Does Toyota’s Auris Hybrid out Prius the Prius?

Last week in Michigan, we had opportunity to sample Toyota’s European and UK-market Auris Hybrid, and came away impressed with its driving dynamics, aesthetics, and functionality, not to mention a compelling spec sheet.

What’s so special about its specs? For starters, the freshly minted Auris gets improved mpg and CO2 emissions over the regular Prius, plus it has a more sophisticated rear suspension, tends to be a tad lighter and more nimble-footed as delivered, and it costs around 4,000 euros less.

What’s not to like? Does the Auris Hybrid out Prius the Prius?

Auris Hybrid gets same powertrain as Prius and Prius v.

Auris Hybrid gets same powertrain as Prius and Prius v.

The answer is not completely, but there is some serious overlap. The Auris Hybrid – offered as a hatchback and wagon and with non-hybrid powertrains as well – borrows from the Prius Liftback its 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle engine paired with electric power to create Toyota’s proprietary “Hybrid Synergy Drive” (HSD).

External dimensions put the Auris in the C-segment (compact) compared to the D-segment (midsized) Prius, but the Auris is not that small. It’s 8 inches shorter than the Prius, 0.6-inches wider, and not nearly as diminutive as the 19-inch shorter, 2-inch narrower Prius c with its 1.5-liter HSD setup.

That it offers competition to the Prius was not just our wild idea either. Others we spoke to commented similarly, and Toyota of Europe Toyota Product Communication Senior Manager Bart Eelen helped point out pros and cons between the apple-to-orange comparison.

Ellen conceded the Auris Hybrid does have some advantages, but the Prius stands strong as a symbol to die-hard fans.

“The original Prius customer, who was buying the car for its high tech credentials, iconic shape, etc. has proven to be very loyal to the Prius badge, in spite of Auris arriving,” said Eelen.

The regular Prius is now called the Liftback, and has also been spun off into the limited market, identically bodied plug-in hybrid version (shown).

The regular Prius is now called the Liftback, and has also been spun off into the limited market, identically bodied plug-in hybrid version (shown).

The hybrid version of the Auris on the other hand is just one variation of a line of cars built on the same platform as the Prius. Eelen said to many Europeans, the Auris Hybrid looks like any other Auris on the road – which may come with powertrains including a 1.33-liter gas engine, a 1.6-liter gas engine, a 1.4D-4D diesel engine and a 2.0D-4D diesel engine.

This said, the Auris (see specsheet) is attracting some would-be Prius buyers, as they can’t help but recognize a vehicle introduced as a 2013 model that’s newer in its product life cycle and with certain advantages making it for some, a no-brainer.

“I don’t know whether Auris would dilute the Prius position in the U.S. if it were ever introduced,” said Eelen, “but in Europe we have definitely seen that the type of customer who used to buy Prius for predominantly practical reasons, have switched to Auris.”

In response, U.S. Toyota Product Communications Specialist, Maurice Durand confirmed Toyota is open to prospects, would “never say never,” but has no plans at present to import the Auris and myriad issues would need to be sorted first. His thought also is the Auris Touring Sports wagon would indeed erode Prius v sales, and perhaps something similar could be said of the Auris Hybrid Hatchback?

They really would give hybrid shoppers something extra to think about …

Efficiency

We can only speculate how the Auris Hybrids would test here, but we do know how they compared to the regular Prius (see specsheet) and the equivalent of the Prius v in the UK.

Auris Hybrid Touring.

Auris Hybrid Touring.

Prius v.

Prius v.

The generous British test procedure says the regular Prius gets 72.4 mpg and emits 89 g/km CO2. The Auris Hybrid hatchback is rated 8-percent better at 78.5 mpg and emissions are 84 g/km.

U.S. spec Prius models.

U.S. spec Prius models.

And, the Auris “Touring” (wagon – see specsheet) – not as spacious as the larger and potentially 7-seat “Prius+” (Prius v) but fairly roomy and nicely styled – is rated at 76.3 mpg and 85 g/km CO2. This is 10-percent higher mpg compared to the rating of 68.9 mpg and 96 g/km for the UK-market Prius v (see specsheet).

