Toyota doesn't disappoint with the Auris

If it's the mega-selling Corolla you're replacing, you have to get it right. Well done Toyota, says John Simister; now, can you please just silence those annoying bleeps?

Price: from £12,495 to £15,445 (the full range spans from £11,995 to £18,795)
Engine: 1,598cc, petrol, four cylinders, 16 valves, 124bhp at 6,000rpm, 116lb ft at 5,200rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox (robotised manual semi-auto optional), front-wheel drive
Performance: 118mph, 0-62mph in 10.4sec, 39.8mpg official average
CO2: 166g/km

OK, let's deal with the big question; you say Ow-ris, not Aw-ris. You also need to know that it's replacing the old Corolla, so it's an important car. It looks like a fusion of that Corolla and the new-ish Yaris supermini. And its two most remarkable features are the radically styled interior and the diesel engine that's fitted to the top model.

Like many new cars, the Auris looks awkward from the side, thanks to the hefty front overhang demanded by crash-test regulations. Designers try to disguise this with rounded corners and by pulling the bottom of the windscreen forward, MPV-fashion; see how the Auris has gained little quarter-windows. Also typical is the way the front bumper has grown into an entire nose-cone, incorporating a grille set deeply within a gouged-out central section. The Auris was styled at Toyota's studio in the south of France and, overhang excepted, it's a handsome-looking car.

Now, that interior. The centre console is arched up and away from the floor to form a kind of flying buttress, supposedly inspired by a certain Paris cathedral, causing the Auris to be dubbed the Hatchback of Notre Dame. There's storage under the buttress, and its high upper surface brings the short gear lever close to the driver. The handbrake has an unusual release button set within the top face of the lever instead of on the end; it sounds odd, but it works well enough.

Other surprise-and-delight features, as marketing types say, include the interior door releases, fake-aluminium levers pointing dead ahead from similarly finished door-pulls; air-con buttons each surrounded by a gentle yellow light when they are activated; a meshed air-diffuser vent on top of the console; and two gloveboxes.

There are two major instrument dials, each with a round protuberance in the centre for minor dials and information functions. The effect isn't quite as hi-tech as the similar idea in the Honda Civic, but it's quite fun. And full marks for rear seat space, helped by two-position reclining rear backrests and a near-flat floor. Pity there are so many hard plastics, though. It's a cost thing, apparently.

There's no need to insert an ignition key to make the Auris go (top models anyway); you just press the start button and leave the remote-control "key"... where? In a bag or pocket, maybe. Call me odd, but I have absolutely no problem with using a regular key and turning it in a regular ignition lock. I'd rather do that than have the fob digging into my thigh from within a trouser pocket, or rattling around one of the Auris's interior storage spaces. And I could listen to the radio when the car is parked without having to start the engine.

Actually, I could make quite a list of things fitted to modern cars I'd rather not have; cruise control, automatic wipers, automatic headlights, any sort of bleeps. At least I avoid the first three if I go for an Auris T3 rather than a T Spirit.

There are two petrol and three diesel engines available, and both three-and five-door body styles. The five-door, likely to be by far the more popular, is made in Derbyshire; the three-door (available from March) is made in Turkey, along with extra five-doors if demand requires. And if neither plant can meet needs, extras can be sent from Japan; the car is also built there, although it's designed primarily for Europe.

I haven't tried the entry-level 1.4-litre petrol (97bhp), nor the same-capacity diesel (90bhp) and the 2.0l version (130bhp). But I have sampled the Auris likely to sell in the biggest numbers (the 124bhp 1.6 petrol version) and the most technically interesting, the T180 with its 177bhp, 2.2-litre turbodiesel - expensive at £18,295 for the three-door, butexhilarating.

First, the 1.6, whose new engine, with variable valve timing on inlet and exhaust camshafts and (Toyota says) class-leading power and torque. It doesn't feel that way; it moves along efficiently enough, if busily at speed, but it needs to be worked.

Where the Auris scores is in its solidity and the quiet way it absorbs road surfaces. You won't have an exciting time in a 1.6, because its electric power steering feels a touch rubbery and the car/driver interaction is quite inert, but it's capable, comfortable and relaxing.

And the T180? Its clean, powerful 2.2-litre diesel can pour a hefty 295lb ft of torque, and its full double-wishbone-type suspension gives control and stability when that torque is deployed or curtailed in a corner. That Toyota has developed two suspensions suggests more fast Aurises to come; look out for a real hot hatch. Meanwhile, the T180 fills that role impressively, reaching 60mph in eight seconds, with crisp and natural steering and handling, all at an average 45mpg.

The new Auris, then, is a highly capable car with an intriguing interior. It's likely to be extremely reliable. It doesn't set standards but is a very rounded package. Recommended.

The rivals

Citroën C4 1.6 from £13,695

The most original-looking car in the class, with a hi-tech, well-finished cabin, a comfortable ride and a willing 110bhp engine. Citroën proves that it can still innovate.

Ford Focus 1.6 from £13,645

Today's Focus is rather less radical than the 1998 original, especially inside, but it is the choice of the keen driver. The basic 1.6 has just 100bhp, but a 115bhp version is offered.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 FSI from £14,395

The Golf still defines the category, with its crisp styling and classless quality; it's comfortable, too. The direct-injection 115bhp engine is lively and frugal.

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