At the other end of the spectrum, the Matrix XRS (shown) offers utility, performance, and boy-racer looks. At the heart of the XRS is the same 1.8L DOHC I-4 that Yamaha builds for the Celica GT-S. It produces 180 hp, but only 5 lb-ft more torque (for a total of 130). Like the base engine, this one features variable valve timing, but it adds variable valve lift. One cam lobe operates under 6000 rpm, and the high-lift lobe comes into play above 6000 rpm. (All this high-tech gadgetry makes for more powerful, vocal, and fuel-efficient engines, though we wonder: For a vehicle designed to move lots of people and stuff, wouldn't a torquier, small-displacement V-6 be a better step-up offering?) With this hell-raiser of an engine, you'd also want all-wheel drive, right? Can't have it. Apparently, the AWD system can't cope with the power of the 180-hp engine. But the XRS does have a battery of upgrades and enhancements that make it quite attractive, including rear disc brakes, a six-speed manual transmission, ABS, front and rear spoilers, body side skirts, foglamps, and the aforementioned 115-volt power outlet. In addition, such options as 17-in. wheels, in-dash six-CD changer, DVD navigation, front side airbags, and a sunroof are a la carte.

If you want the race-inspired look of the XRS, but don't want to spend the money for the extra power, the mid-level Matrix XR is a good compromise and probably the purest of all Matrixes. It combines the base model engine and transmissions with the XRS' sporty body kit. Standard features include front drive, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, and the 115-volt power outlet. Options include the 17-in. wheels from the XRS, sunroof, AWD (again, only with the automatic transmission), nav system, six-CD changer, and ABS.

On the road, all the Matrixes have quick steering, a firm brake feel, and taut but supple suspension. Because the shocks and springs are the same on all FWD cars, handling was only slightly better in the XRS than in the standard model, due to the 17-in. tires. The AWD cars do feel better, thanks to the more able twin-control-arm rear suspension. Overall, the vehicle is quite capable in aggressive corners, more than one might expect from an entry-level Toyota for high-Corolla money.

Toyota has once again produced a rock-solid interior with well-placed functions and a good mix of materials. Rear-seat room is more than adequate, especially above the shoulders, with tens of gallons of hat room available.

The Matrix is a perfectly good car with all the right ingredients, but it seems it'll take Toyota a few recipe revisions to get it tasting just right. Specifically, a Matrix with the 180-hp engine, all-wheel drive, and six-speed manual should be on the menu. As it stands, the Matrix doesn"t create an alternative to the Subaru WRX, a 227-hp turbocharged all-wheel-drive beast that only costs a thousand or two more.

This new-age Toyota goes on sale in February, and they hope to sell 75,000 units per year, of which only about 7500 will be XRS models. Most buyers should see the purity of a front-drive XR with a five-speed manual and sporty body kit. Prices have yet to be revealed, but sources say the Matrix will mirror the RAV4--$17,500 base and around $23,000 loaded. The only problem with the Matrix might just be its status--if it claims to be a sports car, wagon, and SUV, it'll have to fight that ever-expanding spectrum of choices. For now, it's a step in the right direction.