When the first-generation Toyota Matrix launched in 2002, it was a fresh-faced, utilitarian, reasonably priced small car with four doors and an upright stance, timed nicely to coincide with the arrival of slightly larger cross/utility vehicles.

The business case for the Matrix — derived from Toyota Motor Corp.'s high-volume Corolla platform — was clear at a time when Americans shopping for small cars had limited options.

The second-generation Matrix arrives with completely different dynamics at play.

Expensive gasoline is driving consumers to consider smaller vehicles. While the new Matrix is improved, so are its competitors, namely the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza. And smaller hatchbacks have arrived, all of which are less expensive, dynamically competitive and in some cases nearly as spacious and functional.

While more stylish than the first-generation Matrix, the '09 lacks the personality and handling characteristics of many of its competitors. It's more akin to a Corolla than a “hot hatch.”

For that reason, the Matrix might fall flat with 25- to 30-year-old males — the group Toyota marketers desperately want to lure behind the wheel.

But the '09 Matrix likely will retain its customer base of young families, which is OK. It can comfortably seat two adults up front and three small kids in back, with ample cargo room.

Moms and dads might appreciate the new edgier look, as long as they don't mind the grille resembling that of a large-mouth bass. It comes available with all-wheel-drive, which had been discontinued on '07 models.

The midrange Matrix S with AWD proved to be the best, most enjoyable package during a recent test drive. The standard powertrain is Toyota's 2.4L 4-cyl. (which also powers the base Camry), mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission.

The I-4 produces 158 hp — a significant upgrade over the last-generation Matrix, which only offered a 126-hp 1.8L I-4. Still, the larger engine feels insufficient, perhaps due to the added weight (300 lbs. [136 kg] over an S with 5-speed manual) of the AWD system.

At the top of the lineup is the athletic XRS model, which had been scuttled from the current Matrix lineup for '07.

The automatic-equipped XRS suffered from a touchy throttle and heavy steering, as if the wheel were mounted in a vat of molasses. The manual had a light clutch and a crisp but undistinguished gearbox.

Also available is a base Matrix, equipped with Toyota's new 2ZR-FE 1.8L 4-cyl., making 132 hp and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) of torque. Both the 2.4L and 1.8L engines are designed for basic transportation: Neither will win any drag races, but power is adequate for daily driving.

The Matrix interior is functional and comfortable, with reasonably supportive first-row seats. The front passenger seat folds flat and has a rubberized back to serve as a mobile office of sorts.

Materials are of good quality for a compact, mass-market car that begins below $20,000.

But like other recent Toyota models, namely the Tundra fullsize pickup, the dash design lacks cohesion and suffers from too many textures and colors. Switchgear buttons, such as the side mirror controls, are dated and need to be retired from the Toyota portfolio.

The '09 Toyota Matrix goes on sale in the U.S. in February.

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
More fashionable Needs a boost in hp
All-wheel-drive Only a 4-speed auto?
Comfortable up front A bit cramped in back

Toyota Matrix XRS

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive 5-door hatchback

Engine: 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head

Power (SAE net): 158 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Wheelbase: 102.4 ins. (260 cm)

Overall length: 173 ins. (439 cm)

Overall width: 69.5 ins. (177 cm)

Curb weight: 3,140 lbs./1,424 kg

Base price range: TBA

Fuel economy: 21/28 (11.2/8.4 L/100 km)

Competition: Pontiac Vibe, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza

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