Evolved

By 2012 when the production Auris was first shown, Toyota had learned lessons from the third-generation Prius launched globally in 2009. Toyota’s engineers made some adjustments as they updated and positioned the Auris models to be sold alongside the Prius.

Although utilizing the same powertrain, the Auris’ eCVT transmission “is set up to have a more linear relation between acceleration and engine speed, which also helps improve the feeling of power,” said Eelen.

This is partly why we thought it felt quicker but isn’t. Toyota calibrated the accelerator pedal and eCVT characteristics so that at lower speeds, pedal response is a bit more direct in the Auris, which adds to the way the power is experienced.

Auris Hatchback.

Auris Hatchback – Notice a more-than-passing resemblance to the Lexus CT hybrid?

Ironically, the Auris does lag behind from 0-100 kph. The Prius has been clocked at 10.4 seconds and the Auris 10.9.

Why? The Auris’ coefficient of drag is 0.28 versus the Prius Liftback’s 0.25, so that may play into it as does the powertrain tuning which while feeling slightly more responsive is actually not quite as quick.

This said, the Auris gets up and goes to highway legal speeds and beyond and regardless what the clock may say, the seat of the pants impression is that it’s not really too pokey.

It’s also a very comfortable car to just get in and drive and it looks more like a regular car than the Prius, if that’s of value or not.

The Auris is also somewhat quieter than the Prius when on the boil, and combined with standard lower profile 17-inch tires, optional thick leather-wrapped steering wheel with thumb rests at 2 and 10 o‘clock, and comfortable bolstered perforated leather seats, it feels more sporty.

We tested the fully loaded “lounge grade” versions of the regular Auris Hatchback and the Auris Touring Sports, but Eelen says commonly selected trim options tend to see the Auris come in lighter.

Auris Hybrid "Lounge" grade (top-line).

Auris Hybrid “Lounge” grade (top-line).

“Like for like, the Auris hybrid is a bit lighter than the Prius – a full spec Auris weighs about 1,390kg (3,064 pounds), a full spec Prius 1425kg (3,142 pounds),” he said.

Eelen did note however that the entry level Prius is 11 pounds lighter than the entry level Auris (1365kg vs 1370kg), due to a difference in base specifications, including lighter wheels, etc.

Improved turn-in response and resistance to understeer was also noticeable in the hatchback. The Auris has a slightly quicker steering ratio and in back it has a full double-wishbone suspension instead of the Prius’ torsion beam setup.

This is not to say the car is any threat to the VW GTI or other hot hatch, but we’re comparing it to the Prius, and this sibling has benefited from its older brother.

All told, the Auris works and for a super frugal car bigger than a Prius c, much more similar to the regular Prius, but with a smaller car’s mpg, we were hard-pressed not to admire what Toyota had done.

Pricing

Comparing a European market car that is not even offered in the U.S. must be taken with some wiggle room built in, but the Auris Hybrid does pencil out for less.

Prices vary from country to country in Europe but taking Germany as a basis, the Auris Hybrid starts at around 23,000 euros ($30,289) whereas the Prius Liftback starts at around 26,800 ($35,293).

Eelen emphasized that as a D-segment car, the Prius in the minds of many customers replaces the Avensis Liftback version which is no longer available and the Auris is perceptibly a different animal.

“For us, the Auris is the successor of the old Corolla hatchback, which has been part of our line-up since the eighties,” Eelen said.

Also, the specifications between the two models are not fully aligned. The Prius has more high-tech spec even from its base-grade, such as head-up display, where the Auris has a more conventional equipment level.

Bottom Line

While not positioned necessarily as competitors, they effectively are as European Prius buyers have shown in switching to the Auris in some cases, while in others not.

The Auris benefits from being newer, feels crisper, and its styling is a matter of personal tastes, which for our part we rather like.

We know of no plans for Toyota to introduce the Auris here, but meanwhile the next-generation Prius is expected to re-establish dominance, if it was ever in doubt.

“Expect a massive leap forward with the new Prius which is arriving in a few years time, which will place it firmly ahead of its segment again,” said Eelen.