RALEIGH-DURHAM, NC – Ever since its debut in 2002, the Toyota Matrix compact hatchback has failed to live up to expectations as a major draw for young, hip buyers.

“Right now it’s much more of a family vehicle, not really the target we envisioned for that product,” Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. product planner Mike O’Brien told Ward’s in August.

He blamed that in part on styling, saying the first-generation Matrix was “a bit boxy” and failed to convey motion. It didn’t “have the appeal to young people that we had hoped for,” he said.

With the second-generation Matrix, due to hit U.S. dealers in February, Toyota is aiming to right this wrong.

The revamped Matrix, which continues to share its platform, engines and transmissions with General Motors Corp.’s Pontiac Vibe, sports a sleek new look and has “the soul of a 2-door sports car,” Toyota Div. General Manager Bob Carter says at a media preview for the car.

So Toyota will take another stab at appealing to younger consumers, hoping the new model will lower the median age of the overall Corolla/Matrix buyer in line with the Mazda3, currently the segment leader in that regard.

“I can tell you that we would be thrilled for Corolla to have the youngest buyer demographic in the segment,” Carter says. “And we think the new second-generation Matrix will get us closer to that goal.”

Toyota considers the ’09 Matrix part of the Corolla lineup, reporting sales of the two models together. With the new Matrix and Corolla, also redone for ’09 and set to go on sale in February, it hopes to shift more sales to the former, with an 80/20 split in favor of Corolla vs. 85/15 currently.

Toyota will be aiming its marketing message at men ages 25-30, some of the same buyers its Scion brand targets. As with the FJ Cruiser SUV, Toyota wants the Matrix to draw some customers from the Scion brand, as it says a third of buyers who shop and don’t buy a Scion purchase a Toyota.

Carter says he is unconcerned about overlap, noting Scion always has been focused on luring trendy urban buyers while Toyota is targeting “mainstream youth.” But he says Toyota will borrow some of Scion’s marketing gimmicks to launch the ’09 Matrix.

Those include promoting the vehicle online as well as in the real world at rally, tuner and gaming events. There also will be “low levels of television” advertising, Carter says.

Targeting young men makes sense because Toyota overall woos fewer of them than the competition.

“Currently, 37% of Toyota buyers are male and under 35,” Carter says. “That’s four points below the industry average of 41%. This means there is a lot of opportunity for us with young new-car buyers.”

Toyota again is offering the Matrix in three trim levels: Base; S, which replaces the XR grade; and XRS.

The Base model comes with Toyota’s new 132-hp 2ZR-FE 1.8L engine used in the Scion xD hatchback, replacing the current Matrix’s 126-hp 1.8L. It is expected to comprise about 40% of total Matrix sales, Toyota says.

The midrange S trim will be the volume-leading grade, with more than half of total sales. All-wheel-drive, discontinued on the Matrix with the ’07 models, returns as an option on the S grade, boasting active torque control. About 14% of buyers are expected to opt for the AWD system, which again is packaged solely with a 4-speed automatic. Carter says AWD take rates tend to be lower with manual transmissions.

Those choosing a non-AWD S can select a 5-speed automatic transmission or a 5-speed manual. Toyota’s 158-hp 2.4L 4-cyl. engine, available in the Camry, is standard on both S and XRS trims.

The XRS, which Toyota discontinued for ’07, is expected to remain a bit player, comprising just 5% of Matrix sales.

Vehicle stability control with traction control is standard on the XRS but optional on all other trims. Additional options include an audio system with 6-disc CD changer (all three models); JBL hands-free audio system with 6-disc changer or navigation system with XM NavTraffic (S and XRS); and an all-weather guard package that has rear-seat heater ducts and a heated rearview mirror (XRS).

Pricing for the ’09 Matrix is expected to be announced before year’s end.

Toyota is vowing the hatchback will be a “no-compromise vehicle,” saying buyers won’t have to pay a premium for a versatile vehicle with an up-market image.

– with Byron Pope

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com