The Toyota Auris is a spacious, but unspectacular attempt at a high quality Golf rival. Only the availability of a hybrid lifts it from obscurity

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In some ways, Toyota is the greatest paradox of the motoring world. Its industrial success is well documented, its ascension to the mantle of world’s largest car manufacturer nigh on inevitable, and yet it doesn’t make many interesting cars. Will the new Toyota Auris change that?

In the past, Toyota’s success was based solely on being the best at making cars, at instigating just-in-time procedures whose ramifications have been felt throughout the wider industrial world. But not making the best cars.

Toyota’s success is based on being the best at making cars, but not making the best cars

Think of the last time a Toyota qualified as the unequivocal leader in any specific category. Unless you run a Land Cruiser Amazon in darkest Africa, we suggest this might prove a difficult task.

So here's the Auris. Pronounce it as you will (the name is derived from the Latin for gold, Aurum, and is therefore supposed to be ow-ris). It is resolutely not, Toyota says, a Corolla despite being the same size and looking remarkably similar. Whatever baggage the old nameplate might carry, it's a bold move to replace the world's best-selling car.

This is Toyota’s latest attempt to prove to the world that it can produce machines that engage the emotions as effectively as they already appeal to thrifty wallets.

The version tested here is the 1.6 VVT-i 5dr; since the Auris' 2006 introduction that engine's power has risen from 122bhp to 130, while other available engines include a 99bhp 1.3 and an 89bhp, 1.4-litre turbodiesel. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel has now left the range, but a 1.8-litre hybrid, using the Prius's powertrain, joined it in 2010.

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Toyota Auris side profile

Ditching the Corolla name for Auris was a move of unprecedented bravery for Toyota. After all, for all its slightly dull connotations, we are talking about the best-selling passenger car range of all time.

But take a look at the specification of the Toyota Auris and you’ll quickly conclude that this new model marks a small evolutionary step in the development of the family hatchback.

The Auris marks a small evolutionary step in the development of the family hatchback

Dimensionally, it is slightly taller than the norm, but beneath its two-box shape sit a pair of struts for the front suspension, a torsion beam at the back, and 16in alloy wheels covering four disc brakes with the latest ABS and EBD software.

The Auris is a conventional hatchback in a class where history shows that conservatism is rewarded with sales. And it must be said that, unless you have its predecessor at hand for comparison, the Auris – at least in its original form, before its latest smiley-face nose job – does look uncomfortably like a Corolla at first glance.

It’s taller profile helps interior space but doesn’t do the Auris any favours in crosswinds. And a high centre of gravity doesn’t help the Auris’s handling either, making it prone to high levels of body roll. But the biggest problem is the lack of design flair.

The sides are featureless, the front is too doe-eyed – even if a facelift in 2012 brought more angular lights. Place it alongside practically any C-segment hatchback and it will disappear into the scenery.


Toyota Auris dashboard

Interior space and style were Toyota's design prerogatives in the Auris project, and most people will find the mixture of raised gear lever console and clever instrument binnacle very appealing. But it doesn’t offer the Volkswagen Golf’s feeling of big-car quality, nor are the plastics as soft and squishy.

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the build quality is exceptional, but those anticipating the same derivative Toyota-esque clocks will be greeted by a very attractive set of instruments. They are attractive and clear in equal measure.

In terms of places to plonk accoutrements, the Auris is well behind the class average

Function doesn’t follow form quite as successfully in the rest of the cabin, though. The more time you spend with the Toyota Auris, the more baffling its quasi-MPV shape and interior trimmings seem.

Take the dramatic-looking console that houses the handbrake and gear lever. There’s no denying that it serves as an interesting focal point, but when all’s said and done, the space beneath it is useless and the small huddle of storage flaps in the centre armrest is just plain curious.

One of them houses a huge, removable ashtray; the others are so small as to be virtually useless. In terms of places to plonk the accoutrements of everyday life, the Auris is well behind the class average and, crucially, far behind the expectations set by its MPV-like styling language.

It is a spacious cabin, though; with plenty of head and shoulder room for four adults, and the individual squeezed into the middle of the back seat doesn’t need to be a tiddler, either. The boot has a stated volume of 354 litres, and Toyota makes specific mention of a low load height, but we thought it was actually quite high. The lack of a transmission tunnel means that there's room for three adults in back to sit in relative comfort.

The biggest thumbs-down, however, must go to the driver’s seat which is among the flattest and least supportive we’ve encountered in many years. Drive beyond Miss Daisy pace and you must grip the wheel to avoid falling out of it.


Toyota Auris engine bay

Of the four powertrains on offer in the Toyota Auris (two petrol, one diesel and one hybrid), only one offers a capacity more than 1.6-litres. Kicking off the range is Toyota’s well-rounded 1.33-litre petrol unit. It develops 100bhp and 97lb ft, so while it offers reasonable performance on the move, it can feel breathless and gruff when moving off. A leisurely 0-62mph time of 13.1secs and a top speed of 109mph means its one best suited to round-town duties.

The 1.6-litre valvematic petrol engine is far better suited to the open road, with 130bhp and torque peaking at 118lb ft at 4400rpm. The four-cylinder petrol unit boasts the features and specific output we’d normally expect of a Honda.

The car never feels especially fast

However, mass has become a fierce enemy of the family hatch as it has grown into a genuine five-seater capable of meeting stringent crash regulations. The five-door Auris weighs upwards of 1380kg and this means it can only yield a power-to-weight ratio of 85bhp per tonne. Unsurprisingly, the car never feels especially fast, and those accustomed to being thwacked up the road by a fulsome turbodiesel motor will be shocked at the lack of that most welcome of on-road commodities, oomph. What will impress is the mechanical smoothness throughout the rev range.

