The name change for Toyota’s new bread-and-butter C-segment model which replaces the Corolla in Europe is significant. Pronounced ‘our-iss’ (rhymes with Yaris) the Auris is a further step in projecting a more dynamic image for the brand in mass-market segments where it has been comfortably growing sales based mainly on making very acceptable but unexciting cars that don’t go wrong.

While the car certainly tips its hat to the objective of gaining conquest customers from the likes of Volkswagen (Golf), Ford (Focus) and Opel/Vauxhall (Astra), don’t run away with the idea that Toyota is going hell-for-leather to appeal to a new demographic.

The proverbial baby has definitely not gone out with the bathwater. With the Auris, Toyota hasn’t been radical enough to alienate the older customers attracted to a solid, safe and dependable Toyota package.

Auris joins Yaris and Avensis at the core of the European offering to help achieve Toyota’s very achievable looking sales target of 1.2m car sales in Europe in 2007 (it sold 1.12m units in 2006, including Lexus, 13% up on 2005). 

Most of the journalists at the European media launch of the car, held this week in Spain, were impressed with the basics of what the Toyota Auris delivers.

It’s well designed, inside and out. There’s a choice of decent diesel engines as well as petrol ones (it wasn’t that long ago that a lack of diesels was a weakness for several Japanese makers in Europe). Performance and economy are pretty good, subject to your powertrain preferences. It’s been very intelligently engineered and if you have to have a crash, the Auris is a car to have it in (nine airbags standard on all models, including a knee airbag, Euro NCAP five stars on adult protection). Air-con is standard. On the manual transmission models, there is even a little light telling you when to shift gear for optimal fuel consumption. 

Your neighbours won’t covet it, but they will probably think you are sensible. And they’d be right. The car delivers what to most customers will be perfectly acceptable ride and handling, but if you want a driver’s car you’d be better off with the Ford Focus. If you want more space on the same footprint, get a compact MPV. If image and badge bothers you, then maybe you will take the Volkswagen Golf and happily swallow the VW price premium.

What the Toyota does is deliver an overall package that scores very well by most criteria, without really excelling on any one particular measure. And that’s not a bad approach to the ultra-competitive C-segment, where vehicles meet a host of needs and the customer base is wide. Auris is a commendably strong package and it can also look forward to strong residuals, something that attests to a solid private retail customer base.

One thing immediately evident on the Auris is the generous space inside the cabin. It’s not a compact MPV but it is taller than its rivals and tall people will appreciate the more than ample headroom.

The Auris was designed at Toyota’s ED2 design centre in the South of France. Toyota’s design head, Wahei Hirai, highlights the need for ample interior space in C-segment cars, along with driving pleasure, which led to developing the car from the inside out around the driver and passengers.

“The interior design dictated the shape of the overall vehicle, a remarkably new approach from our designers,” he maintains.

A striking visual element inside the cabin is the distinctive bridged centre console with its high mounted gear-stick. Toyota says that the shape for the ergonomic design was inspired by the flying buttresses of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Although Auris will also be sold in Japan, it has been engineered with the needs of European consumers firmly in mind. Yoshihiko Kanamori, Auris chief engineer, said: “Following production of the new platform, the model has been refined through a locally tailored European testing programme. Attention has been paid to every detail, from the driving position to tuning of the chassis, to ensure the best driving performance.”

The Auris is available with three diesel and two petrol engines. There’s a 1.4-litre VVT-i and new 1.6-litre Dual VVT-i petrol. Entry diesel is a 1.4-litre D-4D 90, then there’s a 2.0-litre D-4D 130 and a top of the range 2.2-litre D-4D 180.

The 2.2-litre D-4D 180 diesel (177bhp) powers the flagship Auris variant (called T180) in the range.

Toyota Europe sales director Lars-Erik Aaroy believes that Auris will be able to perform in market areas where Toyota has tended to be weak in Europe, boosted in particular by the diesel engines offered.
“Our new engine line-up will allow our diesel [sales] mix to achieve the C-segment average of about 50%,” he said.

“Auris will enable us to attract new customers by offering them a fresh point of view on what a C-segment car should be,” Aaroy maintained, adding that the segment attracts a broad range of customers.

“Our primary target group is at the younger end of the spectrum, 30-40 year-old singles and couples,” he said.

“We see Auris as more than just a serious challenger for the C-segment. With Auris we aim to achieve a step-change in our brand image. In fact, Auris is the ultimate expression of Toyota’s product DNA,” Aaroy added.

Toyota estimates that the European C-segment accounts for around 2.9m units annually and the company is looking at Auris sales of 150,000 units in 2007 (sales starting in February – UK – to April elsewhere, so Corolla sales will still be significant this year), growing to over 200,000 units in 2008. The 5-door model is expected to account for over 80% of overall Auris sales (the 3-door model follows later and will be presented at the Geneva Show).

Fleet mix is forecast by Toyota at a ‘relatively moderate’ 20-30%.

Auris production is at two sites in Britain (two thirds of annual production, 5-door only) and Turkey (one third of annual production, 3- and 5-door).

Sales in Britain of the Corolla were 22,000 in 2006. Toyota estimates that combined Corolla/Auris sales in UK will be 25,000 units in 2007 – a market share of 5% – with further volume growth to 27,000 units in 2008.

One rather puzzling thought remains. Toyota maintains that the T180 will be the range flagship and that no ‘T-Sport’ is planned. That seems at odds with the talk of brand transformation and broadening Toyota’s appeal to younger consumers. Despite the fact that Toyota has an F1 team, it lacks sportscars and the brand does not have a very sporty image, to put it mildly.

Honda has performed something of an image change with its ‘Type R’ variants and is clearly going for younger customers with its latest Civic (now that’s ‘radical’). Perhaps Toyota is wary of alienating its established customer base and is therefore opting for caution. And maybe that is the sensible course. Saving the planet (Prius) and competent off-the-shelf washing machine cars that do exactly what it says on the tin do seem to have been a recipe for long-term sales success and profits (look at the Corolla), so why upset a winning formula? Better to tweak it. 

Dave Leggett