I'll be the first to admit that I didn't want to like the 2017 Toyota C-HR. It looks like a small space ship, on paper it has an underwhelming engine and the pricing is ambitious. So, after spending hundreds of kilometres with the car in a variety of driving situations, has it won me over?
So Toyota has a big fight on its hands, given the C-HR starts from $26,990 (plus on-road costs) and the CX-3 kicks off from $19,990 (plus on-road costs), while the Honda HR-V starts from $24,990 (plus on-road costs and in automatic trim). Not only that, the C-HR range climbs to an eye watering $35,290 (plus on-road costs) for the Koba all-wheel drive automatic variant tested here.
It's a surprising car from Toyota given how much of a departure it is from the Japanese company's traditional design philosophy. The C-HR is far from conservative and draws a line in the sand between more traditional models like the Corolla and Yaris and ushers in a model strictly targeted toward buyers who want to be seen.
The exterior design lends itself to myriad angles and a sharp focus on creativity. The headlights extend almost the entire length of the front quarter panel, only interrupted by a proudly worn Turbo badge. Switchblade-esque 18-inch alloy wheels work with colour combinations that include body and roof colours to make the C-HR really stand out in traffic.
If standing out in traffic was part of the design brief, the C-HR certainly nails it. It turned heads everywhere it went and even had the nod of approval from some of my harder core car friends who won't look twice unless it's propelled by a V8 or some tyre-frying combination of turbocharged, small capacity engine.
In fact, Toyota's design department went as far as offering up to 60 different accessories ranging from aero to protective to allow customers to customise their C-HR. It's only second to the HiLux in the Toyota range in terms of personalisation options.
Traditionally, Toyotas have never quite managed to inspire when it comes to interior design. The C-HR also bucks that trend with an interior unbecoming of a Toyota. Straight lines and strange angles are swapped for a wraparound dashboard that aims to inject an air of premiumness to these pricey crossovers. While there's still fake stitching and soft touch fleather (a potentially made up hybrid of faux and leather), the seats look and feel premium, as does the steering wheel.
Perforated leather teams with hug-around bolsters that make sitting in the driver's pew an easy and enjoyable task. Despite the mid-$30k price tag, the seats are fully manually adjustable (sans the lumbar support, which is the only electrical component).
This top-specification Koba model comes with three-level heated seats and creature comforts like dual-zone climate control and an air purification system called Nano-e. I can't say it really does anything the last car I drove without it didn't do...
According to Toyota the system uses negatively-charged ions that are surrounded by water molecules and shot out of the driver's side air vent. The end result is that they purify the air, remove odours from the cabin and supply extra moisture for hair and skin, which is great.
It's on the safety front that the C-HR really impresses. The entire range comes with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera and seven airbags. It's one of the few vehicles in this segment which has that calibre of standard equipment.
But, the interior is massively let down by an infotainment system that looks like it was sourced from a Corolla in the mid-noughties. It's missing the type of modern technology a buyer in this segment is after such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and even basic things like DAB+ digital radio. It's fiddly to use on the move and the voice recognition system is slow and inaccurate at times.
It's a shame because that space atop the dashboard would lend itself perfectly to a full-length infotainment system loaded with the latest technology. Thankfully it does come with a single USB port and Bluetooth audio and telephone streaming.
Using the hidden door handle that sits in the top three-quarter section of the second row door, the cramped second row is revealed. With abnormally long legs, anybody sitting behind yours truly will need acrobatic agility to slip in and get comfortable.
Despite a marginal amount of knee room, it's the intrusive base of the first row digging into the rear seat passenger's shin that poses the biggest issue. That design flaw makes it difficult to get comfortable, even for short trips.
On top of that, the only storage in the second row is a small cupholder within each door. There's no centre armrest and no air vents – both not huge issues in a car this size, but when you're getting close to $40,000 on the road, it'd be nice to have a few luxuries in the second row.
On the plus side, there's ample headroom and shoulder room. The seat base is also very comfortable and supportive. So for somebody that has a smaller frame, such as children or younger teenagers, it may not be such a bad space to sit in.
Open the tailgate and a fairly cavernous space is revealed. Measuring in at 377 litres, it's over a 100 litres more than Mazda CX-3. The second row folds in a 60:40 split folding configuration with a space saver spare tyre residing under the boot floor.
On the engine front, the C-HR's bark is definitely worse than its bite. The 1.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine produces a very modest 85kW of power and 185Nm of torque.
It does weigh just 1375kg, but even then it doesn't set the world on fire. Both the entry-level and top-specification C-HR models can be had with a six-speed manual or the continuously variable transmission (CVT) we're testing here.
The addition of an all-wheel drive system further saps engine torque due to the added weight and efficiency losses. It results in a combined fuel efficiency starting from 6.3L/100km. In reality, that figure is closer to 8.5L/100km because you need to drive with a confident throttle at the best of times to keep up with traffic.
Throw a couple of burly mates into the car and the C-HR becomes a real slug. It's full throttle a lot of the time and that's just to keep a steady pace. The all-wheel drive system would have to be one of the least utilised systems in any car given there needs to be wheel slip at the front wheels to send up to 50 per cent of the engine's available torque to the rear axle.
That's only ever likely to happen in the soaking wet or on a gravel or grass surface. The rest of the time it's essentially a front-wheel drive affair.
It's all a great shame because (and this is a big call) the C-HR is one of the best riding cars we've ever tested. It rides beautifully over 90 per cent of suburban and city surfaces. It absorbs everything thrown at it and doesn't drive anything like a car that's sporting big 18-inch alloy wheels.
The direct steering is also a pleasant surprise given the segment this car plays in. If it had an extra 50 or 100kW of power, this could be a real hot hatch to drive.
If you decide to lob the C-HR through some bends, it's not going to set your world on fire. You need to carry a great deal of speed to get any real enjoyment out of a twisty road and while it performs well, it's let down by understeer and a lack of punch out of corners. That's not a huge issue though, considering the demographic and engine under the bonnet.
When we hit the highway there was a considerable amount of wind noise audible in the cabin. While it's not as noisy as something like a Mazda CX-3, it could offer an extra level of refinement to reduce intrusion into the cabin.
Visibility out the front and sides is good, but the C-HR is, unsurprisingly, let down by rear three-quarter and rearward visibility. It can be hard to see out of and the blind spot monitors are mandatory for lane changes given how hard it is to take advantage of head checks.
Buyers will love the servicing deal Toyota has thrown together for C-HR. The capped price servicing program extends for the first five services and costs just $195 a pop. Service intervals have also been extended to 12 months, as opposed to six months, meaning that you'll be spending even less time and money at your local Toyota dealer.
I've got to say – I have come away totally surprised by the C-HR. I wasn't expecting to like it anywhere near as much as I have. Sure, the 1.2-litre engine isn't going to set the world on fire and at over $35,000 plus on-road costs, you wouldn't go near the top-specification Koba model.
Instead, we'd suggest having a look at the entry-level C-HR front-wheel drive with either the six-speed manual or CVT. It's well priced, loaded with features and a really fun car that you can personalise to your heart's content.
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