EXCITEMENT, cutting-edge design and a dynamic driving experience are virtues not generally associated with a brand such as Toyota. Reliability, robustness and no-fuss transport are, because Toyota ownership is typically the product of a rational purchasing decision and desires of the heart have little say in the matter. The inspirational 86 (developed in conjunction with Subaru) obliterated these perceptions when it arrived on local soil last year. Thanks to this evocative sportscar (and perhaps for the first time in the 21st century), a Toyota owner might linger next to their vehicle because of a strong emotional connection with the machine. The big question is: can Toyota create the same stir in the overcrowded C-segment, especially given the prevalence of premium brands
in the market that look set to snatch an ever-increasing percentage of customers?
It was clear to the Toyota designers that a slight tweak of the previous-generation Auris, which struggled to grab the imagination of the public, would not suffice. Hook words such as funky, trendy and dynamic have inspired the newcomer’s lower, wider and more youthful design. From the outside, it resembles a member of the Yaris family, but it gains elegance as well as sportiness. Ride height has been lowered by 10 mm and overall height by 55 mm. The result is a vehicle that, from an aesthetic point of view, is a big step forward from its conservative predecessor.
Inside, the influences from the 86 are evident: a slab-sided facia with a vertical face, two flat central air vents, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and low-mounted, enveloping seats. Toyota still struggles to achieve a uniform styling theme, as the round air outlets clash with the square centre vents and the colour palette of the touchscreen monitor differs vastly from the instrument cluster and climate control displays. The focal point of criticism, however, was the Hilux-themed LCD clock. Surely the warehouse carrying these units must be running low on stock by now? That said, cabin materials and the levels of fit and finish are generally of good quality.
The leather-trimmed seats (standard in Xs and XR spec) offer supreme comfort, good looks and excellent lateral support. Finding a good driving position is easy, although taller testers remarked that a greater range of reach adjustment on the steering column would have been welcome. Dual-zone climate control, cruise control, a reverse camera as well as keyless entry and push-button start are standard. The Auris has grown 30 mm in length and, as a result, rear occupants gain an extra 20 mm of kneeroom and the boot capacity has grown marginally from 224 to 232 dm3.
Safety-wise, the European-spec Auris has achieved a five-star EuroNCAP crash-test rating and this XR-spec model has curtain and knee airbags to complement the dual front and side items. Electronic stability and traction-control systems are not fitted, which is somewhat curious for a vehicle that costs in excess of R250 000. Another minor gripe is that the doors do not lock automatically when the vehicle pulls away from standstill.
Toyota is yet to embrace the trend of engine downsizing (in conjunction with turbocharging and direct injection) and has rather opted for a 1,6-litre naturally aspirated unit. On paper, the engine, which produces 97 kW, is fairly advanced; it features variable valve timing (lift and duration made possible with Valvematic) and a variable-length inlet manifold. In a vehicle weighing only 1 275 kg, we expected the driving experience to live up to the Auris’s sporty looks. This was unfortunately not the case, as tall gearing and little torque at low engine speeds made the engine feel decidedly flat – even compared with Ford’s 92 kW 1,0-litre turbopetrol Ecoboost motor (as tested last month in the Fiesta). In fact, several testers reported that they tended to stall the vehicle on pull-away. At least the conservative engine technology should prove reliable and aid the Auris as a long-term ownership proposition. Fuel consumption on our standardised route came to a very respectable 6,6 litres/100 km.
On the test strip, the motor was stretched to the uppermost reaches of engine speed in every gear in attempts to achieve the manufacturer’s claimed acceleration times for the model. After many tries, we achieved 10,7 seconds to 100 km/h from standstill and 32,26 seconds to pass the kilometre mark, but at least the positive gearshift action made the test bearable. In-gear overtaking acceleration can only be described as leisurely. However, braking performance and feel were excellent during the demanding 10-stop emergency brake-test routine from 100 km/h as the average time of 2,83 seconds attest. Handling characteristics are sound given the forgiving ride quality, but understandably the Toyota’s absolute grip capability would not rival that of hot hatches in the least. Steering feedback has been improved with the help of a more direct steering ratio.
The Auris is a valiant attempt by Toyota to regain some traction in the C-segment hatchback market, especially when viewed in isolation. This brings us to the biggest problem facing the Auris (and most other C-segment contenders): the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf 7. As luck would have it, we had the 1,4 TSI version in the garage at the same time and this model eclipses the Auris in most departments. Whereas the Golf is a brilliant vehicle for all classes and generations, the Auris will have limited appeal outside the current Toyota owners’ club. Is it a bad vehicle? Not at all.
It promises to be a safe long-term purchase and its external styling certainly catches the eye in a good way. Just steer clear of the key to your neighbour’s seventh-edition German competitor and you won’t be disappointed.