Like several recent European Toyotas, stylish Auris Touring Sports looks better in the metal than in photos, gives the automaker a competitive entry in an increasingly crowded C sub segment

Like several recent European Toyotas, stylish Auris Touring Sports looks better in the metal than in photos, gives the automaker a competitive entry in an increasingly crowded C sub segment

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Olde England: 'estate car' or, if you are v posh, 'shooting brake'. US: 'wagon'. Australia/New Zealand: 'station (as in sheep) wagon' or just plain 'wagon' again. Germany: 'variant' or 'caravan' or 'kombi'. BMW: 'Touring'. Ford (Focus): 'Estate'. Vauxhall (Astra): 'Sports Tourer'. Toyota (Auris): 'Touring Sports'. Honda (upcoming Civic line addition): 'Tourer'. You get the idea.

Product planning in autoland was once relatively straightforward. You sat down and designed a small, medium, large or, in the US, humungeous model line. Two- and four-door sedan. Maybe a two-door coupe and/or a convertible. Two- and four-door wagon. And, in the US and Australia, a two-door pickup/ute which you might also have sold as a 'bakkie' in South Africa. Pretty much the same platform, pretty much the same body/chassis bits to the A or B-pillars, plenty of relatively interchangeable bits from there to the back bumper for the coupe/cabrio, wagon and pickup variations, common I4, I6 and V8 rear-drive engines across the line, a few manual and autobox options; model and trim variants to suit market preferences. As the insurance ad meerkat says on UK TV: "Simples".

You know what happened next. First, around a decade before the enormous up-to-nine passenger 'full size' US wagons reached their nadir, and about a decade after the first oil crisis, Chrysler invented the mid-1980s minivan. Ford, if you accept the Bronco was first, more or less invented the SUV mid-'70s (honourable mention: Range Rover). And nothing's been the same in stationwagonland since.

Today, niche rules. SUVs now come in all shapes and sizes from B- to E-segment, soup to nuts. The US continues to love its giant SUVs, even as a tiddler like the Buick Encore (their version of the Chevy Trax/Opel Mokka) is making a bit of ground.

Big, by European standards, minivans made the full-size wagon in the US as extinct as dinosaurs. Hatchbacks have long ruled segments A-D, especially in Europe, with occasional excursions into E. And there's high-roof hatches (think Golf Plus), liftbacks, and the smaller European minivans like Ford's C-Max we call MPVs and Antipodeans call 'people movers'. And let's not even get started on crossovers.

In the midst of all this madness, C-segment wagons, have been something of a constant and the niche has seen a stylish renaissance here in Europe these past few years. And the current players have form in the market dating back decades. Opel/Vauxhall's Astra Sports Tourer can be traced back to Kadett Caravans of the 1950s and 1960s Vauxhall Vivas. Ford's Focus Estate goes back through three generations of Focus, through Escort, Anglia and back to the original Escort spinoff of the 1950s Prefect. Toyota has built Corolla wagons as far back as I can remember, the nameplate - still used instead of the newer Auris in many markets - dates back to 1966. Nissan, which pretty much invented the C-segment crossover niche in Europe with the Qashqai, no longer does a wagon as such but also did C-segment Sunny/Pulsar load-haulers dating back almost to the beginning of automotive time. Honda, which has a new Civic Tourer waiting in the wings, first did a Civic wagon in around 1980, a spinoff from the second generation hatchback.

So buyers have liked them. Consistently. Hence, I'd suggest, the current - and most stylish ever - crop which also includes the Kia cee'd and Hyundai i30, both second generation, European made cars. Here, too, Hyundai Motor has form - anyone remember the 1970s Pony wagon?

With its Auris Touring Sports, built only in the UK (no American, Asian or Pacific market plans, we are told, which is surprising) and on sale - only in Europe - this month, Toyota brings to an ever more crowded party another stylish, obviously purpose-built load lugger with a unique selling point (USP): hybrid. At least for now, though I doubt rivals like Volkswagen - just launching its latest Golf Variant - will leave that opportunity open too much longer. Toyota, rightly, claims a segment first for the 'ybrid powertrain, shared with the 'atchback, which combines the usual, Atkinson cycle, 1.8-litre VVT-i, petrol engine with the latest iteration of its Hybrid Synergy Drive (CVT transmission, separate motor/generator, regenerative braking, etc.).

Even though the hybrid's 85g/km CO2 emissions will win the new Auris lots of private and company car-driving friends, Toyota is hedging its bets in a European market where wagons account for a quarter of C-segment sales, with 75% sold to fleet managers OCDing over CO2 emissions and fuel economy, and will also offer, according to market, one or two low-CO2 diesels. The UK gets only the more powerful version, emitting 109g with standard manual gearbox and stop/start and achieving 57.6mpg on the EU urban test cycle. The hybrid gets 72.5-78.5mpg depending on wheel size but real-world economy is more likely the high 50s at best.

Design is good. The Japanese market once shunned wagons, regarding them as 'tradesmen's cars" so, even for export, designs were skimped, model generations skipped - the 'old' wagon often doing an eight-year go around alongside hatch and saloon siblings redesigned every four years. Shared strut rear suspension led to huge, width-reducing, plastic covered pillars in the load area just where the space-expanding rear seatback was hinged to fall. Maybe someone in Japan eventually looked at how Peugeot did wagons, with bespoke, near horizontal rear springs and struts, liberating vital width, because, in the early nineties, Mitsubishi was one which discovered how to properly package a wagon - rivals soon followed suit - and 'strut intrusion' became words unneeded in my consumer road test writing days.

Toyota Europe insiders said the Auris Touring load area and tailgate opening were carefully designed to maximise rigidity, aid load access and maximise space. Using an idea first seen on Mazda 6 wagons, levers within easy reach of the 'gate each side drop the 70/30 split backrests effortlessly onto the cushions, boosting load length and space. Removeable load cover, 12V power and sundry hooks and tie-downs are all to class standard.

Both hybrid CVT automatic and 1.6 petrol manual versions we drove seemed up to class standards for performance, ride and handling. A 1.6 usually needs a bit of a shake-up on fast European roads and that's easy with a nice heft and feel to the standard six-speed 'box most buyers will choose though CVT automatic is optional. The hybrid powertrain, like all CVT units, has the odd 'shoot to 4,000rpm and stay there till the car catches up' characteristic under hard acceleration but is otherwise quiet enough and just great in town, like all hybrids, where it is possible to sneak along for stretches on just electric power and scare pedestrians who don't hear you coming.

Equipment packages and names vary a bit in European markets; UK gets four (Active, Icon, Sport and Excel) which are all pretty generous. The automaker's pundits predict second from bottom, Icon (think nicely equipped in US terms), will be most popular on the way through Sport to Excel while both Icon and Sport can have an option pack that adds toys like automatic lights and wipers, smart entry/start and retracting door mirrors included with the top Excel.

So, Auris Tourer joins an already crowded pack, with the aforementioned Golf and Civic yet to go on sale. Its aspirations seem modest, anyone wanting a C-class wagon with the Toyota badge on now has a class-competitive new choice; it's unlikely the volume boys - Ford and Vauxhall/Opel - nor the established Koreans - Hyundai and Kia - will be quaking too much in their boots at this new arrival.