The Toyota What? I thought you said this was the new Corolla
It is! Toyota openly acknowledges the Corolla has become a bit, well, dull and is plotting a stepchange with this important new small family car. So the C-word is dumped for the new Auris badge. It's hoping to repeat what Ford did when it replaced the unloved Escort with the goalpost-moving Focus back in 1998. That's some aim...
So what's new then? Just the name, or is this really an all-new car?
'All-new' is an oft-misused epithet for new cars, but the Auris is indeed new from the ground up. It's the first time this platform has been seen on a production car. As you'd expect, it's front-wheel drive, but there are some interesting new engines and suspensions debuting on the Auris. There are two petrols (a 1.4 and 1.6) and three diesels (1.4, 2.0 and 2.2) - including the most powerful oil-burner in this class; the range-topping T180 musters a punchy 175bhp, out-powering even the strongest Golf TDI. It's also the most powerful Auris we'll see for a while; we'll have to wait to see a successor to the T-Sport and Compressor hot hatches.
It looks like a Yaris that's eaten all the pies...
The Auris does have the whiff of Xerox-enlarged Yaris about it, but it's a clean, modern design from the ED2 design studio in the south of France. And that's worth remembering. The Auris has been developed in Europe, and will be built here, too, at the Burnaston factory in Derbyshire. Toyota has endlessly investigated the competition and this design is supposed to incorporate the best bits from its European rivals. It's the tallest small family car on sale (for generous headroom); the rear floor is totally flat (plenty of space for feet); and the rear backrest adjusts (so passengers can recline to snooze away or sit upright to watch the world go by).
What's it like inside then?
It's pretty good. The cabin boasts a modern, simple design with a simple but effective ergonomic layout. Switches are where they should be, the seat and wheel adjust sufficiently and it's all no-nonsense stuff built with that reassuring Toyota solidity. There are a couple of neat tricks, including a Volvo-inspired floating console with hidden storage, and a pistol-grip handbrake. It’s a good place to sit, with logical switchgear, sassily-cowled dials, Alfa-style, and a generous slug of standard kit. However, we were mightily disappointed by the large swathes of tacky, black plastic on the dash. There's not even an excuse for soft-touch plastics here - just an expanse of shininess. 'Regular customers didn't mind it in our clinics', said an engineer. Just goes to show the danger in trusting clinics, we say.
Ok, so is it good to drive?
The Corolla won no prizes for the way it looked, accommodated or drove - even in its sportier incarnations. It's little wonder that Toyota has ditched the name and the memory of its white-goods-on-four-wheels. And you know what? The new model is a lot better. This isn't a car that's going to set the sector alight, let alone dislodge the Golf and Focus from their perches, but it's a decent drive and the best-selling 1.6 petrol is a keen revver; this model is a sizable 200kg lighter than its VW rival and feels it, with zesty performance compared with rivals. You'll still need to upgrade to a diesel if you want properly muscular acceleration, though. As you'd expect, the Auris is a cinch to drive. Controls are light and easy, and there's a touch more precision about the pedals and gearlever than the Corolla's. The gearstick deserves particular mention: it's high up on the raised console, just next to your hand on the wheel. Just where you need it, in fact.
And does the Auris curl up and die at the first sight of a corner?
We tested a 1.6 petrol on the regular 16-inch wheels and it rode pretty well. Unusually, Toyota has fitted a cheap and compact torsion beam at the rear of most models, but upgrades this to a fully independent double wishbone set-up on the axle-twisting T180 diesel. The basic suspension package flattens most road surfaces, quietly soaking up motorway bumps and urban scars; only the worst potholes send jolts crashing into the cabin. Most of the time, it's very refined and hushed - with only a wind flutter at motorway speeds to disturb the peace. It's not set up for corner carving, though. Body roll is well contained, but it doesn't feel as agile as the Focus, and there's little feedback through the wheel. Disappointingly in this class, stability control is a £350 option on every model (apart from the T180) and there are worrying blindspots around the chunky A-pillars. At least safety-conscious families are looked after by nine airbags and a five-star Euro NCAP rating.
Auris is derived from the Latin for gold and that, sadly, is not the type of medal that this newcomer wins. It doesn't drive well enough, carry bodies and bags in sufficient style or move the goalposts sufficiently in any one discipline to snatch class honours. And yet all is not lost. This is a lot better than the Corolla it replaces, and it's decent value too. In fact, several models seriously undercut the opposition and there's a generous standard equipment roster to take into account. So the Auris is a better car than the Corolla, and that is hardly a difficult feat. The Auris hasn't totally banished its blandmobile reputation, but it's certainly narrowed the gap to the European mainstream.