The Cambridge Ont.-built Toyota Matrix begins its second generation in 2009 with the return of the all-wheel drive (AWD) option.

The original Matrix, a hatchback (or crossover as Toyota refers to it) version of the Corolla model, was introduced in February 2002 as a 2003 vehicle.

It became an instant success in North America and last year sold 21,369 units in Canada, making it one of the country’s top sellers.

In addition to the reintroduction of the AWD option (it was dropped in 2007), the 2009 model also brings back the sporty XRS model.

The new generation has a lower stance than the previous model, but not at the expense of interior space. Inside, many changes have been made including redesigned seats for added comfort, the introduction of a three-spoke tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a new console design.

Similar to the Corolla, engine choices are the 1.8-litre and the 2.4-litre four-cylinder powerplants. Standard is a four-speed manual with an available four-speed automatic.

The XR and XRS offer the five-speed manual or an available five-speed automatic, while the AWD comes only with a four-speed automatic.

The AWD system is the same as the one in the RAV4 and works on-demand. When slippage is detected on the front wheels, up to 45 per cent of the torque can be transferred to the rear wheels to ensure smooth performance.

This was driven home during a short “drag race” demonstration on sand and icy pavement against a front-wheel drive model. The AWD model consistently came out ahead and the absence of wheel spin was noticeable.

The Matrix has a MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion-beam at the rear on all but the AWD and XRS. For these two models, a double wishbone suspension is offered. All models have four-wheel disc brakes with an anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA). Vehicle stability control and traction control are available on the XR and standard on the XRS.

Four trim levels are offered: base, XR, AWD and XRS.

All models come with six air bags plus an all-new active headrest system for front seat passengers. In the event of a rear impact, the active headrests move up and forward to better support the head and prevent whiplash injury.

During a short time behind the wheel of a base Matrix and the sporty XR model, I found them to be comfortable, quiet and pleasant to drive.

I love hatchbacks and thus the Matrix wins my vote over the Corolla. It has sportier looks and driving dynamics and this is a model that is likely to pick up some of the younger customers Toyota is aiming for with its redesign.

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