IMG_6177_edited (Small)IAIN ROBERTSON

Ever since the dawn of the Interwebnet, car manufacturers have shown more than a passing fascination in the growing worth of social media, writes Iain Robertson, although putting a finite value on it has proven difficult.

 

Scouring the pages of ‘facebook’ a couple of months ago, I was notified by the ‘webmaster’ from Toyota GB about the accessibility of the hybrid version of the Auris family hatchback. Its accessibility was not related to how many Afghan hounds I might be able to slot into the back seat, or how much shopping could be squeezed into the boot, or, for that matter, whether possessing a ‘Blue Badge’ might be an accessibility consideration (I am neither that old, nor infirmed), but rather that I ought to ‘treat myself’ to a test drive of the latest model.

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My response (because I ‘always’ respond to friendly fire) was that I would suss it out, relate with my media relations’ contact within the firm and access the availability of a test car. While such activities are fairly de rigueur in the life of a road-tester, it was actually the first time that I had been ‘targeted’ by a major company, via a social media website. Needless to say, the solitary brain cell rattled around my cranium and my scribe’s instinct led me into contemplating the value of social media to the motor industry.

 

When that ever-so-intuitive and pioneering ‘Barnes Wallace’ (actually Tim Berners-Lee, in case you wondered) created the worldwide web (dot.com) in 1989, other than providing an opportunity for photo-bombers to dial in their creative talents, I wonder if he could foresee the immense commercial potential. It was not long after its development that forward-thinking carmakers took their first, tentative steps into formulating an on-line presence. Mind you, it has only been since the late-1990s that they started to refine their websites and place a value on them.

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There is scarcely a car company worth its salt that does not communicate via the ‘web’. Each of them has invested in expensive websites that need on-going maintenance and updating, while many of their marketing and public relations departments have even employed web specialists to service the needs of a growing crop of ‘citizen journalists’. Although, in some ways, the growth of the Internet has also created an inevitable hurdle.

 

Too many non-professionals airing their views and advice but not possessing the skills to exploit them properly, beyond an uncanny deftness with tapping into a keyboard (mostly in lower case) and declaring their fascinations to the world, may have served only to dilute the real value. Yet, despite the downsides associated to certain ‘revelations’, the broadening of corporate profiles cannot be described as anything less than commercially beneficial.

 

For a car like the Toyota Auris Hybrid, an inevitable ‘product push’ has taken place. Unlike the slightly avant-garde Prius, from the same stable, its relative normality might pass by the average car buyer in its sector. The obvious styling differences are minimal, although the eco-implications are every bit as great. You see, the beauty of avant-garde, the art of making an eco-warrior’s wheels stand out from the norm, would appear to lie in developing a car that is (for want of a less appropriate term) plug-ugly. That way, everybody can see that you are either a complete prize prune, or a person committed to ‘doing their bit for the environment’. Living with me for seven days, the Auris H proved its point to perfection and nobody guessed it!

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While I have often wondered why Toyota changed the name of its perfectly acceptable Corolla (a name still in use in several new car markets) to Auris, this mainstreamer remains a pleasingly well-assembled, tidy driving and inexpensive-to-own hatchback. As a hybrid model, it offers the distinct advantage of noiseless around-town trawling, to a maximum of around 1.5-miles in EV mode, while possessing a modest enough power unit (running in-series, 1.8-litres petrol, developing 98bhp alone) to serve purpose on the open road, supercharged by the electric unit. Incidentally, the electric ‘engine’ develops a useful 80bhp.

 

Its CO2 emissions are a VED-free 91g/km and it falls into a lowly Group 12E for insurance purposes. Auris’s BIK rating for business users is a mere and eminently affordable 10%, which should underscore its potential to the company car sector. The electricity boosts its petrol performance to a top speed of around 112mph, the car despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in a sensible 10.6 seconds. It promises a whopping 72.4mpg, which might be a whopping lie, if you believe the Official Combined government figure. However, I attained a respectable 60.8mpg, in a mix of driving conditions, without trying too hard. The car is protected by Toyota’s five years warranty programme and service intervals are every 30,000 miles.

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Driving through an electric CVT (Constantly Variable Transmission), the rising and falling of the revs is not a major issue, as the road speed catches up with engine speed, because the Auris is actually quite refined. However, watching the ‘Charge-Eco-Power’ needle performing its callisthenics on the left hand of the two dials is mildly irksome, if you let it be so. Other dashboard information is limited to a speedometer and fuel gauge, with the on-board computer reading placed between the two main dials.

 

Positioned in the centre-stack is the touch-screen device that contains the stereo head unit, sat-nav information (add £650 for that practical privilege) and other elements of the car’s operating modes. The HVAC and air-con is located separately and non-confusingly beneath the touch-screen. The gearstick for controlling the CVT is a neat, stubby device located in the usual place. Rear seat space is good, as is the luggage area for a car of this class. It is all very straightforward and (thankfully) normal. The price tag is £22,890 in Excel trim, although you need to add £1,300 for the sat-nav and pearlescent paint of the test example (£24,190).

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Driving the Auris H is a singularly undemanding affair. You press the keyless-go button, select Drive (D), release the parking brake and dive into the melee. Its steering is lightweight and slightly devoid of ‘feel’ but responsive enough to driver input. The car’s handling is unspectacular, riding comfortably, until it strikes an unavoidable pothole, which tends towards crashiness in response. The brakes lack elements of driver feedback, a factor that can be blamed on the Brake Energy Recovery System that provides a recharge service to the on-board Nickel Metal-hydride (NiMh) battery pack required for hybrid operation. Yet, it is relaxing overall and delivers no surprises, or false apprehensions, thereby living up to its Toyota ‘everyman’ aspirations.

 

Conclusions:  Toyota is not the number one car brand in the world without reason. The Auris is sturdily built, drives undramatically, is cost-efficient to live with and is guaranteed not to attract unwanted attention. Perfect for sleeping violets and wallflowers, an Auris driver can mix imperceptibly with other road-users. Yet, the car possesses a kindly character way beyond that of halo-polishing. The acid test of whether I would buy one is a positive response and I would quite enjoy living with it too. As to the validity of social media, I believe that there is a modest level of impact presently but I do believe that it will grow and more potential buyers/users will be targeted directly in years to come. It was an interesting exercise.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).