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2018 Toyota C-HR Test Drive Review
A subcompact SUV should offer some utility, but the C-HR lacks a few key features. Can its driving dynamics make up for it?
Subcompact SUVs and crossovers represent one of the fastest growing corners of the auto market. They give buyers good fuel economy and an affordable price, but also the benefit of a tall ride height, added cargo space, and the option of all-wheel drive (AWD).
The 2018 Toyota C-HR competes with the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, and Chevy Trax, but it comes up short in offering some truly basic qualities of an attractive subcompact crossover. It's short on space, tall on price, and lacks even the option of AWD. Additionally, it lacks tech features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are quickly becoming popular features for new cars. So what does the C-HR offer that rivals do not?
To fully understand the C-HR, you have to realize that it was originally a Scion. It debuted at the 2015 Paris Auto Show and was a neat idea: a high-riding sports coupe. It showed more promise than a tC replacement.
But then Toyota closed the doors at Scion, which left the company with a problem. It still had a relatively compelling portfolio of affordable products, and it finally brought the FR-S under the Toyota name and renamed it the “86,” the way it should have been all along. But what of the C-HR?
The C-HR was pretty on-message for Scion, but it doesn’t live up to Toyota’s ethos of practical, reliable cars. It is far from practical and looks like a Nissan Juke, which is really just a niche vehicle. Why would the world-conquering Toyota go for “niche” when all indications suggest this could eventually be a volume market? And what does that mean for you, the consumer?
Look and Feel
As we’ve stated, there are a lot of new subcompact SUVs on the market. Automakers are feeling the heat and doing different things to make their tiny crossovers stand out. Despite the cornerstone of the market being substance and utility, some of these vehicles put style first. The result of this inverse emphasis is that some of these “utility” vehicles lack any serious utility.
We’ve been lucky in the past several months at CarGurus to test a bunch of different small SUVs that represent the utility ideal. The rival Subaru Crosstrek puts substance first, and the larger Volkswagen Tiguan has pivoted away from being sporty to being all about everyday usability.
The C-HR goes in a different direction, and Toyota has gone to great lengths to create that image. It is a pretty faithful embodiment of the wild C-HR concept, and it features a dramatically sloping rear window, massive roof spoiler, and rear deck spoiler.
C-HR stands for Coupe High-Rider (it’s also been called Compact High Rider), and the style of the C-HR really underscores the coupe part. One of the best elements is the rear door design. The rear window slopes upward dramatically, like a coupe. The door handle hidden in the upper rear corner really emphasizes the coupe profile. The rear wheels are pushed far out to the rear corners, and despite not having AWD (more on that later), the C-HR has great departure angles (meaning its rear end can handle very steep angles safely).
The C-HR has a minimalist interior. The climate-control dials are on one tight shelf, capped by the center vents, and then in turn capped by the infotainment screen, which controls the stereo and Bluetooth connectivity. This demonstrates the “sportscar/crossover” ethos that the C-HR embodies.
That ethos is further embodied by touches like the sport bucket seats, tunnel-like center console, and the sport-style short-throw shifter. Even if that shifter just controls a CVT, it is still a nice touch.
Scion emphasized simplicity in its product offerings, so it's fitting that there are only two trims for the C-HR, the XLE and XLE Premium. The XLE comes standard with 18-inch sport alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, one USB port, and Bluetooth connectivity.
Move up to the XLE Premium, and you'll get everything from the XLE plus fog lights, push-button start, and heated front bucket seats. The XLE Premium also has neat puddle lights that project the C-HR logo—a feature usually associated with high-end luxury cars.
Outside of those trims, there are no additional options packages. There are just typical accessories like mud flaps, cargo nets, and winter floor mats. As the years go on, Toyota may expand options packages, but for now, it's keeping things pretty basic.
One engine is available for the C-HR, a 2-liter 4-cylinder engine making 144 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque. Power gets sent through a continuously variable transmission to the front wheels… and that’s it. Typically, this is where we mention that you can also get AWD on a vehicle like this, but with the C-HR, no such luck.
Toyota offers the C-HR with AWD in other markets, but not in North America, where AWD is an extremely popular option. Toyota has stated it may offer this in the near future, but no deal at the moment.
The EPA estimates the C-HR will get 27 mpg city, 31 highway, 29 combined. In my time driving both city and highway, I observed fuel economy of 28.9 mpg.
Acceleration from this engine is so-so, but it's more than capable of making plenty of noise. This is a typical characteristic of 4-cylinder engines paired with a CVT.
