The C-HR is a chic compact crossover expected to do big things. Can it carry the weight of expectation?
For: Refreshing different kind of Toyota, upmarket cabin, good chassis, top-level safety spec.
Against: Expensive, CVT holds it back, poor infotainment setup.
FEW cars have flown in with such ferocity from left field; but there are good reasons why the C-HR is in such a rush to be seen here.
This is Toyota reacting with full force to a problem that won’t go away: While it still revels as one of the world’s most trusted brands, there’s nonetheless a growing realisation that optimal reliability and value aren’t enough to turn the heads of tomorrow’s car buyers.
Now of age to make their own buying decisions, the millennial crowd is making it clear that their concept of a cool car is something that has plenty of character and chirpiness and, more importantly, can be subject to emotional connect. It’s hard to make friends with a Corolla, Camry or even a Yaris.
Hence the C-HR. It’s the meeting point of a confusion of ideals, but essentially this is Toyota delivering a toy for the road, if not an outright pet then certainly a pet project. Hence why there’s so much opportunity for personalisation. It’s not just to be fussed over. The design brief was also to deliver some true driving cred, too; hence why it was engineered by a part-time racer and entered in the Nurburgring 24-hour race (it finished 84th out of 160...).
C-HR presents in quite a broad engine and transmission format in some parts of the world, but here the range is simplified to front or all-wheel-drive, both powered by an 85kW/185Nm 1.2-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine, running through a CVT transmission, with seven step points.
There’s been an element of ‘build it, and they will come’ expectation surrounding the C-HR. At launch, Toyota NZ spoke loudly about how more it had taken more than 700 expressions of interest and left clear impression this would translate to as many sales.
Well, it made for good copy. I live within 10kms of the brand’s headquarters and, frankly, it’s still a rarely-seen car. And colleagues in the major metro areas – the perfect place for this sort of product – also say the same.
Perhaps that’s to be expected. TNZ’s traditional selling convention is so finely tuned toward being a fleet-focussed commodity player it must be quite challenging re-attuning for a car that is, by brand admission, developed primarily as a private customer choice.
Doubtless it could easily adjust the C-HR sales pitch toward the buyer base it knows best, but surely if it ends up telling better work stories – which would also mean being subject to the pricing and sales strategy that shifts sizeable shoals Corollas and the like - that’s almost a defeat.
Striking styling might not necessarily be the primary key to achieving success in the compact crossover category into which this car enters, but it certainly is a common element of the 13 main contenders within this crowded sector.
In saying that, let’s agree that the C-HR is especially extrovert, though whether it’s singularly different to the rest is a moot point: There’s high potential, from my experience, about this car being compared with the Nissan Juke.
It's a design that may or may not age well, and you could accuse it of being over-fussy in some areas – especially around the rear. Personally I do quite like that illusory floating roof and those giant-sized headlights, though the boomerang tail clusters are just strange. One colleague reckoned the front looks like an SUV that was melted and disfigured in an unspeakable accident. Gentler critics would say it looks like an animated character.
So it’ll cause division. But that also means it causes discussion, and how often does a modern Toyota manage to do that? They’ve certainly put huge effort into it, asking for things that have never been attempted before, like raking the rear windscreen at a sharp 25-degrees and getting their headlight supplier to achieve a shape that would have created massive design challenges.
I reckon how it resounds depends very much on your colour choice. For my part, I’d suggest taking it in a dark hue – blue or black, with some contrasting highlights - or perhaps silver with a black roof or, if you’re truly out for OTT attention, orange. But definitely, definitely avoid the Electric Teal of the test car. By common consensus, it’s a nasty shock.
The bold colour, some big wheels and a corny little touch – it projects its own logo onto the ground when you unlock it - are the primary ‘street cool’ focus points if you buy into the entry front-drive car on test here at its $37,990 RRP.
As said, there are lots of accessories that do a lot to pretty up this package, but they all cost extra … it’d be easy to exceed $40k to achieve optimal street smarts. It certainly doesn’t look at the worse for extra adornment, but that’s a lot of cash to start throwing at a car of this size, not least when it is already quite expensive when compared with some rivals.
