2009 Toyota Matrix XRS

As gas prices soar, car buyers look for fuel-efficient alternatives to sport-utility vehicles. Leaving hybrids out of the picture, compact hatchbacks are an excellent solution to the dilemma. They have large, versatile cargo areas, yet their fuel economy rivals passenger cars.

The Toyota Matrix is a hatchback based on the Corolla platform. The compact Matrix averages twenty-four miles-per gallon for city and highway driving. Second-row seats fold flat to lengthen the cargo floor, which features an easy-to-clean vinyl surface and easy-to-use cargo tie-down system.

The floor is long enough to hold a mountain bike with the front wheel in place. On a recent trip to Sedona, my husband and I packed in a weekend's worth of luggage, my mountain bike, and several grocery bags full of munchies.

Sporty XRS

The test car is the XRS: the sportiest of three available grades. It features a slightly larger engine than the standard and grades, with a five-speed automatic transmission.

While the Matrix S is available with all-wheel drive, the XRS comes exclusively as a front-wheel drive car. Front and rear underbody spoilers limit the car's ground clearance to 5.3 inches, making it impractical for off-road driving.

Though fuel economy for the Matrix XRS isn't as good as for the base model, the extra power makes a big difference on the highway. Driving north on the 17 freeway between Phoenix and Sedona, it was easy to pass slower traffic on the uphill grades. The automatic transmission downshifts hard, but accelerating hard on the hills had little impact on overall fuel economy.

The XRS comes with eighteen-inch wheels as opposed to sixteen-inch rims on the base model, a strut tower brace for enhanced torsional rigidity, and standard vehicle stability control.

A standard independent wishbone suspension is compliant, yet responsive. An electric steering pump provides variable assist, depending on the car's speed. I had no problems making the occasional U-turn on Sedona's two-lane roads.

Four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS are standard. Braking is firm and linear.

Visibility is good all the way around the car, though a thick rear pillar makes it harder to see oncoming traffic when backing out of a parking spot. All grades come with a standard rear wiper, to keep the back glass clean in rain and snow.

Towing capacity is 1500 pounds: well below our ALV minimum standards.

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