The outright figures are bang on the class average: 0-60mph is a 10sec affair and should space and legal conditions prove conducive, you might just see 121mph.

The hybrid version carries the same running gear as the Toyota Prius and Lexus CT200h. That means a 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle engine mated to an electric powertrain with a maximum combined output of 134bhp and 105 of torque. Don't expect huge performance 0-62mph takes 11.4secs and top speed is 112mph. The CVT gearbox means that acceleration results in a great deal of noise too. You'll need to drive extremely gently to achieve anywhere near the claimed fuel consumption figure too. Still, it's an interesting diversion for hybrid enthusiasts who don't want to wear their eco heart on their sleeves.

Toyota’s drive to make hybrid powertrains foremost in the public’s consciousness has led to a watered-down diesel lineup. The 2.0- and 2.2-litre D-4D diesels have been dropped, with only a 1.4-litre unit remaining. It has just enough power to pull the Auris along briskly enough to keep up with motorway traffic, and is torquey enough to be mildly entertaining on flowing roads. However, while it cruises quietly, it is a little coarse under acceleration. Headline figures are 0-62mph in 11.9secs and a top speed of 109mph.

The 1.4 and 1.6-litre engines are available with a choice of six-speed manual or MultiMode automated manual. The latter is no more than adequate in manual mode and downright slow to change in automatic mode. As such, it does nothing to enhance the driving experience.


Toyota Auris cornering

There’s no avoiding the fact that, by opting to use simple twist beam for the rear suspension, The Toyota Auris is instantly denied a crucial element of chassis sophistication enjoyed by the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

It does everything you’d expect of it, though, and the steering deserves special commendation for being so accurate and sensibly weighted. The car is agile and supple up to a point, but the moment the surface turns nasty the rear axle struggles to deal with deeper ruts and can be deflected.

The Auris gets battered by crosswinds that a Golf driver wouldn't notice

It’s also hard not to conclude that Toyota’s decision to design the Auris from the inside out has hampered the chassis to quite a degree. For starters, the higher centre of gravity and relatively supple suspension do bring fairly pronounced levels of body roll without the bonus of a class-leading ride.

This naturally results in significant amounts of head toss for all occupants, and that compromises the car’s long-distance comfort. But the most curious corollary of the Auris’s 1515mm height is poor directional stability at speed and an irritating susceptibility to crosswinds. Motorway driving in winds that a Golf driver wouldn’t even notice requires significant steering input to avoid meandering into other people’s road space.

Perhaps this, more than any other observation, shows that Toyota’s expertise really lies in making cars well and making money from them. All Golfs share the same basic (and sophisticated) suspension components. The fact that the Golf doesn’t make much money these days, we are reliably informed by insiders, probably vindicates Toyota’s decision on this matter.


Toyota Auris 2007-2012

Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions for the Toyota Auris are broadly in line with the class average, although our recorded fuel use was significantly less than the claimed figures.

The 1.33-litre model is the cheapest to run, but it’s likely you’ll not see the claimed 48.7mpg if you spend much time on the motorway, such is the strained nature of the engine. CO2 emissions of 136g/km aren’t that hot either – the Honda Civic 1.4 achieves a 129g/km rating.

It's cheaper than a less well-equipped Golf

The Civic’s 1.8-litre petrol engine outperforms the Auris’ 1.6-litre unit too. The Toyota achieves a rating of between 146g/km and 154g/km, depending on trim and gearbox. The Civic emits just 143g/km. The Honda betters the Toyota’s fuel consumption figures too, with Auris returning a claimed 42.8mpg with a manual gearbox and 44.8mpg with the MultiMode automatic.

The diesel is the champion for running costs, hybrid aside. The 1.4 diesel records a claimed combined figure of 58.9mpg, or 57.6mph with the self-shifter. While competitive, neither figure is exceptional – there are plenty of diesel engines of a larger capacity and with more power that can achieve these figures. Emissions are rated at 128 and 130g/km for the manual and automatic respectively.

Toyota’s hybrid version offers the most compelling on-paper running costs, even if it costs around £2000 more to buy than the next most expensive model in the range. Its emissions of 89g/km when fitted with 15-inch wheels and 93g/km on 17s mean it is exempt from both road tax and the London Congestion Charge.

Officially, the Auris Hybrid is capable of 74.3mpg on 15-inch wheels or 70.6mph on 17s, but it takes patience and skill to record more than 50mpg. If your journey involves winding lanes, or high speed roads, it’s likely to achieve economy in the mid-40s.


3 star Toyota Auris

There might actually have been an argument for retaining the Corolla badge for the Toyota Auris, as our expectations would have been lower.

The Auris has little of the dynamic sparkle or design brilliance shown by the class leaders. It does most things well enough, but in its tilt towards MPV proportion and detailing it is left rather exposed.

The Auris makes the most sense in hybrid form

In that respect, Toyota has failed in its attempt to create a small car that engages the emotions of those who drive it. The Auris might succeed in other areas, but there are better alternatives in the class.

It's car which makes the most sense in its hybrid form, where it is something of an unsung hero. But ultimately it is a car destined to be bought as a tool; a white good.

It's something capable of ticking the boxes to achieve the dictionary definition of a car, without the passion, flair or personality that's so common among mid-sized hatchbacks.

Toyota Auris 2007-2012 First drives