The last Toyota I drove with a manual transmission was the 86 sports car, which makes the C-HR compact SUV base model a considerably different proposition.
Beyond the fact this is a 100 per cent Toyota product borrowing neither platform nor engine (from Subaru), this is the company’s all-important play in the pint-sized SUV segment that is now the fourth-largest in Australia.
The Toyota C-HR has been out since early 2017, but this is our first drive of the cheapest variant, which features a six-speed stick-shift rather than the CVT auto, matched to a front-wheel drive layout. We say cheapest, though the $26,990 C-HR manual is the highest starting point of any established compact SUV. A Mazda CX-3 kicks off as low as $20,490, for example.
It’s less to do with market cockiness and more to do with Toyota’s assertion that the big-sales game is to be played in the higher reaches of the compact-SUV range. So the entry C-HR is loaded with gear to match up with the higher trim grades of rivals.
Driver-aid stand-outs include active cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, blind spot monitoring, trailer sway control, and parking sensors both front and rear. There are also ticks for autonomous emergency braking and rear cross-traffic alert.
In the conveniences column, dual-zone climate control is a rare standard feature in middle grades, while there’s navigation with SUNA live-traffic updates.
The 6.1-inch touchscreen is smaller than some of its rivals' displays, and also doesn’t seem to maximise the space available on its dash-top housing, even taking into account the array of physical buttons and dials surrounding it.
Graphics aren’t the sharpest, either, and the screen’s response far from instant. There’s Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but Toyota Link brings various apps – weather, local search, fuel finder – via your smartphone.
If the bold exterior has the potential to divide opinion – but, for the record, we love it – the interior’s terrific blend of style and function should get universal admiration.
There’s great use of asymmetrical design for the dash’s infotainment display and heating/ventilation control panel (and key to keeping it driver-focused), as well as the skewed, trench-like centre console that includes large cupholders either side of the gear lever, and another deliberately uneven design touch in the console bin (well sized with a 4.2-litre capacity).
The glovebox is also a useful seven litres, and the door bins provide an option for bigger bottles. A tray section beneath the centre stack is designed to accommodate smartphones, though larger devices such as a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 don’t fit.
There’s a quality and cohesion about the C-HR’s interior design and presentation that has been missing for too long from too many Toyotas. Soft materials adorn significant parts of the dash and doors, and where there are hard plastics there are nice textures – such as the diamond-pattern trim on the doors.
Drivers get to grip a tactile, smooth-leathered steering wheel, which itself hosts an array of buttons that are as satisfying to press as those on the main dash console. The C-HR’s cabin looks far more contemporary and harmonious than that of the next-SUV-up RAV4, and the driving experience is also better.
For starters, the compact SUV’s beautifully pliant ride ensures occupants are cosseted at all speeds and regardless of surface quality. It’s no coincidence that a sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension sits beneath the C-HR – courtesy of the company’s Toyota New Generation Architecture platform – whereas a semi-independent torsion beam set-up is the segment norm.
For anyone who’s become accustomed to Toyotas – 86 aside, of course – that push wide in corners early or rudely interrupt progress with nannying stability-control electronics, there are more surprises on country roads.
That absorbent ride is complemented by a willing chassis that holds off understeer commendably, while ESC stays well in the background. The steering would welcome a bit more clarity around the straight-ahead but it’s encouragingly accurate, and devoid of kickback through bumpy corners.
Dare we say we’ve discovered another Toyota that could be genuinely described as a driver’s car? Absolutely – especially when the base C-HR’s six-speed manual is also a delight to use.
The clutch’s biting point is a little vague, so it’s not entirely perfect for newly licensed drivers, but the gear lever slots into each of the six gates smoothly, and with the slightest of snicks to confirm successful engagement.
Toyota is the latest brand, too, to introduce a rev-matching system – called Intelligent Manual Transmission – which cleverly lifts revs automatically when downshifting to smooth gear changes. An iMT button on the far right of the dash can be pressed to turn the system on or off.
Drivers will certainly need to use the manual plentifully, as the C-HR’s engine isn’t the most flexible turbocharged engine around. Second or third gear is a prerequisite for meaningful progress at lower, urban speeds before the turbo’s effect can be felt and heard at about 1700rpm, and more sufficient throttle response is found in higher gears above two-grand. The 1.2-litre revs to only about 5500rpm, but it sounds refined when being worked.
We prefer the manual to the $2000 CVT auto, which can emphasise the Toyota’s sluggishness off the line, though the majority of buyers will choose the latter, of course. It makes a negligible difference to fuel consumption, with the manual’s 6.3 litres per 100km (premium unleaded) compared with 6.4/6.5L/100km for CVT versions.
That’s also about middle of the park for manual compact SUVs – not as good as the Renault Captur’s 5.2L/100km, but better than the 7.5L/100km or 7.7L/100km figures for, respectively, the Holden Trax and Mitsubishi ASX.
Vision is good forwards, but less so over the shoulder or when looking through the rear-view mirror and that narrowed rear window.
The C-HR’s styling compromises other areas too. Despite a 4.36m body that is longer than the segment norm (and even a Corolla), packaging isn’t up to the standards of a Honda HR-V.
That steeply raked rear window cuts into boot space that is already quite shallow. A pram will fit, and the rear seats fold flat (60/40), though the boot doesn’t seem as practical as the quoted 377 litres suggests (which beats the CX-3’s 264L but trails the Honda HR-V’s 437L).
Claustrophobics and toddlers probably won’t appreciate the rising window line, which accommodates the seriously cool, single-hinged integrated external rear door handles, but reduces both the amount of light coming into the back seat and the view out.
The rear bench is a touch flat, but the seatbacks are very comfortable, and there’s good leg room and decent head room. Thanks to a fairly flat floor, three adults could even squeeze across the back for short trips.
Storage is limited, though, and forget trying to fit a rear-facing capsule – unless you don’t plan to ever have a front passenger.
The Toyota C-HR, however, prioritises fashion over family, just like the CX-3 – and the Mazda’s success proves there are more than enough buyers simply looking for a more adventurous form of city car.
There’s also a multitude of customisation options – including the 18-inch arrow-tip-style alloys plus red wheel caps, decals, side steps and bumper guards that pushed our test car out to $31,010, or a contrast black roof ($450). And there are options to add all-wheel drive (CVT only) and a $4300 Koba spec that brings additional features.
The $26,990 base model seems a particularly sweet spot, though, if you don’t mind changing gears.
Even in this form, we don’t think it would be outrageous to suggest Lexus badges wouldn’t look totally misplaced on the C-HR (the multi-crease styling certainly fits the luxury division’s design template).
The Lexus NX SUV could certainly learn much from the way the C-HR rides and handles, and the TNGA platform bodes well for the forthcoming UX baby Lexus SUV, as well as other future Toyotas.
This is the right 'goods' from the company far too long known for producing whitegoods on wheels.