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2021 Toyota C-HR Test Drive Review
The 2021 Toyota C-HR maintains its funky vibe while offering good value.
The Toyota C-HR was originally intended to be sold as a Scion. Although the Toyota sub-brand went belly up ahead of the C-HR’s debut, the subcompact crossover was instilled with some Scion DNA and holds its own as a funky and affordable alternative to the usually straight-laced Toyota lineup.
Look and Feel
When the C-HR debuted in 2017 (as a 2018 model), it was like nothing else in the Toyota arsenal. The longevity of stablemates like the Corolla and Camry are in large part due to their conventional (a.k.a. inoffensive) design. The C-HR was quite the opposite with its bold character lines, chunky panels, and general otherworldly-ness. Also, depending on paint choice, the vehicle gives off heavy Falkor vibes (when in white) or military readiness (when in dark gray). But that’s kind of the point. Not one to conform, the C-HR goes with whatever flow you want to follow.
For 2021, that color palette has been updated with the addition of Oxide Bronze (with or without a black-colored roof) and a black roof option for the long-standing Magnetic Gray Metallic. Other carryover colors include Blizzard Pearl, Black Sand Pearl, Supersonic Red, and Blue Eclipse Metallic. Discontinued are Silver Knockout and Hot Lava.
The C-HR also adds a new Nightshade Edition trim to the preexisting lineup of LE, XLE, and Limited. The Nightshade falls between the XLE and Limited models and, as the name suggests, adds brasher, blacked-out exterior features. Available in Black Sand Pearl (or any other color that offers a black roof pairing), the Nightshade converts the 18-inch alloy wheels, lug nuts, door handles, chin spoiler, and badges to black. The interior receives black fabric upholstery with gunmetal trim.
Refreshed for the previous model year with a new front end that included a redesigned front fascia, grille, headlights, and bumper, the entry-level C-HR LE comes standard with automatic LED headlamps and 17-inch alloy wheels. All other models are equipped with 18-inch wheels while the top-of-the-line C-HR Limited receives a high- and low-beam LED adaptive front lighting system.
Not much differentiates the C-HR trim levels from an exterior standpoint, and options are limited to another wheel design for the base model or the Audio Plus package for the XLE, Nightshade, and Limited. Essentially, if you want more stuff, you move up a trim, and it’s more evident within the cabin.
The C-HR offers just one interior color: black. And it’s going to be fabric upholstery in everything but the Limited. However, in spite of this chasm of darkness, the C-HR is comfortable. Goldilocks would approve of the seats' balance between cushioning and support, regardless of how short or long the commute. We even found that to be the case after 600 miles and 11 consecutive hours behind the wheel.
Standard creature comforts include dual-zone automatic climate control, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, six-way adjustable Sport-style front bucket seats with bolsters, a leather-trimmed shift knob, storage pockets everywhere, and the convenience of one-touch automatic up/down operation for all windows.
The XLE and Nightshade add a leather-trimmed steering wheel, auto-folding power outside mirrors, and sun visors with sliding extensions. The C-HR Limited comes standard with heated front seats, an eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat, and ambient lighting.
However, as comfortable as the C-HR interior is, the overall ambiance still feels uninspired—in features and material quality. As basic transportation, the basic cabin fits the bill. If anything is to be considered exceptional, it’s that the C-HR’s interior design elements befit its distinctive exterior. The textures and patterns of the inserts for the fabric seats and doors are unique three-dimensional triangular shapes. Along with some contrast stitching or the standard blue trim in XLE models, these small details add visible pop to the otherwise dark interior.
The 2021 Toyota C-HR is outfitted with a single drivetrain option. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), offers 144 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque. Also, although a crossover, the C-HR is available only in a front-wheel-drive (FWD) configuration. You can't get all-wheel drive (AWD).
Like the interior, the C-HR’s handling and dynamics are neither bland nor exciting. Compared to direct competitors, the C-HR’s powertrain lands in the middle. It offers more pep than the Honda HR-V (141 hp) and Nissan Kicks (122 hp) but less than the Hyundai Kona (up to 195 hp) and Jeep Renegade (177 hp).