What surprised me most about the C-HR were its cornering and braking abilities. Turn-in is responsive, and its turning radius is tight, which will be good for city driving. Meanwhile, the brakes are strong, surprisingly connected, and balanced. “Balance-on-braking” is a quality more associated with high-performance sports cars, but the C-HR has it. It means that when you step on the brakes, the car is balanced enough to make flat, stable turns.
As for general, day-to-day ride quality, the C-HR absorbs bumps in the road very well, but does not have that floaty feel you might associate with an old Buick. In fact, on the highway, the C-HR feels responsive and actually has composed cornering and handling.
With all this in mind, the sporty nature of the C-HR is a surprising value-add, but it should not be the top selling point of the vehicle. The G-monitor in the instrument panel is a silly reminder that the C-HR is not exactly the vehicle Toyota is marketing.
Form and Function
Sliding behind the wheel of a compact crossover can be a surprise. Some sit like cars, and some sit like SUVs. With the C-HR, the intent seems to have been a sports-car layout. You sit back like you would in a sports car, but the execution of this notion feels wrong.
The seating position is awkward, and the steering wheel doesn't extend far enough to give you that sporty posture. It wants you to sit back, but doesn’t want your arms to be in the ideal position for performance driving. This could be another symptom of my height, but the image of performance takes precedent over actual performance with this car.
The sharply raked rear window makes for a dramatic appearance, but cuts heavily into what could be some usable space. Out back, there’s just 19 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. Fold that down, and there’s a total of just 36.4 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s less than the CX-3, HR-V, and the Jeep Renegade. That’s even less than the Chevy Trax, so if you are trying to use this for camping or moving stuff, think again.
Both trims of the C-HR get a standard 7-inch touchscreen, but it offers even less than the basic infotainment controls in a typical Toyota. It has no Home button. No tuning dial. No home screen. You can tell that it is running Toyota’s software, but this feels like a cheapened version of it, and that's because it is. Once again, you can blame the C-HR's Scion roots for this, including the controls that feel like those of a weak aftermarket head unit.
Neither trim comes with navigation or even offers it as an option (remember, no options packages). The automaker purposely left out navigation as an option, because, as it says, young buyers all use their phones to navigate. That’s a pretty wild claim and disregards those that do use navigation, as well as older buyers.
And Toyota doesn't even have the numbers to back up that claim—it doesn’t offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, meaning you can’t get your Apple Maps or the Google Maps app displayed on a Toyota touchscreen.
So consider this: Toyota packs a ton of high-tech safety gear into the C-HR with the intent of watching the road in case you are distracted, but then it puts you in a position where you have to look down at your phone to navigate.
The C-HR comes well equipped in the safety department, including 10 standard airbags and Toyota Safety Sense P. Toyota is putting its big suite of high-tech safety gear, including collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, auto high beams, and adaptive cruise control, all as standard equipment. That’s pretty impressive, and only a couple of other automakers can make such a claim.
The XLE Premium adds a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, but you still get a lot of safety tech at the base price. But there is still a misstep in terms of packaging. The reversing camera, rather than being projected in the 7-inch touchscreen, is a disappointingly tiny screen in the rear-view mirror. Like the idea of repackaging the C-HR as a Toyota, this rear-view reversing monitor feels like a parts-bin afterthought.
Base MSRP for the 2018 Toyota C-HR is $22,500 for the XLE and $24,350 for the XLE Premium. It’s not the most expensive competitor in the subcompact SUV segment, but rivals like the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V both start below $20,000, making the C-HR a “pricey” option in this segment.
The fact that the C-HR was originally planned as a Scion—a brand that had to be shut down—is pretty telling. The notion of a “cool” brand has always been a bit dubious on the more economical end of the lineup. If you have expendable income, you can afford the fast car or the sexy-looking car. But if you are on a budget, most buyers just go for the most car they can get for their dollars. In this sense, “cool” is a luxury.
Consider the Subaru Crosstrek, for example. It isn’t sporty or sexy, but it has cargo space and features (like Apple CarPlay and AWD) that buyers actually want.
Meanwhile, the C-HR comes up short on substance, put pushes style at a high price. The vehicle definitely brakes and corners well, but as we discussed with the Toyota Camry, that’s just a superfluous addition. Small crossovers (like sedans) are commodities, and they're all about checking boxes for commuters and growing families.
Buyers actually want their compact SUV to offer AWD and Apple CarPlay. And given that the C-HR lacks these features and is short on cargo space, it’s hard to find the utility in this sport utility. Toyota says AWD and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto are possibilities for the future. So for now, even if you like a lot of this car, it might be best to wait.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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