By: David Wilkins, UK correspondent
Just how good is the new Toyota Auris? More than most cars, that depends on what you want from it and what you compare it with.
The case in favour goes something like this. In platform terms, the new car is a heavy evolution of the old, and the differences are seen most clearly in the hybrid version where Toyota has done a great job of improving the packaging of the electric parts of the drivetrain, in particular slipping the battery under the rear seat so that it no longer eats into the boot space.
And then there are the usual incremental improvements that show the attention to detail the Japanese manufacturers are so good at - a roofline lowered very slightly to give a more sporty look here, a little more interior space carved out there, and so on.
This steady sort of progress has served them well; Toyota may have been in the headlines with fault-related recalls in the last few years, but I'd still stick my neck out and bet that its cars will give most people less trouble than the majority of rival products.
Personally, I think the Auris is also a handsome car. It's difficult to make a five-door Golf-sized hatchback really stand out from the crowd and I'm not sure Toyota has quite managed to achieve that.
But the Auris is an appealingly subtle design, making good use of the unusually crisp origami-style creases that are a trademark of the company's latest cars. The rear, in particular is distinctive and attractive, although the nose, which pioneers a new Toyota "face" is a tad anonymous.
Inside, the Auris is slightly dark and drab, but pleasant enough. Everything works well - and unobtrusively too.
On the road, in normal driving, the Auris makes a good case for itself. What car industry types call NVH - or noise vibration and harshness - has been tuned out very well and the controls are all light and smooth.
The 97kW 1.6-litre normally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine fitted to our test car was more refined, and showed a bit more pep, than the similarly-sized non-turbo petrol fours fitted to, say, the Kia cee'd or Hyundai i30.
WHERE’S THE TURBO?
But this is where the "it depends what you compare it with" qualification comes in. The Auris' 1.6-litre petrol engine may compare favourably with rival normally-aspirated engines of similar size but most European competitors have moved on, replacing their engines of this type with smaller turbocharged petrols that deliver better power and economy, a trend that seems to have caught the Japanese and Korean manufacturers, who were also slow to get into diesels, napping.
Volkswagen's now-established smooth and zippy 1.2 and 1.4 TSI engines showed the way, and Ford's characterful, sporty three-cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine, which first appeared in the Focus earlier this year, goes one better still.
And where the Auris uses a development of the platform of the previous car, the trend-setter in this class, the latest VW Golf, uses a radical all-new modular architecture that will be rolled out across all small and medium-sized Volkswagen models over the next few years.
Dramatic weight loss and far more agile handling are the wins associated with the new approach, if the latest Golf and the new Seat Leon and the Audi A3, the other cars that share it, are anything to go by. Those aren't just incremental gains of the sort you'll see over at Toyota - they add up a step change, and quite a big one at that.
So if you want a car that just does the job dependably, the new Auris is, in its way, brilliant. If I owned one, I'd be perfectly happy with it most of the time. But every now and then, I'd wish I'd bought a Golf or a Leon instead.
The new Auris arrives in South Africa early in 2013. Prices and specification will be announced nearer the time.
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 97kW at 6400rpm
Torque: 160Nm at 4400rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 4.8 l/100km*
CO2 emissions: 138 g/km*
Top speed: 200km/h
Acceleration (0-100km/h): 10.0 seconds
*cars with 16-inch wheels