The world's number one car maker, Toyota, has fixed its sights securely on the South African C-segment with the launch of the all new Auris hatchback.
Replacing the RunX, Auris (pronounced as in "Audrey"), is aimed squarely at Volkswagen's Golf V.
Designed in France, and imported from the United Kingdom to South Africa, Auris represents a new departure for Toyota's design philosophy.
Spaciousness the key
The design is distinctively European and the front styling is aggressive and purposely proportioned. The rear styling though is comparably boring and anonymous, lacking a definitive anchor point or guiding lines for the eye.
Interior architecture is better, with a vast cabin with plenty of neat design touches.
The gear lever is mounted on top of a bridged centre console, with a storage space beneath, and the switchgear is ergonomically grouped.
Dials are easily legible, and both the speedometer and tachometer both have smaller integrated for axially gauge information.
Only the handbrake, with its quasi-chrome finished thumb-switch engagement detracts from the overall cabin ergonomics.
Recognising spaciousness as a key design feature, Toyota engineers and designers designed the Auris from the 'inside out.', with all exterior proportions being subject to interior space considerations.
Subsequently the Auris has a peculiarly tall shape, with an overall height if 1.51m. At first glance it is decidedly mini-MPV like, yet Toyota designers have managed to craft a shape with a very low overall drag coefficient of 0.29.
Toyota claims best in class interior room and my driving partner on the launch was a neat 2m tall, but he was plenty comfortable. With ample head and shoulder room, a family of five could easily cover vast distances in the Auris cabin.
Auris is powered by four engine variants in South Africa. Three petrol engines with capacities ranging from 1.4- to 1.8-litres and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel.
All petrol versions are four cylinder, 16-valve, double overhead camshaft designs, with electronic fuel injection.
They are also all equipped with Toyota's take on variable valve timing - VVT-I. The 1.6- and 1.8-litre models have dual VVT-I, which controls the advancing or retarding of both the intake and exhaust valve driving camshafts.
The 1.4-litre petrol unit produces 71 kW at 6 000 r/min and 130 Nm at 4 000 r/min and is essentially an ECU-tweaked carryover from the RunX range. It drives through a five-speed manual gearbox.
Next up, the 1.6-litre produces 91 kW at 6 000 r/min and 157 Nm at 5 200 r/min. This engine, which should account for most Auris sales, can be mated with either a five-speed manual or a clutchless five-speed MultiMode Transmission (M-MT).
M-MT can be driven as either a full automatic, or controlled with steering mounted paddle-shift levers. It is hardly an overtly sporty gearbox design, but rather promises excellent fuel consumption via driveline optimisation.
There is no torque converter for instance, negating slippage and energy wastage usually associated with automatic transmissions.
The 1.6-litre with M-MT is the only automatic option available in the range.
Topping off the petrol engine line-up is a long stroke 1.8-litre producing 100 kW at 6 000 r/min and 175 Nm at 4 400 r/min. Befitting its range-topping nomenclature (on the petrol side of the engine line-up, at least), the 1.8-litre drives through a six-speed manual gearbox.
For the first Toyota will have turbodiesel power in the severely competitive C-segment. Its 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel is based on the 2.2-litre turbodiesel currently doing service locally in RAV4 and Avensis.
The new engine has an equal bore/stroke ratio and produces 93 kW at 3 600 r/min and 300 Nm of torque from between 2 000 and 2 800 r/min. Toyota claims fuel consumption figures of 5.4-litres per 100km's.
On the launch route, which meandered through the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, the drivetrains were remarkably quiet and NVH ratings are excellent. Even the diesel is hardly audible at idle and overall cabin insulation from wind and road noise was commendable across the range.
Of the assembled engines the 1.6 and 2.0 diesel versions were the choice performers. The turbodiesel pulls very strongly from 1 800 r/min and with an unusually easy-shifting Toyota gearbox and six neatly spaced ratios', is always keen when tasked to overtake in third or fourth gear.
The 91 kW, 1.6 dual VVT-i petrol is a little gem and revs very keenly. Although we did not have the opportunity to sample the clutchless M-MT gearbox, the standard five-speed manual version was a fun drive.
Only a slightly short fifth-gear detracted somewhat, with the engine sounding a bit harsh during high speed cruising.
Handling was good, with neat road manners and particularly well damped steering for a family orientated passenger car. At parking speeds the power-assisted steering is playfully light but weights up quite nicely at speed. Handling was quite surefooted, even through fast sweeps.
With plenty of cattle meandering haphazardly across the midlands we called upon the ABS, EBD and brake assist collectively to avoid some beefy situations. The brakes performed faultlessly, even in the driving rain.
Locally Auris is available in three trim levels denoted by either RT, RS or RX designations.
RT versions are the entry level models and, hardly sparsely equipped, come equipped with Radio/CD, ABS, EBD and BAS and front passenger and driver front and side airbags, although MP3 audio compatibility and alloy wheels would have been nice.
RS models are distinguished aesthetically by their 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 205/55 tyres. Interior equipment upgrades include steering wheel-mounted audio controls with MP3 compatibility, front and rear electric windows and additional curtain shield airbags front and rear as well as a driver's knee airbag.
The range-topping RX models have additional dual-zone air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start, rain sensing wipers and perhaps most noticeably, leather trim.
There is a comprehensive options list too with 17-inch mags, scuff plates and oddly enough even drilled pseudo-racing pedals on order. Audiophiles can order an iPod integration unit too.
All models have ISOfix top tether mounts for compatible child seats and whiplash injury lessening seats for the driver and front passenger. All Auris models are Euro NCAP rated at five stars for adult and four stars for child occupant protection.
Toyota is aiming at a very competitive market dominated by the Golf V, with Ford Focus and Opel Astra on the fringes. Auris has a strong engine line-up, with very marketable diesel power, class leading interior roominess and legendary build quality and service levels. Projected sales targets are initially 1 000 units a month.
Some of the mid-spec RS models, especially the 1.6 and 2.0-litre diesel stand out as very attractive buys.
Dynamic image and styling appeal though, the Auris does not have, but the package does make a lot of sense, especially for family motoring. And surely, more than 1 000 South Africans a month will agree.
1.4RT R156 500
1.4RS R169 600
1.6RT 169 900
1.6RS R181 800
1.6 RS MMT R186 800
1.8 RS R190 500
1.8 RX R208 100
2.0 RS D-4D R213 900
2.0 RX D-4D R229 900