|Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor of Automotive News.|
DETROIT -- Last week, Toyota invited the world's automotive journalists to the Aisin proving grounds near here to show off a global array of hybrid powertrains.
Japanese journalists got to drive the American Camry Hybrid, Europeans got to try the Japanese Axio and Americans got to test the European Auris.
The American scribes quickly forgot about the hybrid powertrains on display and started raving about the Auris' ride and handling.
The Auris is a variant of the ongoing Corolla MC platform, but executed with European sensibilities.
That means it lacks the Corolla's ancient beam-axle rear suspension. Instead, Toyota installed the Holy Grail of road responsiveness (cue angelic chorus): the double wishbone.
Any driver with a modicum of nerves in his buttocks can feel when a car has that certain rrraaoorwww going though a corner under duress. While the U.S. Corolla waffles and wanders like a wayward sheepdog, the Auris' tight steering, supple ride and crisp handling is as good as it gets for a front-wheel-drive compact car.
It's because double wishbones handle harsh inputs and G-force loads better than any other suspension type.
The Auris harks to the '90s-era Honda Civic and Acura Integra, whose Formula One-inspired double-wishbone front and rear suspension setup was the zenith of elegant compact car engineering. Then Honda fell victim to bean counters and sensible-shoe wearers, and killed the sport compact car as we knew it.
The layout of a double-wishbone suspension in a Pontiac Solstice.
Photo credit: GM
Granted, Toyota can't sell a Corolla with a double-wishbone rear suspension to Americans. As packaging goes, it's heavier, it intrudes on cargo and rear-seat space and it costs more to make.
Market research of American Corolla owners shows they want roominess, fuel economy and a cheap price.
In other words, the antithesis of the double wishbone. No Toyota product planner is going to put his career on the line going against customer desires to insist on sharp handling in a Corolla.
But there's still hope for America.
With the death of the Matrix, Toyota has no hatchback in its lineup, save for the Scion xB and xD. Those ancient hatches are six years into their product cadences -- even though Scion's original covenant dictated three- or four-year product cycles.
No suitable replacements are available on the Japanese domestic market shelves.
Enter the Auris?
Scion's FR-S coupe has proved that American kids will pay into the mid- to upper-$20,000 range for a car they love. The Auris has a premium interior with wonderfully tactile knobs and slitted dash vents reminiscent of the latest Lexus sedans -- perfect for that entry-premium niche Scion may want to exploit.
On the downside, back seat room is sacrificed -- but remember, this is a niche car that would be sold to Gen Y kids who will trade performance for comfort. The front suspension is still saddled with ordinary MacPherson struts. And while the entire Auris lineup is poky off the line in exchange for not paying stratospheric European gasoline prices, I'm sure a hotter engine could fit under the hood.
After several hot laps in the Auris, I am convinced that were Toyota to bring that hot hatch to America as a Scion, those Honda fan boys who grovel at the crumbling altar of the double wishbone might find a new place of worship.