Driven: Toyota Auris Hybrid

Auris HSD: Technical overview
Auris HSD: Driving performance

The King of the hybrids, Toyota's Prius, has a friend at last. It's the just-launched-in-Europe Auris hybrid that has the same super-economical drive train and I've just been driving one in the Scottish Highlands.

Toyota Europe says it will be followed by the end of the decade by hybrid versions of all Toyota products; already the new petrol/electricmobile is biting into the two-litre diesel C-segment market that, until now, has been popular with buyers keen on achieving the best fuel economy.

The automaker's theory is that people who buy the more expensive and larger Prius have been doing so because they can afford to advertise their "greenness" while, of course, saving a fair few bucks on petrol; most Prius sales so far have been up-specced models to wealthier buyers. The £20 000 Auris, however, will just plain appeal to people trying to cut their fuel bills – and cut them they most certainly will.

The Scottish Highlands are not easy on fuel - mountains rarely are - and the traffic was pretty heavy on the road to Inverness (and back) so the challenge was to keep the car's econometer reading better than 50 miles/gallon - yes, 50, when once-up-a-time 30mpg was considered fair. Here in South Africa 50mpg converts to about 5.6 litres/100km – and we were three adults and our luggage and we were, well, late for supper.

Erica Haddon from Toyota's UK media office explained that most Brits expected the price of petrol to top £1.50 a litre soon (that's about R17.25 or about double the price in South Africa). Further rises can be expected so the Auris, built in England and fitted with 1.8-litre VVT-i engines assembled in neighbouring Wales, should become hot property.

The company is hoping the hybrid will make up about 40 percent of Auris sales: predictions for the balance of 2010 in the UK are 12 000 units sold and 9000 of them will have a petrol engine and an electric motor. There are claims that 74mpg is possible; if sold in South Africa, it will snort at the proposed "green tax" threshold of 120g CO2/km with its reading of only 90.

The Auris hybrid with its Hybrid Synergy Drive, Toyota says, already has the lowest CO2 output in Europe, saving drivers as much as 6400 Euros a year. It also comes with an eight-year/160 000km warranty on its battery, is the only hybrid in the C-segment and can in future be converted to run on hydrogen/battery power.

So, will the new hybrid be sold in South Africa? My bet is a resounding "Yes!" but Toyota SA admits that demand in the main markets of Europe will have to be filled first so, if you want one, start putting your pennies away now and be prepared to wait for at least a year. Or put down a deposit with your local dealer for one of the first when they do arrive with four driving modes – petrol, battery, petrol and battery or power.

"The benefits of Hybrid Synergy Drive," Toyota says, "go beyond exceptional fuel economy and low CO2 emissions: it's user-friendly and delivers a quiet, comfortable and stress-free drive and is capable of 0-100km/h in 11.4sec (under battery AND petrol power).  Top speed is listed as 180km/h.

Styling differences on the new Auris differ from the rest of the range in that several styling details have been added to improve the car’s aerodynamic performance and hence its fuel efficiency. In the cabin there are several hybrid-specific instruments and controls (see images) and new wheel sizes have been adopted – which perhaps explains the much-improved ride from the car and from the latest Prius that I also drove.

(I only found out later that the suspension had been retuned, the shock-absorbers changed and the body lowered by 5mm by Toyota to handle the extra weight of the batteries.)

The change is remarkable and, admittedly, might have been helped by the load of three male passengers, but both models now feel more performance-oriented; they were nimbler through the sweeping curves along the north shore of the famous Loch Ness to make a higher average speed easy to maintain.

The front seats are great, too.

There are 1753 components in an Auris hybrid, of which 395 – about a quarter – are specific to the model. This has increased the complexity of the production process, requiring changes to almost 70% of the build processes established for the conventional diesel and petrol-powered models.

The full hybrid system uses seamless electric continuously variable transmission controlled by shift-by-wire – an electrical connection from a miniature "gear" lever between the front seats. Changeable readouts on the instrument panel display fuel consumption and a graphic showing where or where to the available power is coming from and going to – engine or battery.

During deceleration and under braking the electric motor works as a high-output generator to effect regenerative braking. This recovers kinetic energy that would usually be lost as heat and stores it in a high-performance battery.

The centre floor has been redesigned to accommodate the battery pack to avoid compromising cabin space. Boot volume is 233 litres.

The car rides on 15 or 17" aero alloy rims, like those on the Prius, but with larger gaps to improve the cooling air flow to the brakes. The rims are fitted with 195/65 R15 or 215/45 R17 low rolling-resistance tyres.

The redesigned corners of the front bumper house new fog and LED running lights - unique to Auris hybrid. The flat, vertical shape of the corner reinforces the car’s broad stance and driving stability while correcting the airflow as it passes over the front wheels, minimising drag. At the rear the Auris hybrid shares the stronger design introduced on the Auris 2010 range, including the “catamaran” style bumper profile. There's more hybrid badging and a hybrid blue Toyota emblem on the rear door.

The cabin has been given the same interior benefits as the other 2010 models. Soft-touch materials cover the top of the instrument cluster and upper glove box and the centre console storage box is now shaped so that it also functions as an armrest. Audio and Bluetooth (optional on T4) controls are incorporated in the reprofiled steering wheel.

A blue push-button starter has been added to the side of the instrument cluster. The centre console incorporates the parking control switch; switches to select the EV, ECO and Power drive modes; and a hybrid blue and silver-finish transmission lever.

The Optitron instrumentation adopts white numbers on a hybrid blue background, with greenish-white night-time illumination for selected switches and controls.

The interior is finished in dark grey with cloth upholstery specific to Auris hybrid. Leather and Alcantara upholstery is standard on T Spirit models. Key features of the standard model include aircon, six-speaker audio, power windows and external mirrors, seven crash bags, stability and traction control and anti-lock brakes.

If you want some fun motoring without the fuel consumption penalty, tell your local Toyota dealer: "Bring it on!"

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