First Drive: Toyota Auris

TOYOTA would be the first to admit that the old Auris wasn’t quite as good as it should have been, and in the fullness of time it’s now the turn of a new version to raise the stakes.

There’s very little carried over from the old model in practical terms. Even the bare bones of the chassis and bodyshell are now built in a different way with stiffer materials and extra spot welding for better handling.

The interior is much changed, too, with a different and rather more spacious layout. A lower centre console combined with an unusually big glove box and a capacious central storage bin make the new Auris a good deal more practical, even if the door pockets are a bit restrictive.

Importantly this model immediately feels more solid than the last, with a good mix of chunky materials and a very welcome overall sense of robustness.

On the outside the design has moved away from the relatively tall stance of old to a new, sleeker and aerodynamically sounder shape. The roof line is 55mm lower than its predecessor’s and it rides 10mm lower at chassis level. Headroom is unaffected thanks to seats mounted 40mm lower than before.

Toyota will build the Auris in a quartet of new trim levels. Customer focus groups and market analysis tells Toyota that it’s time to ditch the old system and go for something new. The end result is a range starting at Active, rising to the mainstream Icon and then diverging slightly into Sport and Excel. Excel is the best-equipped, plushest and costliest spec level, but Sport has the sharper detailing that many buyers want.

Icon models are likely to be the biggest sellers thanks to a broad kit list covering alloy wheels, DAB radio, a touch-screen media interface, Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera, electric windows all round, leather-trimmed contact points in the cabin and front fog lights, on top of the climate control, USB connection and heated, electrically adjustable mirrors that are standard even on Active spec. Oddly though, cruise control is only standard at Excel level.

The initial engine choice looks slightly restrictive on paper compared to the myriad options listed by some rivals, but all the bases are covered and for normal driving the units offered are ideal. There’s a 1.4-litre turbodiesel, 1.33- and 1.6-litre normally-aspirated petrols and Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, connecting a reliable and smooth 1.8-litre petrol to an electric motor and fully-enclosed hybrid system capable of over 70mpg.

Tested here is the 1.6-litre Valvematic petrol; an engine that makes a surprisingly good impression in a world of ever-shrinking and convincing turbocharged petrol rivals. Fantastically smooth in the best Toyota tradition, it also has useful gusto when revved hard but is best used to make smooth progress. Thankfully the standard manual gearbox is delightfully crisp and positive even if it is a little long-throw, and combined with a smooth and easy-to-judge clutch action the drivetrain in general exceeds expectations at every turn. This Auris is genuinely nice to drive.

The petrol model is a good bit lighter at the front end than the hybrid model and it steers more keenly. There also seems to be more feel at the wheel. It’s a relatively quick steering rack and through tight turns the car handles surprisingly well.

Icing for the cake comes in the form of fuel economy, a supposed chink in any non-turbocharged engine’s armour. On a hilly section of the test route that took in unnecessary stops in busy traffic and some crawling through narrow cobbled streets in first gear, the car returned an indicated 55.4mpg. That’s mighty impressive for a 1200kg car with this type of engine.

The combination of a roughly 50kg weight reduction and a considerably lower centre of gravity means that softer, Europe-friendly suspension can be used without a penalty in terms of body roll. Icon-spec cars on their 16-inch alloy wheels ride particularly well and cut out the jiggly edge that the Excel versions sometimes reveal on their 17-inch rims.

Rear legroom is ample for this class, and the large rear doors allow better access than in some of the Auris’ competitors. A handy feature is a dual-floor boot design, allowing some luggage to be stowed entirely out of sight. The uppermost level can easily be dropped to the lowest point to create a single space that uses all 360 litres.

This is arguably the sweetest Auris of the bunch, with a terrific balance of handling, fuel economy, ownership costs, build quality and refinement. It asks the question whether you need anything more, and the answer is an emphatic no.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Toyota Auris 1.6 Valvematic Icon, £17,495 on the road.Engine: 1.6-litre normally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol producing 130bhp and 118lb.ft.Transmission: 6-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.Performance: Top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 11.1 seconds.Fuel economy: 47.8mpg.CO2 rating: 138g/km.

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