Not that it’s billy basic. For your cash you get a six-speaker audio system, built-in SatNav with SUNA traffic updates, a 4.2 inch driver’s information display, dual-zone AC, auto dimming rear view mirror, auto lights and wipers, auto-up/down for all windows, electrically folding mirrors, leather steering wheel, electric park brake with Auto Hold function, rear privacy glass, LED headlights, auto high beams, DRLs, LED tail lights, LED fog lamps, alloys, sequential front indicators, and a 6.1 inch centre touchscreen display.
The five-star ANCAP rated C-HR delivers Toyota’s Safety Sense package, which includes Pre-Crash Safety System (automated emergency braking), Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, 7 airbags, Blind Spot Monitoring, Hill Start Assist, reversing camera, and front and rear parking sensors. AEB is a potential lifesaver, but the extremely vigilant lane departure alerts are appreciated if sometimes a little over-zealous on narrow roads.
Even so, that’s pretty decent tech, so such a shame one small expectation – of a snazzy hands-free unlocking and start up – is a big letdown, because for these fundamental operations it steps back in time, with reliance on an old-fashioned key.
It’s an awkwardness, because the slot on the steering wheel is hidden away from sight and not seamlessly accessed (also, it isn’t backlit so at night you will spend some time just trying to get the key in the hole) and also somewhat deflates the car’s otherwise trendy aura, given that in most other respects the cabin environment feels far more like that of a junior Lexus.
The interior is a product of Toyota's European design teams, who benchmarked premium competitors. The touchy-feely quality is impressive, and little touches like the diamond-cut plastic panels on the doors, meant to echo the 'faceted' styling of the exterior, are really nice, and the central; touchscreen, canted as is the rest of the centre console towards the driver, really lifts the cabin, though it’s a total tragedy Toyota remains intransigent to implementing Apple Carplay/Android Auto into the infotainment. Provision of Bluetooth and USB connectivity, plus voice control (although the latter leaves a bit to be desired), doesn’t really make up for it.
Seating-wise, it’s intriguing. You’d think a ‘compact high rider’ would have you sitting up at Land Cruiser level, but in fact it’s kinda more car-like.
The front chairs are good, but you notice that the height adjustment feature meted the driver’s side item doesn’t transfer to the front seat pew, which is set too high for anyone of more than average height. Also the convex shape of the dashboard eats into knee room for the front seat passenger.
As for the back? It's deceptive. Most people – once they found those hidden door latches - will have to duck when getting in to avoid hitting their head on the door frame, and the sharp up-sweep of the window line and the rakishly plunging roof make it look quite compact.
But actually, space isn't bad - I'm six-feet tall and aside from slightly tight headroom, I can fit back there just fine. However, the thick C-pillars and high shoulder line do limit rear three-quarter vision and also restrict light into an area whose ambience is already off to a gloomy start, through everything being rendered in black. And I mean everything: Seats headlining, pillars, dash, all of the door panels. Kids who aren’t able to see over the beltline will almost certainly take issue about it being too cave-like; they’ll either speak up about how the windows in the rear doors are positioned too high and too far forward to be of any real use or throw up.
The boot isn’t as small as it would seem, either. Even though outright space has cleartly also been compromised by styling, you get 377 litres of cargo space, which though not commodious is 21 litres more than the Trax and 113 litres more than the Mazda CX-3. It's deep and square, too and capacity climbs to very manageable 1112 litres with the chairs folded flat.
It's in the dynamic department where the C-HR makes the most significant break with Toyota tradition; the usual safe if stolid recipe that gives Corolla and the like comfortable credibility as fleet fodder wasn’t considered quite tasty enough for this baby.
Also, having access to a brand-new chassis, the same highly flexible Toyota New Generation Architecture that we’ve until now only experienced with the new Prius but will come with the next Corolla, allowed opportunity to raise the level of engagement and driver rapport.
Also, too, there’s a certain degree of positive vibe coming from Toyota's engineering team being led by an expert engineer who is also a part-time racer. Hence why one of these cars ended up competing in the Nurburgring 24-Hour Race ahead of its global release. Quite how Hiroyuki Koba convinced that this outing was a good way of ironing out any bugs, I’m not sure: The car was hardly a category giant. But what a great exercise. Sounds like a fun guy to work with.
Assuredly, the car he drove wasn’t quite as we got it. One main change was that the racer was a manual gearbox model, something TNZ could have had but chose to side-step because it knew no actual buyer would want that much hands-on functionality. It’s understandable call, but one that does affect the car’s flavour.
