields.
None of these prices include taxes or freight and delivery, which will add $4,000 to $5,000 to the total cost, though at the time of writing in January, 2013, Toyota is offering discounts of $1,500 to $2,000 to buyers who pay cash instead of the 0.9 per cent cost of financing or 1.9 per cent cost of leasing.
That's a competitive price all around, but the Matrix is in a very competitive market, and especially so in hatch-loving Canada. Almost every manufacturer offers an alternative, all with slightly different configurations of power, space and features. If you're in the market for a small hatchback, you owe it to yourself to look at them all before settling down for a long relationship with, hopefully, the right one.
Just remember that in the end, the Toyota will hold its value better than most and it will be practical. That's neither exotic nor romantic, but of all the words to describe a fairly basic car, it's one of the best.
2013 Toyota Matrix
Price/As tested: $16,795 / $22,225
Type of vehicle: Five-passenger hatchback, FWD or AWD
Engines: 1.8 L four-cylinder
Power/Torque: 132 hp, 128 lb.-ft.
Transmissions: Four-speed automatic (std. five-speed manual)
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 8.2 / 6.4 L/100 km
Competition: Honda Fit, Nissan Cube, Nissan Juke, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Trax, Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Soul
Practical and versatile
Good on gas
Gutless power with 1.8L engine
Basic conveniences bump up the price
Always-lit gauges deceptive after dark