IAIN ROBERTSON

For 52 years, Toyota has played a vital compact model card with a car that used to be known as Corolla but is now the British-built and appropriate Auris, which Iain Robertson regards as worthier than almost any of its volume-selling rivals.

‘Meeting market needs’, if not its demands, has never been out of Toyota’s sights. Perfunctory to a fine point, while there is a segment of the new car market that seeks neither performance, nor style, as prerequisites, it is one that has taken Toyota to its heart and made it a leading brand worldwide. There have been momentary flashes of brilliance over the past fifty-odd years, designed to turn-on the obverse side of the market, but it could be stated with some confidence that Toyota knows its mass-market onions.

It is by being ordinary, by producing ‘everyman’s’ wheels, that Toyota has scaled the lofty heights of the world car market. While VW may rule the roost notionally, even though the race is no longer important, Toyota is still the spiritual world leader in automotive terms. Its Corolla model, nowadays known as Auris for the UK, has been a major influencer. If you can spot shades of Kia, or Hyundai, in the latest Auris, rest assured, it is no mistake. The South Korean player both wants and needs to replicate the reputation of Toyota’s leading mainstream model.

Yet, does ‘ordinary’ and ‘mainstream’ need to equate to a character bypass, the predominant reason for more customers not being drawn to the brand? In truth, it all depends on what you want from a car and, it would seem, most Toyota customers prefer total dependability, to outright verve. When you contemplate the bees-around-the-honey-pot scenario, when a warmed-over, or hot hatch model makes an appearance, it does beg the question, why has Toyota not been keener to delve into that sector?

The answer lies in the previous management of the Japanese parent company that is now headed by 62-years old Akio Toyoda. For a start, when he took on the job, he was a much younger, enthusiastic and more energetic man. As grandson to the founder of the company, he was escalated to the main board in 2000 but was confirmed as president in 2009. It is his drive for high-performance and character machinery that has been slowly but surely having an impact on both product lines and Toyota customers. Like attempting to turn around a super-tanker in the Thames, his task has been lengthy but also highly effective.

While not exactly the raciest of new cars, the latest Auris is an extraordinary machine, when you start to dig into its make-up. While its appearance is largely derivative, because, as a model, it is trapped within a 4.3m length, 1.4m height and 1.7m width outline indicative of the class, it makes great use of its footprint and packaging. There exists plenty of space for five adults and the boot provides 435-litres of space for their belongings, up to a maximum of almost 1,200-litres, with the rear seats folded flat. Practicality is an Auris priority.

There is an abundance of trim detailing to make the cabin interesting and, while not of an ultimate quality, it is certainly very good and the fit and finish is perfect. In fact, it is clearly well-assembled, as there is not a creak, rattle, or groan emerging from anywhere. The instrumentation is analogue and eminently straight-forward, which makes it easy to read, while the little LCD display between the main dials provides running information. The vents work efficaciously, eyeball at either end of the dashboard, rectangular in the centre, pumping out copious amounts of chilled air during the heat of the test period.

A multi-adjustable driver’s seat and steering column ensure a good driving position in a well-bolstered chair. The amount of shoulder, hip, lumbar and thigh support is excellent and well up to some of the sportier type seats installed in some hot hatches.

Powered by the company’s latest 1.2-litre, turbocharged petrol engine, its power output of 114bhp is highly respectable in the class. However, it is worth noting that it is a unit designed for maximum torque (136lbs ft) and not outright power, as the rev-limit is at an unusually low 5,600rpm for a small capacity petrol engine. Meanwhile the torque spread is from 1,500 to 4,000rpm, a most useful range for normal motoring that does not demand constant gear-shifting to maintain sensible progress. It is a most ingenious type of engineering, because most small capacity motors, even turbocharged ones, demand greater driver commitment to achieve their best; this one does not.

Modest CO2 emissions of 112g/km equate to a first-year road tax of £160 (£140 annually thereafter). Auris’s Official Combined fuel return of 58.9mpg is achievable by any driver relying on the motor’s bounteous amount of bottom-end torque. Bear in mind that almost 75% of all UK-built Aurises are powered by the 1.8-litre petrol-electric hybrid engine, for which a premium of £2,350 is charged over the £21,105 price of the Icon Tech model, prior to any dealer discounts being applied. However, the 1.2-litre is faster, while not being much less frugal. I know which version I would choose…the 1.2-litre, despite my personal fascination with hybrid technology.

Equipment levels are far higher than you might expect for a model that is only one-up from entry-level. They include hill-start assist, follow-home lamps, auto high beam, lane departure alert and even road sign recognition. Of course, there are airbags everywhere, stability and traction control and the aforementioned automatic air-con, which I should highlight also employs a switchable air density control. Factor in a high degree of connectivity, which includes the sat-nav system and 7.0-inch touch-screen, six-speaker stereo system and even a CD player (at last, a carmaker that remembers that many of us still have CD collections to play). The rear-view camera plays a full-colour rendition of what dangers lay behind the Auris.

Driveability is top-notch. The MacPherson front struts and double-wishbone rear suspension set-up provides not only a comfortable and consistent ride quality but also a handling and roadholding compromise that is exceptionally well-judged. Ventilated front discs and solid rears provide assured stopping power and decently reactive steering communicates a modicum of feedback to the driver’s fingers and a connection to the front tyres that is rewarding.

Overall, I am exceedingly impressed by the way that Toyota has employed an aura of continuous improvement to its Auris. Ever since it was called Corolla, this model has been a mainstay of the brand, an oriental Ford Escort/Focus, if you will. The latest Auris is not just matching its rivals in the important compact sector but is also capable of showing them how to do the job in the first place.

Conclusion:    Practice makes perfect is an epithet that can be applied to Toyota, whether at the top-end of its model range, or somewhere close to entry-level, as this test proves hopefully beyond any doubt.