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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 25, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    The one? Or the other?

    Neil Briscoe

    We’re (and by we I mean that particular coterie of car nuts and motoring writers) building up anticipation and hype for the upcoming Paris motor show. As one of the three ‘big’ motor shows of the year (the other two being Geneva and Detroit – Paris alternates years with the fourth biggie, Frankfurt) it’s always a spotters’ paradise for the latest production metal and far-out concepts.

    In the past few days, two of the most significant debutants planned for Paris have shown their hands with the release of the first photos and details of both the all-new Range Rover and the equally all-new Toyota Auris. Both are hugely significant cars for their individual markets and, in their individual ways, both are eagerly awaited by their acolytes.

    (There is a side issue here of the internet essentially making traditional static motor shows rather redundant, as cars can be revealed and seen from the comfort of your own sofa rather than having to track all the way to the Port De Versailles to see them. It has rather taken away the old magic of the motor show. A shame, but I digress…)

    Now, by the normal rules of motoring fan-dom, I should be raveningly excited about the prospect of one of these cars and rather lassiez-faire about the other. If I may drop for a moment the mask of objectivity that all motoring writers should wear, I can tell you that I’m a massive Land Rover fan. I love off-roading far and above any other form of motoring activity, a 1948 Series 1 was and is my dream car and the outgoing model of Range Rover is such an impressive car that, a decade after first driving it, I remain staggered by its breadth of abilities and its natural charm.

    The Auris is a replacement for the outgoing Auris and, much as I admire Toyota as a company and a producer of high quality product, even the mad car fan that I am, I can sometimes find it hard to work up much excitement for some of its offerings.

    So why am I dead keen to sample the new Auris and rather worried about the new Range Rover?

    Let’s start with the Range Rover and go back to datum, back to the 1970 original. Back then, Land Rover was a one-model company (actually back then it was really still a sub-brand of Rover) and the idea of a rugged, tough 4×4 that could be hosed down and cleaned up for trips into town or weekends away was a pretty novel idea, never mind that Land Rover had been beaten to the punch by Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer. The combination of easy, lazy torque from Rover’s classic 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine, David Bache’s clean, crisp styling and Spencer King’s subtly clever engineering solutions made for an instant classic and a car that has been frequently imitated but rarely, if ever, bettered.

    Spool forward four decades and while the name has remained, the song ain’t the same. From its simple beginnings the Range Rover has become a true luxury car, easily at home amongst the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series and even able to meet the likes of a much more expensive Rolls-Royce or Bentley head-on in image terms. Yet in spite of that, the outgoing L322 Range Rover remains a rugged mountaineer at heart. No matter how crisp the tuxedo, you can still hear the clink of crampons and carabiner clips in its pockets. It’s all to do with form following function. Those iconic square corners on the bonnet are there to help you aim the car when passing through forests. The split tailgate not only eases access to the boot but also gives you a place to sit when having a picnic. The big vents in the front wings look cool but also aid cooling.

    Now, there has been a subtle shift. The new Range Rover is not only 400kg lighter thanks to all-aluminium construction, it’s also more aerodynamic, easier on fuel and more spacious thanks to a 118mm longer wheelbase. But those vents. The creases of the vents are still there, but they’ve been moved from the wing to the door. They are no longer functional, merely decorative. This is worrying. A Land Rover should never be a car that allows form to dictate function, never mind the success that the firm has had by allowing just that with the smaller Range Rover Evoque. And Land Rover should be first and foremost capable, pretty and decorative second.

    “Designing the next generation Range Rover, following over forty years of success, came with a huge responsibility to protect the DNA of such an icon,” said Gerry McGovern, Land Rover Design Director and Chief Creative Officer. “Our design team worked incredibly hard to capture the elegant proportions and pure surfaces which have been a feature of the best Range Rover designs.”

    There’s no doubting the stylistic weight and imposing qualities of Mr McGovern’s latest work, but those vents and the fact that the Range Rover is turning its blinged-up face away from the rolling hills of Warwickshire towards the sunlit uplands of the Chinese and Middle Eastern markets is worrying me. Yes, that’s where Land Rover expects to sell more Range Rovers than ever before, but those buyers are looking for a proper Range Rover and not necessarily something so obviously tilted towards their own market tastes.

    But what of the Auris? Well, there’s not much wrong with the current Auris but its hardly what you’d call a barrel of laughs and its styling light is most definitely sub-bushel. So why am I excited about the new one? Simple answer; the GT86. Toyota’s return to the sporty coupe market has been one of my flat-out favourite cars of the whole of 2012 and it proves once and for all that Toyota can make a car with great steering feel and peachy chassis balance. Now, I’m not expecting the new Auris to 100% mimic the GT in its feel and feedback. Such a move would not only be unlikely, it would be counter-productive. Toyota’s army of loyal customers would be scared stiff if their new hatchback displayed the kind of pin-sharp responses that the 86 does. There would be Auris deposited in hedges and ditches the length of the land…

    Here’s what the official press release on the new Auris says though: “New Auris further benefits from a lower ride height, driving position and centre of gravity. The steering and suspension have been revised to help give a more comfortable, responsive and enjoyable drive.
    “Attention has also been paid to weight management, with greater use of high tensile steel, particularly in the upper part of the body structure. This contributes to a 10 per cent increase in body stiffness and an overall vehicle weight saving of up to 40kg (according to version), while also helping to lower the car’s centre of gravity.”
    Now, pretty much every car maker makes similar claims for any new model and most of it is bunkum. But I just have the sneaking, hopeful suspicion that, with uber-car-nut Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda signing off the prototypes and the GT86’s magic dust lingering in the air, the new Auris could be rather more fun than many are expecting.
    Here’s hoping…

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