2013 Toyota Auris Hybrid review
That's why Toyota has just given its VW Golf rival a thorough revamp. The rakish new styling not only gives the car a more modern look, it also improves aerodynamics, helping to cut CO2 emissions across the range.
The suspension has been revised to improve handling and ride comfort, while a redesigned interior has freed up more cabin space and improved quality and ergonomics.
We tested the range-topping Hybrid model, which is predicted to be the biggest seller in the UK thanks to its various tax advantages.
What's the 2012 Toyota Auris Hybrid like to drive?
The new Auris is lower, lighter and more rigid than its predecessor. All of these changes help make it slightly sharper to drive, although it's still nowhere near as composed through corners as a Ford Focus or VW Golf.
The same goes for ride comfort. The changes to the suspension have improved matters to a degree – at least on the Portuguese roads we tested the car on – but the Hybrid doesn't smother bumps as well as the best small family hatchbacks.
The steering is probably the most notable improvement; there's now more weight around the straight-ahead, and it remains consistent as you turn the wheel, so you no longer feel detached from proceedings.
As before, the Auris Hybrid has both a petrol engine and an electric motor, which it can use together or independently depending on the situation.
It can manage short trips at town speeds on pure battery power, cruise using only its 1.8-litre petrol engine, and then make the two work simultaneously when you need strong acceleration.
Working together, the power sources deliver 134bhp.
Every time you coast or brake, the battery is recharged ready for another short burst of electric-only driving.
Adopt a gentle driving style and the whole concept makes sense. The power delivery is smooth and quiet – even when the petrol engine is operating – and the switch between power sources is seamless.
However, things fall apart when you're in a hurry.
Toyota says it has modified the Hybrid's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) to give a closer relationship between vehicle speed and engine revs, but the revs still soar suddenly when you accelerate hard, and remain high until you're up to your desired speed.
The same thing happens if you encounter an incline on the motorway, which means large chunks of your journeys are accompanied by an irritating drone.
To make matters worse, the improvements to the car's aerodynamics have done little to reduce wind noise on the motorway.
What's the 2012 Toyota Auris Hybrid like inside?
The Auris remains one of the smallest cars in its class, so it isn't as spacious as many of its rivals, including the latest VW Golf.
However, redesigned front seats have freed up an extra 20mm of rear legroom, while a longer boot has boosted the amount of load space to 360 litres. The opening to the boot is 90mm wider than before, too.
Unlike in the previous car, the Hybrid's boot space hasn't been compromised, because the battery pack has been relocated under the rear seats.
There's also a new dashboard, which is taller and features more soft-touch plastics. Parts of it still feel decidedly low-rent compared with the best small family cars, though.
The Hybrid is available in two trims: Icon and Excel.
Icon models come with air-conditioning, alloys, Bluetooth, four electric windows and a DAB radio.
Upgrading to Excel costs £1750, and adds larger wheels, heated front seats, climate and cruise controls, automatic lights and wipers, front and rear parking sensors and keyless entry.
Should I buy one?
Toyota says it hopes the new Auris will appeal to both the heart and the head, but the biggest appeal of this Hybrid version remains its various tax advantages.
For example, it sits in the lowest company car tax band for non-electric cars, which means (as a 40% rate taxpayer) you'll pay around £20 a month less than if you'd gone for a similarly priced diesel VW Golf.
The Hybrid is also exempt from road tax and the London Congestion Charge and – because of its sub-90g/km CO2 emissions – that might well remain the case even if the Government decides to lower the exemption thresholds in 2013.
It's a good thing the Auris still has those financial enticements, though, because while it's undoubtedly a better car than it was, it's still a long way behind the best small family cars for driving dynamics, refinement, space and interior quality.
What Car? says.
By Will Nightingale