Solid citizen for our times

THE modern family hatchback must appeal to a broad cross-section of motorists. At least, it must if it’s to achieve the volume of sales needed to install it near the top of what is one of the most competitive sectors in the UK car market. Achieving this breadth of desirability isn’t easy and, previously, the Auris didn’t really try, sticking pretty much to the middle of the road. But with the introduction of a new trim grade structure, extra kit at no additional cost and more colours across the range, Toyota is aiming to sharpen the model’s value and broaden its appeal.

THE modern family hatchback must appeal to a broad cross-section of motorists. At least, it must if it’s to achieve the volume of sales needed to install it near the top of what is one of the most competitive sectors in the UK car market. Achieving this breadth of desirability isn’t easy and, previously, the Auris didn’t really try, sticking pretty much to the middle of the road. But with the introduction of a new trim grade structure, extra kit at no additional cost and more colours across the range, Toyota is aiming to sharpen the model’s value and broaden its appeal.

Rather than becoming a major player at the top of the family hatchback sales charts, the Toyota Auris seems to be destined to fill a supporting role. If your priorities are build quality, reliability and economy rather than visual and roadgoing excitement, it’s a great bet.

The Auris took over from the long serving and phenomenally successful Toyota Corolla back in 2007. The ditching of the Corolla name was a massive step for Toyota. It had featured in the brand’s model line-up since the 1960s accounting for 35 million sales in the process and reigned at the top of the world sales charts for a decade.

The Auris had some act to follow. It was touted as a Toyota hatchback designed more specifically around European tastes. The unflinching reliability of the Corolla would be retained but the Auris would up the standard in areas of design, handling and desirability. In many respects it did, but not far enough to challenge the likes of the Focus, Astra and Golf. The typical Auris buyer was still mainly interested in qualities like reliability, build quality, economy and value.

There isn’t a great deal in the engine range to spark the interest of the keen driver these days but if efficiency is your thing, the Auris has some tricks up its sleeve, even if you look beyond the clever full-hybrid HSD model. Opening proceedings in the mainstream range is the 1.33-litre petrol unit with VVT-i variable valve timing and Toyota’s Stop & Start technology. It’s got 100bhp and can take the Auris through the 0-60mph sprint in 13.1s. Next up are the 130bhp 1.6-litre V-Matic petrol models. These have the quickest Auris engine with a 0-60mph sprint of 10s and a 121mph top speed. The engine features a very clever piece of engineering with the timing of both inlet and exhaust valves precisely controlled by computer along with the amount of valve lift. Finally, there’s the 1.4-litre D-4D common-rail injection diesel, a 90bhp engine that still has more torque than both of the petrol units. Here the benchmark sprint takes 11.9s.

The latest Auri models keep the retuned suspension introduced with the 2010 facelift, said to better suit the preferences of European drivers and the particular qualities of our continent’s roads. High speed stability, ride comfort and handling security were the key improvements. The electric power steering system also came in for attention, Toyota rectifying the rather detached feel of the helm on the original Auris models.

James Bond might actually find himself better served by a Toyota Auris than a V12 Aston Martin complete with cloaking device. The car does have an uncanny knack of blending into the background and 007 could maintain deep cover while slashing his company car tax bill. The Auris isn’t ugly in any way but there’s little for the eye to latch onto within the amorphous styling scheme. The gentle curves are cleaner on the latest cars which have a deeper bumper that can house integrated fog lights, a more shapely bonnet and headlamps swept back into the wings.

The cabin design is more striking, mainly thanks to the unusual dashboard design which raises the controls for the stereo and ventilation system up and within easier reach of the driver. The gearstick also falls more easily to hand thanks to the elevated centre console, though its design does mean that you can forget about sliding across the cabin to exit via the passenger door when you’ve crammed the Auris into a parking space that’s a bit too tight. Build quality is as good as anything in the sector and these facelifted models highlight this more effectively through the use of classier materials. There’s soft touch plastic for the dash top and a nice silver finish for the eye-catching centre console.

The floor of the Auris is flat, so there’s more foot room for back seat passengers than in most family hatchback models. In general, you won’t want for head or legroom in any of the car’s five seats and hatchback customers who regularly travel fully-loaded will appreciate this spacious design. The rear seat backrests even recline to make those in the back more comfortable and there’s a healthy 354-litre boot behind.

Toyota has revised the structure of the Auris range, lowering the point of entry with new 1.33-litre three and five-door Auris Edition models which replace the previous T2 but are available at the same on-the-road prices with a significantly improved specification. Adding to the outgoing T2’s spec, it gets as standard 16-inch alloy wheels, heated, retractable door mirrors that are colour-matched to the car’s bodywork and similarly colour-keyed doorhandles.

The Auris TR remains the core model in the range and is newly equipped with rear parking sensors, Bluetooth with voice control and - on the 1.6 Valvematic - cruise control. A sportier interior trim has been introduced in dark grey with silver detailing, and analogue dials now feature in the 1.4 D-4D and 1.6 Valvematic versions, adding to the sporty feel.

The range-topping Auris SR is five-door only and powered by the 1.6 Valvematic engine with six-speed manual transmission. In addition to a standard specification that includes 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, dark-tinted rear privacy glass and darkened headlamp lenses, it also gets cruise control and Bluetooth as standard.

Despite some well documented hiccups in recent times, Toyota’s reputation for producing durable and reliable vehicles remains the envy of the other mainstream manufacturers. Combine that with the strong fuel economy figures that are produced throughout the Auris engine range and it should add up to a pleasantly incident and expense-free ownership experience. In terms of cost of ownership, the headlines are inevitably made by the hybrid petrol-electric HSD model but even in the more conventional mainstream petrol and diesel line-ups, there are efficient returns on offer.

The 1.33-litre petrol engine returns 48.7mpg combined cycle economy but should be better still by comparison in urban traffic where its Stop & Start system brings the most benefit. Its emissions are 136g/km. The 1.6-litre petrol unit can achieve close to 43mpg and 153g/km emissions but the diesel tops the lot with 60mpg and 125g/km. These figures stand up well when judged against rivals with similar engine options.

Although the changes to the Auris are aimed at broadening its appeal, the Auris remains a family hatchback that largely sticks to what it does well. The current car might sport cleaner lines and sharpened driving dynamics but it still prioritises practical virtues over dynamic and aesthetic ones. Which means that where the Auris continues to excel is in its build quality, its highly efficient engines and its general versatility. It does what we’ve come to expect of a Toyota hatchback and that’s exactly what the brand’s loyal followers are after.