If the oddball Nissan Juke was the proverbial canary down the mineshaft, the Toyota C-HR serves as this analogy's cautious human coming up carefully from behind.
Toyota may be late to the small crossover party, yet it's made a bold entrance with an aggressively angular vehicle that embodies a quirky methodology. There’s little about the C-HR outside, or in, that bares the brand’s conservative hallmarks.
Why? For one, the youthful target audience within the wider small crossover market has proven willing to go for style over space — the top-selling Mazda CX-3 being another case in point — and Toyota is betting on people bored stiff by the Corolla to convert.
With a starting price of $26,990 plus on-road costs for the base manual, climbing to more than $35,000, it’s not cheap for the class, but it offers decent value-for-money, which we’ll detail a little further down in the review copy.
Beneath the C-HR’s arresting design, which looks better in the flesh, is an all-new group architecture called TNGA that underpins the Prius and gets its first crossover use here, replete with sophisticated double wishbones at the rear indicating a (mild) performance bent.
Indeed, the little Toyota C-HR crossover handles well, with a smooth and cosseting ride matched to damping that helps the car recover after hits and undulations, rarely losing its cool. In other words, it’s soft but has good body control.
Moreover, initial turn in is sharp and positive despite the inert three-mode electric steering that allows you to adjust resistance levels, pointing to a well-balanced and strong chassis, which pairs to ample insulation to muffle out road noise better than the Mazda does.
It's no sports car to drive despite the design, given the moderate speeds at which you can make the tyres (wrapped around 17- or 18-inch alloys depending on spec) squeal and the inherent tendency to push-understeer beyond 80 per cent, but it's deceptively well sorted for the class — more so than is really required by many.
Under the bonnet is a new 1.2-litre turbocharged engine that's much more modern than the faithful atmo lump driving the Corolla. Its outputs are modest, but its characteristics are suitable, and the new 12-month/15,000km service intervals (at $195 a visit) suggest you’re not taking a massive risk.
The 85 kW isn't much power for a car weighing 1375kg at its lightest, and 185Nm of torque is modest, but in small turbo style it's on tap from just above idle at 1500rpm, so it's punchy and muscular enough down low for city congestion and highway cruising alike.
That said, keeping momentum through corners is vital, and sudden throttle planting up a hill requires some patience. You'll find the spirited chassis dynamics and sporty looks demand more power and torque. But will the key buyer demographic?
Fuel use kicks off from a claimed 6.3L/100km — our quick launch drive didn’t afford us the right environment to do a real-world test, which we’ll instead bring you next week — but be aware the higher-tech engine requires 95 RON premium petrol.
Matched to the engine at base level is a six-speed manual with a long throw but a nice mechanical feel and ideal clutch take-up point. There's also a cool rev-matching function for those without the requisite foot skills.
But most models sold here will use the $2000 pricier CVT auto with a manual mode comprising stepped artificial ratios. It actually allows decent rolling response thanks to the engine’s wide torque band, but exacerbates the initially slow take-off. At least the noise suppression is good enough to dial out excessive ‘droning’.
You can get a regular front-wheel drive system, or opt for AWD for an extra $2000. This is a part-time on-demand AWD system that shuffles up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the rear when on-board sensors detect front wheelspin. Good luck getting it on tarmac...
So far, so good. But where the Toyota steps up its game further is inside. Here you have an appealing cabin design, with a tactile leather steering wheel, excellent material quality including lovely soft dash pads and a diamond-patterned door inlay, a driver-oriented fascia, digital trip computer and respectable storage solutions. It feel premium-ish.
Letting the team down up front is the small 6.1-inch screen which lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and looks a little tacked-on. On the plus side, both versions get standard satellite navigation, and the Bluetooth proved quick to pair and the phone quality crisp.
The other gripe we have is the lack of height adjustment on the passenger seat, because it’s mounted high and therefore limits headroom.
Despite the slinky design, the C-HR isn’t actually all that tiny. It’s 4360mm long (longer than a CX-3 or Vitara), 1795mm wide, 1565mm high on a 2640mm wheelbase, while boot space is 377L (a CX-3 has 264L). The 60/40 second-row seats fold flat enough, while under the cargo floor is a space-saving spare wheel only.
The back seats are about average for the class, with more legroom and headroom than you’d imagine thanks to the cleverly sculpted head-lining. There are two rear ISOFIX points, cupholders mounted high in each door, and one-touch power windows all round. Naturally though, the raked window design and huge C-pillar ruin outward visibility.
If you want the most practicality in the class, go for the Honda HR-V, which is a cut above. Likewise, the Nissan Qashqai, Mitsubishi ASX and Suzuki Vitara. The Toyota is unapologetically compromised, but not so hopelessly as you’d imagine.
Pricing-wise, the base C-HR 2WD manual costs $26,990 plus on-road costs, which is a few grand more than a base offering within most rival ranges. The CVT adds $2000, ditto the AWD system (on the CVT only, we regret to say), while the flagship Koba variant costs another $4300, topping out the range at $35,290 for the C-HR Koba AWD with CVT.
Yet the car is very well-specified, notably with active safety, meaning it would be wrong to think of it as a traditional 'base' car.
Standard fare on all C-HRs includes: seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring (helping fend off criticisms of those big blind spots), rear cross-traffic alert, a rear-view camera, parking sensors, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, a spoiler, an electronic park brake and a 6.1-inch screen with the aforementioned sat-nav.
Pretty good. The step up to the Koba gets you keyless entry and push-button start, LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, heated leather seats, an air purifying system called Nano-e, electric lumbar adjust, glossy cabin trim and privacy glass, while you can option a contrasting black or white roof in this spec for $450. Grey-and-black, bright green-and-black, and red-and-white work particularly well, we think.
You ought to be perfectly happy with the 'base' version.
You can also buy highlighted body garnishes, centre wheel caps and mirror covers, much like the Juke and Vitara. Or a Mini. There's also a selection of eight accessory alloy wheel designs in 17- and 18-inch diameters with various colours and finishes.
Furthering Toyota's youth push, there's a range of 60-plus accessories and add-ons, second only to the HiLux, including aerodynamic, cosmetic, protective and security features. How un-Toyota.
From an ownership perspective the C-HR still gets Toyota's outflanked three-year/100,000km warranty, but it debuts one massive brand improvement (exclusively for now): five years of capped-price servicing, with superior new 12-month/15,000km intervals, at $195 a pop. Bargain.
There's no doubt about it, the C-HR is a very welcome addition to the small crossover class. The looks will polarise, the infotainment is average and the engine is eager but needs a little extra poke, yet the well-equipped, edgy and comfortable Toyota brings a lot to the table we like.
Indeed, the only thing that that will save Mazda, Honda and others from sweating bullets over potential lost sales are the supply restrictions that are keeping Toyota Australia's order books to 6000 units for all of 2017.
Do what we'd do and buy the base car, choose some nicer alloys, and save a few grand.
We'll bring you more detailed reviews and comparisons on the Toyota C-HR soon, once a few roll through the CarAdvice garage.