Toyota Auris 1.6 Valvematic

Has Toyota made its previously unmemorable Auris desirable at last?

Price: £17,495-£20,245
Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 130bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 124mph, 0-62 in 10.0sec, 47.9mpg, CO2 138g/km

A year ago, Toyota launched a very surprising car. Simultaneously the giant Japanese company adopted a new slogan: "Fun to drive, again." No longer, it seemed, were Toyotas to be mere domestic appliances on wheels, durable devices unable to stir the slightest degree of desire in anyone with a pulse.

That car, the GT86, is a neat and very entertaining sports coupé with rear-wheel drive and an aura of simplicity. It came about, rekindling memories of past amusing Toyotas such as the MR2 and the Celica, because the current man at the top (Akio Toyoda) is a car nut. And he has realised that to make people want his cars, rather than merely need them, is a very sound sales strategy.

Meanwhile, Toyota still has to sell its mainstream hatchbacks, saloons and MPVs. So into this new cauldron of intended excitement is now pitched the latest Auris, the umpteenth generation of the line called, until 2007, Corolla.

The outgoing model, although not bad, was impressively unmemorable, its sole spark of interest emanating from the Hybrid version, in which the driving experience somehow gelled together more, one suspects, by happy accident than by design.

This time, there is again a hybrid, which is expected to account for 40 per cent of UK sales, and it overcomes the chief snag of the last one by mounting the bulky battery under the rear seat, so boot space is now the same as the standard car's. The battery is lighter, too, contributing to a 70kg weight loss (it's a 50kg slim-down for the regular version).

Much more obvious, though, is that the new Auris is visually striking. It has a strong face, a crisp shoulder line and a confident stance in the way the short, shapely tail sits on the rear wheels. The rear light clusters are works of four-pointed art, while the rear reflectors sit in vertical nacelles as though pretending to be red-hot air emerging from some powerhouse's orifice.

Fanciful? Of course, but this car has had some design love expended upon it. It goes slightly wrong inside, though, with a curious collision of shapes in a dashboard which seems constructed of too many randomly joined components.

The new car sits two inches lower, positioning occupants in a slightly more laid-back pose. This immediately makes it feel more engaging to drive, although the initial engine range brings no cause for excitement. A 2.0-litre diesel is the obvious absentee; it, and a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbo petrol engine will arrive in due course, but for now it's a 1.3-litre petrol unit with 99bhp; an 89bhp 1.4 diesel; the hybrid, whose 1.8-litre engine contributes 98bhp of the 134bhp total; and a 130bhp, 1.6-litre petrol engine.

That last figure is a healthy output, and the Auris so powered feels smooth and lively. The best part, though, is the way it rides with suppleness and flow while responding crisply to the steering and gripping with vigour. It's a genuinely enjoyable car with a credible dose of Toyota's new "fun to drive".

Unfortunately, the Hybrid's extra weight and the bigger wheels on which the test car rode spoil both the ride comfort and the steering response, so it is no longer the star as far as enjoying the drive is concerned. However, it is highly economical if driven sympathetically, and it can be had with the smaller wheels on which it is rated at just 87g/km CO2. In that Icon trim guise it costs £19,995, which makes it a proposition of remarkable value. Maybe that 2.0-litre diesel isn't so urgent after all.

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