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Is the Toyota Matrix exciting? No. Practical? Yes.

2013 Toyota Matrix

Toyota

Rating
8
Overall Rating
8
Overall
A practical, affordable, smart hatchback with available AWD for consumers wanting extra traction and control on the road. You’ll love this car if: you’re a student moving away to university or an empty nester.
Looks Rating
7
Looks
Long in the tooth in its design – could use a style shakeup on the exterior.
Interior Rating
8
Interior
Interior is intuitive, well-laid out and spacious, especially in the cargo area.
Ride Rating
6
Ride
Not the sportiest or most powerful hatchback on the market, but the ride is pleasant and secure.
Safety Rating
8
Safety
Safety features include ABS, vehicle stability control, traction control and six airbags.
Green Rating
6
Green
Fuel-efficient four-banger, but could do more on the environmental front.

If you're a cash-conscious Canadian shopping for a new car, don't despair. There's no need to break the bank. Affordable, practical, reliable little cars are out there – many for less than $20,000.

Functional hatchbacks, such as the Ford Focus hatch, the Scion xB, and the Hyundai Elantra GT, are smart options in a growing segment of popular hatchbacks.

Amid the rising competition, the Toyota Matrix, gets overlooked. But it shouldn't. It's a perfect ride for a university student or an empty nester whose kids have finally flown the coop.

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Since 2002, the Matrix, which is based on Toyota's top selling Corolla sedan, has been rolling off the line at Toyota's manufacturing plant in Cambridge, Ont. The Matrix is tried and true with an impressive safety, reliability, and fuel efficiency record.

And a strong selling point is its starting price: $16,795 for the base front-wheel drive model. It comes with a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, audio controls on the steering wheel, ABS, vehicle stability control, traction control, and six airbags.

Two other models are available – the XRS, with cruise control, keyless entry, and power windows and door locks ($24,015) and the AWD ($24,560), a smart option that's not offered by many competitors. The active torque on demand AWD system acts as a front-wheel drive in normal driving conditions for better fuel economy, but when the system detects a front-wheel slip, torque is automatically sent to the rear wheels for all-wheel traction – an added safety bonus on snow-covered or rain-slicked roads.

My tester, a base Matrix with a Touring Value Package, transforms this stripper model into something worth considering. The $4,420 price tag seems high, but it adds 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, power moon roof, fog lamps, and power doors and windows. Add an optional four-speed automatic transmission for $1,010 and my tester rings in at $23,825 – less than the XRS' starting price of $24,015.

Sure, you might have to sacrifice style with the Matrix; it's not the most exciting design on the road. It has a sloping roofline, raked windshield, and wrapped taillights, but it's a bit outdated. Still, I can't deny its functionality.

Inside, it's spacious for five passengers and their belongings. With 560 litres of space, the cargo area is vast. For more room, drop the 60/40 split rear bench seats. They fold down to create a flat area with nearly 1,400 litres of space behind the front seats. While my tester didn't have it, the other two trims offer a front passenger seat that also folds down flat – a smart solution for hauling long, awkward items.

The cargo area is also made with durable plastic, which is easy to clean when dirty – and grooves in the plastic keep grocery bags from sliding around. Cargo area tie-down rings and side storage compartments keep items firmly in place, too. The lift gate is light-weight and opens in one piece – rising high, out of head-banging range.

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The Matrix comes with a choice of two engines. The base model is powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine which pumps out 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but my tester had an optional four-speed automatic, which isn't the most impressive on the market.

Power is a bit lacklustre. It's no speed demon and not the most engaging vehicle to drive, but the ride is adequate for commuting around town. Its size makes it easy to manoeuvre; it's not overbearing or menacing and it's easy to drive and park. Fuel economy is respectable, averaging 8.2 litres/100 km in the city and 6.4 litres/100 km on the highway. There is, however, wind, engine, and road noise in the cabin when driving. If you want a power boost, the other trims offer a 2.4-litre four-cylinder, which delivers 158 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque.

Inside, the Matrix seats five with excellent head room. The front bucket seats are covered in durable cloth; they're comfortable and supportive. But the rear seats could use more padding. From the driver's seat, you have a commanding view of the road ahead – a much better view than in a sedan.

The dashboard is plain, simple, and intuitive. Large HVAC dials are simple to use and easy to adjust, even in the dark. The high-mounted gear shifter is easy to access and leaves extra space for cup holders and other small compartments. The Matrix has smart storage spots to hide everything from maps and change to cellphones.

The Matrix is a practical, economical, spacious ride that is worth a second look – especially the AWD version, an added bonus that sets it apart from the competition.

Tech Specs

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2013 Toyota Matrix

Type: five-door hatchback

Price: $16,795 (base); $23,825.50 (as tested)

Engine: 1.8-litre DOHC I-4

Horsepower/torque: 132 hp/128 lb-ft

Transmission: four-speed automatic

Drive: front-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.2 city; 6.4 highway

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Ford Focus hatchback, Hyundai Elantra GT, Subaru Impreza, Mazda3 Sport, Kia Soul

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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About the Author

Petrina Gentile is an award-winning automotive journalist - one of the few women who cover cars in Canada. Her life revolves around wheels. She has been writing for the Drive section since 2004. Besides auto reviews, she also interviews celebrities like Norman Jewison, Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hansen, Dean McDermott, Russell Peters, and Ron MacLean for her My Car column. More

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