The suspension was compliant and felt a bit sporty when pushing hard through corners. Okay, that might be too generous, but overall we were impressed by the C-HR's drivability. It’s more than acceptable as a daily driver and has enough driver-assistance features, like the adaptive cruise control, to make longer drives manageable.
Likely due to its exterior design, the C-HR does present a bit of wind noise when traveling at highway speeds. Not so much to be annoying but enough to be noticeable, especially when the audio is turned off or down. Road noise, however, is minimal and when driving through town, the cabin is rather quiet.
From the driver’s seat, the C-HR rides high. And it should as its name is an abbreviation of “Coupe High-Rider.” (Not sure why the hyphen changes location.) But from the outside looking in, the C-HR is definitely a subcompact vehicle in size. More than once, we were unable to recognize the C-HR in a parking lot because we were searching for a larger vehicle. It didn’t help that the test vehicle was a Magnetic Gray Nightshade model, which made its diminutive stature even more stealthy.
Standard all-season tires wrapped around the Nightshade’s 18-inch alloys. And while completely capable on dry pavement, the C-HR also maneuvered a heavy downpour—courtesy of Tropical Storm Henri—with no slip-ups. The tires gripped when needed to avoid water-filled potholes and, with the ventilated front and solid rear brakes, offered sure-footed stoppage during last-minute braking situations.
EPA fuel-economy ratings are 27 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined. We put 1,315 miles on the C-HR Nightshade, mostly on I-80 between Detroit and New York. In city driving, we averaged a dismal 22 mpg but on the highway, the C-HR exceeded estimates. Through five freeway fill-ups, we averaged just north of 33 mpg. About those fill-ups, though...
The C-HR’s fuel tank capacity is listed at 13.2 gallons. When full, the listed range was around 345 miles. As efficient as the vehicle was, we did find ourselves making fuel stops more often than we'd like.
Form and Function
Focusing on the interior, the C-HR’s ergonomics are hit and miss. Pluses include 60/40 split-folding rear seats, a center armrest with useable storage and a 12-volt outlet, a plethora of storage nooks, a cargo area large enough to hold multiple suitcases, and a cargo cover to hide said luggage.
Toyota also paid attention to the little things, matching the height of the door armrest with the center armrest (not always a given in new cars) and including a removable cupholder size adjuster for when you can’t decide between the skinny Red Bull can or bulky Big Gulp jug.
But then there are the negatives. The steering wheel-mounted controls aren’t intuitive and cruise control is activated by a cumbersome stalk that, if you don’t know where to look, you won’t find in the dark. It’s the only driver-assistance feature that can’t be operated or accessed directly through buttons physically on the steering wheel. The controls themselves are simple but require extra effort to access features. For example, changing drive modes can only be done via the instrument panel's Multi-Information Display (MID).
For example, if you have the MID showing fuel economy or navigation and want to change drive modes, you’ll have to scroll left or right until you reach the "Settings" tab, select "Drive Mode," press the back arrow (thankfully, this does have a dedicated steering wheel button), and then scroll through the menus again until you return to your preferred information screen.
This, and any settings change, can be an irksome ordeal. But you’re not likely to change drive modes often because the options are simply Normal, Eco, and Sport. Adjusting vehicle settings, though, like the sensitivity level of driver-assistance and safety features, call for the same level of involvement but with the additional task of deciphering petroglyphs.
For some reason, these systems are depicted as icons. Some are easy to discern, like lane-departure warning, while others require the owner’s manual. At a quick glance, Road Sign Assist is either a misaligned high beam or abduction by lollipop.
If occupying the front seats, the general feeling is spaciousness. Move to the back seats, however, and the feeling is claustrophobia. It’s a snug fit if sitting behind someone taller than 5’8” and the rear window kink that looks cool and stylish from the outside minimizes natural light on the inside. It also creates a terrible, rather dangerous, blind spot.
The C-pillar of the C-HR is essentially all sheet metal. That upward curve is a design element that not only subtly hides the rear door handle but is also an integral part of the C-HR’s one-of-a-kind styling. Yet, even with your mirrors adjusted properly and blind-spot monitoring activated, a silent prayer won’t hurt when changing lanes.
