VW Golf 7 vs Toyota Auris

It’s an interesting match-up. An all-new Volkswagen Golf 7 that’s the epitome of carefully considered evolution, versus a reinvented Toyota Auris. These models – despite their disparate design philosophies – represent significant introductions to South Africa’s family hatchback market. Will the Golf 7 – which, incidentally, is the 2013 World Car of the Year – be able to build on the superlative car that was the Golf 6 or has the fun, new Auris been so radically overhauled as to give the benchmark hatchback cause for a spot of bother?

Exterior

By the time the Golf and Auris arrive for testing, I’ve already spent a fair amount of time in the Toyota having attended the hatch’s international and local launches, so I’m keen to see what’s so special about the Golf. First impressions aren’t exactly overwhelming. I’m not blown away by the Golf’s magnitude, but that’s not exactly the Volkswagen way, is it? Also typical of Volkswagen, the Tungsten Silver test unit appears understated. Look quickly without registering the increased dimensions, the purposefully creased headlight housing and the sharp and linear tail light cluster appearance, and you could easily confuse it for a Golf 6 (or even its Polo sibling).

The Golf is a wallflower compared with the boldly reinterpreted Auris. Yes, we were eased into the new styling direction with the 86 and Yaris, but generations of dull and dowdy Corolla-based hatches have not prepared us for that grille, the multitude of creases running along the flanks, and an equally bold tail light arrangement spanning the behind.

In all likelihood, neither is set to top the points sheets in any beauty pageant. Volkswagen has played it safe with the Golf’s cleanly-surfaced, understated styling and, as a result, it will probably not date as swiftly as the Auris’s eye-catching new garb. Round one to anonymous Golf over shouty Auris, then.

Interior

Another fascinating punch-up on our hands but, at first glance, it seems the German has the measure of the Japanese offering. Golf’s interior is a class act with a ‘brushed metallic’ plastic finish extending from the driver’s door panel, across the facia and incorporating the instrument cluster before melding into the front passenger’s door. It’s a design cue borrowed from the larger, costlier Passat that creates a sense of uniformity within the cabin.

As a child of the iPod generation, the touch-screen interface for the phone, media and car set-up menus is a dream to operate. Simple but effective, it uses a finger tap-and-scroll function not unlike those seen on our favourite smartphones. It’s clever too; hover over the display to see the minimised icons enlarge and come to life for easier identification and selection while your mind’s focused on the road ahead. Controlling the heating and cooling within the cabin is also as simple as mastering the three button controls.

One instantly noticeable change to the Golf’s cabin is its new steering wheel controls, which incorporate the cruise control function. A raised silver insert makes operating by touch a little easier, while brushed metal-like plastic inserts on the Golf’s door grab handles and a handy cubby with music player ports just ahead of the gearshift (perfect for storing your iPod and other media devices away from prying eyes) are some of the little things that add to the Golf’s premium car feel.

On the other hand, in South African specification the Auris’ cabin is a blaze of colour. While I was initially lulled by the cool blue tones of the Toyota hatch’s interior, local models have blue-rimmed instruments, a blue digital display with brilliant orange highlights and neon green readouts for the air-con and digital clock. Perhaps as a redeeming feature, the top-spec XR’s appeal is its willingness to embrace gadgets and other convenient mod-cons. The Toyota is stuffed with an array of standard items one would expect to pay extra for on the Golf. Count leather seats, a multi-media interface, a reversing camera with radar-based park assist sensors, tinted rear windows, keyless entry with start button, and a leather-rimmed steering wheel as some of these features. Rather surprising then that the Auris lacks auto-locking doors and auto headlamps (although the Toyota does love its warning beeps).

As for practicality, there’s not too much between these two. Luggage space is comparable: 380 litres for the Golf versus 360 litres for the Auris, although the former has two handy storage bins on either side of the boot while the Auris, in its place, has luggage hooks for tidily holding shopping bags upright. At face value, the cheaper Auris presents dramatically better value than the Golf, but does that guarantee an automatic win in the ‘interiors’ battle? Not necessarily. Toyota devotees trading up from an old Auris will probably feel they’re stepping into a futuristic concept car, just don’t show them the Golf’s cabin. Although more keenly priced, Toyota’s touch-screen system is maddening to operate, requiring way too much thought and attention when all you really want to do is take a call or select a track.

The Golf’s shining points are in the details its architects at Wolfsburg must have gone to great effort to perfect. Most functions and finishes in the Golf cabin simply feel more together than those in the Auris. For example, once your smartphone’s connected to the car’s Bluetooth and the ignition’s turned off, it reminds you to remove your phone. It’s a scatter-brained ADHD’s dream; an automotive ‘rope-a-dope’!

Performance and handling

Both models ride lower and are lighter than the vehicles they replace, but this is most noticeable on the sportier-than-usual Auris. With its lower centre of gravity, the adoption of softer springs for the Auris contributes to a dramatically more refined ride although, by the same token, the Golf’s MacPherson strut and multi-link suspension combination is perfect for those trips through town and the occasional chuck along a mountain pass. Fortunately both cars feel incredibly refined and competent in the handling contest; we’ll call this one a draw.

Disappointingly, where Toyota would appear to have moved the Auris game forward a great deal from previously ho-hum to this looker, it’s in the performance stakes where this Japanese hatchback’s revival has been let down. Sure, the Auris is endowed with a suspension that will reward keen drivers and happy revvers with much entertainment – it handles incredibly well – but Toyota’s doggedness gets in the way of what could have been an even better car. The car maker continues to plug along with naturally-aspirated petrol engines as the rest of the establishment generally moves towards smaller, forced induction engines – and it’s a decision that increasingly boggles the mind.

Volkswagen has leapt ahead with its adoption of the latter strategy. Even the more humble 90kW turbocharged 1.4-litre – there’s a 103kW version too – delivered a driving experience superior to the Auris’. With a torque band on the TSI stretching from just above idling speed at 1500 through 4000rpm, the Golf is a doddle to drive, particularly in the kind of heavy traffic that routinely plagues commuters. The Auris, while engaging, needs a decent amount of revs to live up to any expectation: its peak power and torque only step in at 6400 and 4400rpm, respectively. The Golf was better at stopping, too, requiring 2.69 seconds from 100kph against the Auris’ 2.75 seconds. One more round to Golf.

Verdict

Buyers in this competitive compact hatchback segment are traditionally discerning, looking for the best value purchase in an arena full of rivals. Both these hatchbacks seat five, offer reasonable luggage space and should provide many assured kilometres to their owners. In a contest based on price alone, the Auris has the Golf beat. At R254 500, the Toyota is packed with a range of mod-cons as standard that the pricier (R270 600) German could only dream of.

This Auris represents a radical new take on the Toyota family hatchback model. It is a welcome change, but considering this is the car designed to finally offer some decent competition to the all-conquering Golf, it hasn’t quite made the grade. While Toyota has substantially increased its competitiveness, Volkswagen has simply whipped-up that extra level of refinement and class. Yes, the Auris offers fantastic value for money, but as a prospect to live with day-to-day, the Golf beats it by a margin, albeit a smaller one than previous Golf/Auris bouts. Golf 7 displays sober styling that should age well, it is more relaxing to drive and is equipped with a cabin that simply shows a greater level of care and attention than its rival’s – enough to reassert its leading position in this crucial market segment. Ding-ding!