2018 Toyota C-HR First Drive: Boldly go
– Austin, Texas
If you miss the juvenile spunk of the Scion brand, there’s a new model for you to enjoy. Only it’s a Toyota.
The Toyota C-HR, or Coupe High Rider (of which it is neither) is an adoptee from the shuttered Scion brand, but it still very much bears the DNA that attracted younger buyers to Scion’s mold-breaking character. Visually, the C-HR exudes a far different attitude than its more staid Toyota siblings. Its sheetmetal is crisscrossed with angles and curves that make it look every bit as funky as the concept car that preceded it. Its high and tight proportions, big wheels, swoopy roofline extending into an actually-pretty-hot-looking spoiler give this little car a big presence in the parking lot. Opt for one of the more adventurous colors and the contrasting white roof, and certain angles of the C-HR might even make the Nissan Juke and Mini crowd blush a bit.
The Toyota C-HR starts at $22,500 (plus $960 in destination charges) for the base XLE, which is reasonable considering the content. Standard equipment includes the 18-inch alloy wheels, a seven-inch touchscreen display, and a backup camera with the display integrated into the rear-view mirror. It also includes the Toyota Safety Sense P system with full-speed range adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, and a pedestrian-detecting pre-collision system. The only other trim level, XLE Premium, runs $24,350, and adds fog lights, auto folding mirrors with puddle lights, touch-sensor lock/unlock, push-button start, heated front seats, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. There are no options packages, just the white roof option and an assortment of accessories.
There’s but one engine and transmission option. The 2.0-liter inline-four – good for 144 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque – is mated to a CVT. When I hopped into the car in Austin’s Rainey Street District and set off for Texas Hill Country, that combo felt like the appropriate fit for this car. It pepped right up and played nicely in traffic, and had little problem getting up to highway speed. The CVT definitely helps achieve a sense of linear, predictable response, which was one of Toyota’s goals with the C-HR.
You’re not going to be winning stoplight drag races in the C-HR, but that’s not the point. At the risk of continuing the chronic trope of the Toyota as the appliance, the C-HR gets the job done. But with pizzazz.
Sport mode provides the most satisfying drive experience, with a quick tip-in and a willingness to keep the revs high.
Departing from the crowded highway, I pointed the nose of the C-HR into the hills northwest of Austin to get a better feel for what this tall hatchback could do. It gave me the chance to play with the CVT a bit, plunking the gear lever into manual mode and shifting it more like a traditional transmission. It helped control speed heading downhill, and it simulated quick, natural shifts when I’d “drop” a “gear” for a climb. With a sturdy, hefty knob in hand, I didn’t particularly care that there were no paddles to tickle on the back of the wheel. If you push this CVT to the highest revs, though, it’ll shift for you whether you like it or not.
If you don’t care for that level of interaction, you can rely on the three drive modes – Eco, Normal, and Sport – to pick the appropriate transmission ratios for you. Instead of a button on the center console, drive modes are toggled on the digital display between the gauges using the menu buttons on the steering wheel. Yeah, I furrowed my brow at that, too, but don’t fret. The drive mode menu was easy to access, and remained front-and-center in the display as I drove. Swapping between them is still essentially just a touch or two of a button, but with hands on the wheel and eyes forward.
Unsurprisingly, Sport provides the most satisfying drive experience, with a quick tip-in and a willingness to keep the revs high. Eco mode is great on the highway, but if you need to get up to speed quickly, make sure you pick another mode first. Putting the pedal to the floor won’t override Eco’s subdued response.
The modes govern transmission behavior and throttle response, but, sadly, not steering. The electric steering felt particularly artificial, with little feedback and lacking a sense of weight as you increase the steering angle. The front end felt numb, with few palpable clues as to what was going on between the front tires and tarmac. The tall stature of the C-HR was noticeable, but felt like less of a factor as I got used to the way its weight shifted in turns.
As the subtleties revealed themselves, the C-HR’s driving dynamics quickly became more familiar. My confidence guiding the car through curves improved dramatically after a short break from driving, and I was able to convince myself that the C-HR was more capable than my cautious first run had led me to believe. As I became better acquainted with the C-HR, I felt I had unlocked a higher level of fun that the car could provide. Despite its “High Rider” moniker and anesthetic steering, the C-HR proved to be impressively stable and fluid when driven with gusto. Also, the brake feel is solid, and slowing the car in preparation for a corner was easily done without thought.
Owners will definitely be happy with the ride in the C-HR. A suspension tuning that lends itself to poise in a series of turns also translates to a premium feel in traffic. On rough and smooth roads alike, the ride offers a level of calm and comfort that makes it feel more luxurious than its price point suggests. Especially when you keep in mind the way this car will be used, it is really hard to find anything of real value to complain about. While any young driver is going to have a little fun with their vehicle whether the car has the chops or not – and the C-HR is no sloppy joe – most of the miles on the odometer will represent getting to or from work, likely in traffic, where comfort is king.
A suspension tuning that lends itself to poise in a series of turns also translates to a premium feel in traffic.
Inside the C-HR, the design is more conservative than its exterior would suggest. Materials are a mixed bag, which is to be expected in the low $20k range. The hard, textured plastic on the door trim – checked with a diamond pattern – is a little rough, but the useful bits that you actually touch on a regular basis are all smooth and soft. The upper dash is covered in smooth leather, complete with stitching, and doesn’t creep up to block the view out of the windshield. The steering wheel and shift lever are solid and nice to hold. Button controls on the steering wheel and elsewhere are plasticky without feeling cheap. The seven-inch multimedia touchscreen is the odd man out, looking like a budget-rate afterthought, despite its straightforward usability.
Look about the interior, and you’ll begin to notice a recurring diamond shape. It’s textured into the door trim and headliner, apparent in the shape of the vents, speakers, as well as the configuration of the buttons on the steering wheel and HVAC controls. When you step out of the vehicle, you’ll notice it, too, on the fuel door, even in the creases in the sheetmetal. After spending a little time with the C-HR, I even began to notice diamond patterns repeating themselves in the world around me in some trippy, real-life version of the spiral-obsessed Uzumaki. Freaky, man.
Despite the car’s compact appearances, the front row of the C-HR is surprisingly roomy. There’s loads of space in which to get comfortable, and the aggressively raked windshield still feels a mile away from the pilot’s (and co-pilot’s) face. Toyota Project General Manager and Deputy Chief Engineer for the C-HR, Hiroyuki Koba, admits that he sacrificed rear room to make the front row more comfortable, but I didn’t find the back seat leg space to be particularly cramped even with the front seats left in my ideal placement. It’s definitely cozy back there, though. You have to duck a bit to get in, and the small rear windows are but mere portholes to the outside world.
Notably absent from the features sheet is an available sunroof. Koba-san says it was left out “for handling purposes.” It clearly allowed Toyota to carve out more space in the headliner for front headroom, as well. The biggest drawback is for those rear passengers, for whom there is already precious little daylight coming into the second row.
The C-HR’s biggest weakness isn’t some flaw baked into the car, but in a compelling competitive set. With lower entry prices and optional all-wheel drive, tiny crossovers like the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, and Nissan Juke are worthy foes, and you should definitely check them out if you’re considering the C-HR. The Toyota’s got some major flair, though. Combined with its smooth drivability, willingness to play nice, and a generous set of standard features, the C-HR is a trusty steed in which its owners will surely take pride.