Chipper little Toyota Matrix is fun to drive but weird to look at

Those wily Toyota guys. They made four cars out of one set of key components and gave the models distinct personalities and looks — one of the four even is sold by a competitor.

It's the right way to do what the industry calls platform sharing — not changing a few curves or just the nameplate to create a corporate sibling (as you see, for example, in Chevrolet Cobalt/Pontiac G5 or Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan).

In this case, we're talking about one set of building blocks for the 2009 Toyota Corolla mainstream sedan (Test Drive, March 21), Toyota Scion xB (Test Drive, last June 15) and today's 2009 Toyota Matrix.

A Toyota-General Motors joint venture — the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, Calif. — builds a Matrix version GM sells as Pontiac Vibe that shares the chassis, drivetrain and much of the interior.

NUMMI also builds Corollas. Matrix is built at a Toyota factory in Canada that also builds Corollas.

Toyota considers Matrix a version of Corolla and reports its sales as part of Corolla's tally. So what makes it different enough to warrant a look?

Well, appearance is a huge difference. Nobody drifted over to the gas pump when the Corolla was being refueled and chattered superlatives, as happened during Matrix fuel stops.

To some eyes, apparently, Matrix even resembles a downsized Lexus RX SUV. There's no connection, other than Lexus is a Toyota brand, but what a potential perk for Matrix buyers — a $20,000 compact that nearsighted neighbors might mistake for a $40,000 luxury SUV. Can't beat that with a stick.

Whether you see the resemblance is up to you. You might find Matrix kind of ugly, and you'd get no argument here.

Another difference is a bit more interior space — people and cargo — than Corolla. But if that's your deal, get a Scion xB, the space champ for Corolla-based machines. It's also cheaper, though you have to think it's hip to be square to like the xB.

Personality? One more point of differentiation. Hard to explain given that the chassis and powertrain are shared, but Matrix comes across feisty, fun, frolicsome — at least the $22,480, front-wheel-drive XRS test model did — while a Corolla with similar parts seemed pleasant, but not stimulating. If you like that enjoyment stuff, though, Scion xB — again — gives you more.

A key piece of the positive persona in all the Corolla-based vehicles is the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. It's standard in the Scion, optional in the Corolla, Matrix and Vibe, which have a milder 1.8-liter four-banger standard. What's remarkable about the 2.4 is that it's been the drudge-duty engine in base Camrys where it's groan-prone and often unpleasant.

In the Corolla-based cars, it's punchy, almost aurally pleasant and sufficiently buff to merge easily — or to get into quick trouble with people wearing uniforms. And that would be easy because the skinny tachometer and speedometer pointers are almost invisible in daylight. You need night outside and instrument panel lighting inside to closely track the pointers.

The heavier Camry accelerates slower with the same engine, but that's not the whole deal. Think of a person you don't like and one you do. That's the kind of difference you notice driving the 2.4 engine in a Camry vs. the Corolla-based machines.

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