We’re whizzing along country tracks through the Portuguese hinterland when I’m suddenly transported to the cabin of the new Auris. Never mind that we’re on the wrong side of the road, I’m able to appreciate some of the improvements over the last car.
For one, there’s no annoying floating console threatening to clamp down on my wrist every chance it gets.
I also have a chance to appreciate the changes pushed through by the youthful, racecar-driving company president Akio Toyoda who, in 2009, declared he again wanted to see passion in cars.
And it was Toyota’s most passionate recent car – the 86 – that provided the ultimate inspiration for the Auris I now found myself ensconced in.
Head of product communications for Toyota Motors Europe Robert Ticker said the ‘processes used to develop 86 were also used in the development of the new Auris’.
The changes are vast. Starting with the Auris’ design, described by Toyota Europe’s executive for chassis and dynamics as ‘a radical approach in terms of packaging’; the hatchback is more aggressive, sleeker than the car it replaces.
Gone are the soft curves and bulbous body, replaced instead with a low-slung hatchback ticking a list of aerodynamic aids such as a drag-reducing underfloor and a stepped roof for smoother cutting through air.
The roofline is 55mm lower and the ride height 10mm lower, adding to a centre of gravity that is much reduced. The battery on the hybrid model has been moved out of the boot to beneath the rear bench, further aiding the weight distribution.
The Auris’ styling is what is most likely to alienate its faithful followers. The hatchback now boasts a ‘lower’ trapezoidal grille and a narrow ‘upper’ grille splitting the more angular headlight clusters with their chrome accent lines. LED daytime running lights are now also an Auris feature. They are also likely to be a lot less offensive than the hatchback’s rear which has a sharp, linear light cluster running across the tailgate. This also contributes to the Auris’ improved sportiness when viewed from behind.
As well as looking sportier, the Auris also feels a sprightlier. The lower ride height contributes to a much improved ride quality, aided by softer springs, while there’s also a 12% improvement in torsional rigidity.
Not that we were inclined to give the Auris a proper thrashing, but the models driven – both suspended on a MacPherson strut up front and a double wishbone rear – definitely displayed some athletic prowess.
Perhaps it was the 1.6 Valvematic (97kW/160Nm) or the flagship petrol-electric hybrid model (100kW total system output) that did not lend themselves to a sporty occasion, but they both proved exceptionally comfortable on the mix of narrow country road and roundabouts and freeways.
Seats are good – the new seats are said to have improved thigh, back and lateral support – and the driving position is much improved for those who prefer a seat adjusted right down.
Additional improvements include a stylish new dash, new interior colours and classy blue backlighting to replace the traditional orange. Toyota’s Skyview panoramic sunroof will be standard on hybrid models, while the Toyota Touch multimedia system will also be introduced here.
An entry-level 1.3 petrol model, which we did not drive, will be offered in South Africa; a turbodiesel option is still under consideration.
Look out for the new Auris models from January 2013. The sedan version goes on sale later in the year.