First, though, the good stuff: The brand-new ingredients – the chassis and the engine – are in and of themselves, very good indeed.
The platform is clearly a good one in terms of its structural rigidity and so on, but the work that Koba-san and his team have put into the car also shows through; mainly in its balance but also, I’d say, in the steering feel.
The steering is intriguing; there's initially not much feedback through the rim, yet push on and it delivers an impressive accuracy and responsiveness; to the point where that you can actually find yourself turning too quickly into corners at first.
Seventeen inch tyres and rims represent the smallest wheel/tyre package for this car but it suits these and even bigger choices. Aside from inducing a touch of fidget and also generating some roar over coarse chip, the base items are well-suited to the car’s ride quality, which is another high point. It is a massive achievement how this car really just flows, effortlessly but not aloofly, from point to point, and how securely it acquits through corners.
The high-riding ground clearance does not seem to make a jot; there’s little body roll and almost neutral handling, factors that make it highly pleasing to drive on a windy road. More so than a Corolla or a RAV4.
And, of course, this is the front-drive edition. Conceivably, the all-wheel-drive might feel even better, because it gets Toyota's Dynamic Torque Control, a series of programmes reading inputs like speed, yaw rate, steering input and throttle angle and distributing torque accordingly between the two axles, helping both with cornering stability and ensuring there's always plenty of traction.
The system also diverts 10 per cent of torque to the rear wheels it senses the steering wheel turning, which in theory means quicker response to steering inputs mid-corner. Finally, the yaw-rate sensor attacks oversteer and understeer every six milliseconds by diverting torque to the front or rear wheels as required, topping out at a 50/50 split. It all sounds pretty good to me. But the proof is in the driving and Toyota has yet to offer an AWD car for test, so who knows?
On paper, this new engine may not seem to make too much power or torque, but even noting the that idea of equipping it with a low-inertia turbocharger and a direct-injection system isn’t to make big power high up, but instead give plenty of pep early in the rev range – where most teensy engines lack for energy – it still comes across as being a big-hearted well jigger. But, as I said, it’s not about track time; top speed of this car s just 190kmh and it would take its sweet time reaching that. It’s zippy enough at open road speed to feel handy, but is surely telling that putting the car into sport mode and hand-shifting it through the gearchange-emulating pre-sets didn’t seem to make much difference in that environment. Nonetheless, even though the 0-100kmh time is nothing flash (we thought around 12 seconds), it has real eagerness and flexibility for urban driving and d even makes some nice noises. There is true greatness here.
Unfortunately … there’s that transmission. As I say, I can understand why it’s not here in manual; but it does seem a shame that Toyota couldn’t have given this car special exemption from the CVT it has invested into and instead given it a dual-clutch gearbox or even a full orthodox auto.
The thing is, a chassis and engine of such great charisma require a transmission of identical calibre. And that’s not this CVT; not even remotely. Instead, there are occasions when it simply acts to suppress the engine. The moment you give it some throttle … all you get is frustration: Lots of whirring and whining white noise, no real action. But it has that stepped manual setting in which it should mimic a traditional automatic changing gears, right? Well, it does. And you won’t much like it.
The only solution is a transmission with gears, not belts and pulleys. It’s this, and this alone, that keeps the C-HR being the full driver’s car I’d hoped it would be. And that’s a crying shame.
An aggressive, intriguing design, ride and handling tuned by enthusiasts at the world’s best test track and an interior that focuses on premium all point to a very different Toyota experience that we’re used to accepting.
However, you can’t help but think that this car falls short of presenting as well as it might. The CVT is annoying and while it wins kudos for ticking every box on the safety side, the specification seems incomplete – the old-school key start and Toyota’s inability to accept the terms of accommodating the best phone-tethered infotainment system around makes for a poorer experience, too. Just sign up for CarPlay and be done with it.
The pricing is challenging. The version on test seems about $2000 too much, given the quality of the cars that compete with it.
Comparing to the FWD Mazda CX-3 is not beneficial to the C-HR; the Hiroshima car has a lot of stuff the Toyota doesn’t cover - heated front seats, an electric driver’s seat, heads-up display AND keyless entry and start, a proper auto – and it is also a smart looker. If that doesn’t appeal, then compare with the Subaru XV: Also loaded, also smart-looking … also better value and, erm, also a lot bigger.