At least the C-HR offers great forward visibility, particularly due to the placement of the outside mirrors. Instead of using a large piece of plastic to mount onto the A-pillar, the mirrors utilize a slender, low-profile one. This design allows for small windows to be added in place of the plastic, which would’ve created yet another visual impairment.
All C-HR models feature Toyota Audio, which includes an 8-inch touchscreen display with Amazon Alexa, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay compatibility. The infotainment screen is a prominent piece of the cabin and is easier to use than the steering wheel-mounted controls. Fonts and features are straightforward but you do have to do occasional menu diving depending on what setting you’re looking for. And there is only a single USB port up front for smartphone connectivity.
Also standard is a six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, and a three-month SiriusXM satellite radio complimentary trial. Although the audio system isn’t associated with a premium brand, the sound was sufficient and offered auto volume adjustment. An Audio Plus package ($495) can be optioned on all but the base model, but the fine print says it only adds HD Radio to the standard Toyota Audio offerings.
Connected Services is another standard feature that includes a three-month WiFi Connect trial (up to 2 GB total) and a one-year trial of Safety Connect. This provides direct access to a response center and emergency support, and offers features like an Emergency Assistance Button, Enhanced Roadside Assistance, and Stolen Vehicle Locator.
LE models are equipped with keyless entry while XLE and higher models get a smart key with pushbutton start and illuminated entry. Also standard are dual-zone automatic climate control and automatic one-touch window operation. All in all, the tech features on the C-HR aren’t fancy or high-end but they do get the job done.
New for 2021 is Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) 2.5 as standard equipment. This suite of active safety technologies includes adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, lane-departure warning, lane centering, and a pre-collision system that features automatic emergency braking, steering assist, and pedestrian detection. Also part of TSS 2.5 is Road Sign Assist, which detects signage like speed limits and displays them on the MID.
Other standard features are offered via the STAR Safety System and include now commonplace safety technologies like traction control, stability control, and anti-lock brakes. All C-HR models are also equipped with 10 airbags, hill-start assist, and a rearview camera. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are the only optional safety tech. They are not available on the base model but standard starting with the XLE trim.
The 2021 Toyota C-HR was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), however, are split between four- and five-star ratings depending on production date.
According to NHTSA, “early release” models are those built before July 29, 2021. These 2021 C-HR vehicles earned a five-star safety rating—the highest awarded. But vehicles built after this date (considered “later release” models) received a four-star frontal crash-test rating, which brought the overall rating down to four stars as well.
The 2021 Toyota C-HR starts at $21,595 for the base LE and reaches $26,650 for the top-level Limited. The mid-tier XLE and Nightshade are similarly equipped and, subsequently, see the smallest gap in pricing. The C-HR Nightshade starts at $24,395, a $765 jump over the XLE. Destination and handling is an extra $1,175 fee for all models.
Toyota considers the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Renegade, Nissan Kicks, and Subaru Crosstrek as the C-HR’s competitive set. The Kicks is the only other FWD-only vehicle in this group; all the others offer AWD, which could be a deal-breaker if you’re a city dweller or suburbanite with the occasional itch for an outdoorsy adventure.
The Kicks is also the only one with a less-than-20-grand starting price (sans destination fee) followed by the sub-$21,000 EcoSport and Kona. Next is the $21,420 HR-V before the C-HR enters the low-MSRP club. Overall, in terms of pricing and features, the Toyota C-HR settles nicely within the middle of the pack. Where the vehicle does stand out is in its love-it-or-hate-it design, standard safety features, and real-world fuel economy.
Unless you prefer the Darth Vader-esque black bits of the Nightshade model, the XLE is your best bet. Leather seats aren’t necessary for a vehicle this small and price-oriented, but you’ll definitely want to—correction, need to—have blind-spot monitoring. And for less than $25,000 (which is where some competitors’ MSRP start), you also get the tried-and-true dependability and reliability that comes with the Toyota name.
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