Tonight’s brightest star is not a star at all. The lone speck in the cloudy orange sky is actually a planet. And following my 100-mile drive across Scotland, I’ll have the chance to get a closer look. At the wheel of the all new Auris Hybrid, my nocturnal navigation will take me far from the bright lights of the city to the observatory at the Scottish Dark Sky Park in Galloway, home to some of Europe’s darkest skies.
The drive starts in Leith, Edinburgh’s historic docklands district and a hip neighbourhood bursting with boutiques and bistros.
Like Leith, astronomy has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. It is no longer the preserve of the nerd and the boffin, thanks in no small part to the astrophysical phenomenon known to science as Brian Cox. So it’s a shame that, for those of us living in towns and cities, light pollution blots out much of the beauty of the universe.
This issue is being addressed by campaigning groups led by the US-based International Dark Sky Association (IDA). It awards Dark Sky Park status to sections of public or private protected land that have high-quality night skies and support education of dark sky issues. Of the 11 Dark Sky Parks across the world, Galloway Forest is currently the only one in Britain, but the idea seems to be catching on fast. After all, in a world where clear night skies are becoming rarer, visiting stargazers can bring a valuable tourism boost.
It is a chilly evening and steam drifts from the kitchens of Leith’s celebrated restaurants. I am about to start a night-time road trip that will take me from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. It begins at the Shore, a vibrant and cosmopolitan waterfront street. The all new Auris is at home here. Its aerodynamic, 21st-century styling gives it a presence in keeping with the modern urban environment.
In the all new Auris, the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which has been tried and tested by ten million owners (and counting), gives more than a mile of low-speed urban driving on battery power alone in Electric Vehicle mode. And working in tandem with the 1.8 litre VVT-I petrol engine, the car’s 136 DIN hp is delivered efficiently.
Talking of efficiency, amazing emissions of 87g/km CO2 and up to 74.3 mpg (combined driving) mean the all new Auris Hybrid currently qualifies for zero road-fund tax.
As I leave the Shore’s busy eateries, luxury flats and stylish converted tugboats behind, the car’s 1.8 litre petrol engine whirrs quietly into life on the main roads. Lights from docked ships blaze in the distance as I zip past the Ocean Terminal shopping centre and the Royal Yacht Britannia, moored here as a visitor attraction since 1997.
Even here on the outskirts of Edinburgh, I’m conscious of just how much man-made glare is spilling out from built-up areas – especially when it is pouring in through the huge Skyview panoramic roof. This feature is an option on the Excel model, and makes the interior, with its generous head and shoulder room, feel even more spacious. But if things get too bright, Skyview has an electric shade to block out unwanted light.
Made at Toyota’s state-of-the-art plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, the all new Auris is superbly put together. Build quality is exceptional and the intelligently laid out interior feels luxurious thanks to the high-quality materials and attractive details.
Cruising through the night, the car’s interior is relaxing. The black velour seating with leather bolsters offers plenty of support, while Touch & Go’s sat-nav, Google Local Search, Bluetooth and DAB radio with mp3 player connectivity keep me entertained and on course.
The M8 carries me through the heart of Glasgow, then south on the M77 past the landing lights of Prestwick Airport (where Elvis Presley famously made his only visit to Britain) to the moonlit countryside of Ayrshire.
The Scottish Dark Sky observatory sits on a hilltop on the Craigengillan Estate, surrounded by coniferous forest. It lies at the end of a lonely single-track road, and the landscape – as advertised – is very, very dark. The headlights of the all new Auris scour the hillside like search lamps. And as I ascend some alarmingly steep slopes to the car park, the electric power of the hybrid system has immediate torque and pulls the car effortlessly. A glance up through the Skyview roof reveals the heavens are a dazzling ocean of light – the Milky Way stretches across to the horizon.
This public observatory opened a year ago and is already proving a busy attraction, with bookings almost every night. Part of its roof can be rolled back to reveal a 35cm refractor for outdoor observing. At the other end of the building, under a five-metre rotating dome, is a half-metre telescope. This monster of magnification can be operated remotely over the internet by stargazers anywhere in the world.
Allowed the privilege of a peep through this £60,000 optical wonder, I point it at the brightest ‘star’, the same astral spotlight I saw in Edinburgh. It is Jupiter and it is, I am told, more than 400 million miles away. This puts my 100-mile journey into perspective.
While the all new Auris is minuscule compared to some of the wonders I’ve witnessed tonight, for me it has been the star attraction. Smart on the inside, sleek on the outside, with clean hybrid power and a cluster of technological advances including Skyview, it’s the ideal road-trip partner – day or night.
Find out more about the all new Auris at toyota.co.uk/auris