Toyota’s bold mini SUV
DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER, THE OLD SAYING GOES – or as the late rock great Bo Diddley put it, “you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover.”
Bo went on to list a raft of analogies, some of which would be regarded as misogynist in the late 2010s, but the gist remained the same: looks can deceive.
It’s a sentiment that applies perfectly to Toyota’s new compact crossover SUV, the C-HR – never mind the confusion sparked by the little four-door’s name.
The way of writing those three letters falls naturally to two beats followed by one, or CH-R, and it’s easy to type it that way. After all, it seems logical.
But no, it’s the other way around and the acronym stands for Coupe – High-riding.
The Toyota is one of the most recent entries into the genre sparked by Nissan’s equally quirky-looking Juke.
The Juke itself is named after a southern US establishment that would have been familiar to Bo Diddley and his audience.
That was the neighbourhood bar-cum-dancehall known as a juke joint where blues, the music that morphed into rock and roll, roared into the night as field workers let off steam after long, hard days picking cotton.
Nissan’s Juke is a relative sales minnow here but is enormously popular in Britain and Europe, so much so that virtually every manufacturer has had to market a sub-compact crossover rival.
Toyota’s entry has been relatively late to join the market but that’s to its advantage.
The looks are certainly different, just as the looks of the Nissan were very different when the Juke entered the field five or so years ago.
The Juke was a bold styling statement that still retains a degree of “shock” value.
The Toyota takes matters quite a way further with styling – the word lines doesn’t come close to describing this vehicle that sports angles reminiscent of gel-set spiked haircuts and science fiction humanoids.
There are actual lines, like the one that swoops down from the back of the front wheelarch, then runs rising along the bottom third of the doors to sweep up over the rear wheelarch and underline the signature Toyota tail-lights.
Then there are the crazily-angled spokes of the 18-inch alloy wheels (shod with 225/50 R18 tyres) which suggest motion even while the vehicle is standing still.
The rear end is all angles – from the lip that juts visor-like from the top of the rear screen to the body-colour garnish that scythes into the horizontal chevron-shaped tail-lights.
The frontal styling is another riot of harmonised angles, the downward sloping lines at either side evoking a Samurai helmet,
the centrally-placed Toyota badge sending rising lines into the narrow headlights.
Where the grille would normally be, there’s a body-coloured panel, sitting atop an air intake slit; beneath that is a black-painted grille cage.
It looks like something you might see at a motor show as a prototype for a vehicle that in production form would look much more mundane.
But this is, believe it or not, a production car so radical-looking that you have to do a double-take to check the badge before confirming that this is, indeed, a Toyota.
It’s the antithesis of the beige cardigan Camry and turns on its head my judgement uttered a dozen years or so ago at the Sydney Motor Show.
A Toyota Australia executive was rattling on about Toyota’s vision of the future of motoring to which I responded in a very audible stage whisper: “boredom” which brought down the house in my immediate vicinity.
Over the past decade Toyota has come up with very little to change my opinion, though I like the slightly-edgy looks of my company 2014 Corolla.
But the C-HR turns my smart-alec comments in Sydney upside down.
This is a very adventurous-looking car, and I loved it from the moment I clapped eyes on it. It’s a car I never thought a traditionally conservative outfit like Toyota would ever design, let alone put into production.
Which brings us back to books and covers. Frankly, the C-HR looks like a fashion statement – an automotive bangle – the sort of car that was once decried as a “hairdresser’s car.”
Well, yes, it is a fashion statement, maybe even a bangle but beneath that extravagant bodywork lies a car of immense competence, possibly one of the two or three best vehicles I’ve driven so far this year.
The mechanical spec might also fool you into underestimating Toyota’s little gem.
Take the engine. It triggers another double-take when you see it’s a 1.2-litre fitted with a turbocharger to give it more oomph.
High-output, small-capacity turbomotors are nothing new. The 1.4-litre turbocharged engine in the racing Zakspeed Ford Capri of the early 1980s developed around 495 horsepower; the turbocharged 1.6-litre F1 cars ground more than 1000bhp from their mills.
But they were racing engines, and the boosted 1.2 in the C-HR is a road car unit that needs to provide smooth and tractable power free of the sudden and brutal power-on thump of the motorsport units.
The C-HR’S 1200cc unit makes maximum power of 85kw at a highish, Toyota-typical 5200rpm. But the 185Nm of peak torque is delivered at a nicely-low 1500rpm, and that makes it very tractable indeed.
The C-HR comes standard with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), not my favourite self-shifting gearbox solution. Give me a conventional auto any day.
In the Corolla, for instance, the CVT transmission is a pain and frankly is unsuited to the 1800cc engine with its peaky nature and high-rev power and torque delivery.
But in the C-HR the CVT worked near-perfectly, the motor’s solid torque delivered at pleasingly-low revs working well with the gearbox. Unlike in the Corolla, there was no need to play Led Zeppelin at full noise to hide the shrieking engine under acceleration.
However, the CVT – though not as irritating as the one in the Corolla – did contribute to a sense of urgency that made you feel the C-HR was faster than it was.
On our test road it leapt from corner to corner with alacrity, and felt impressively quick.
But when colleague Dean Evans put it against measuring equipment, it took 11.1 seconds to accelerate to 100km/h, a feat the much more prosaic-feeling Holden Trax achieved in 9.8.
Even so, the C-HR’S sense of urgency was palpable and part of its charm.
The wheel-at-each-corner layout made famous by the original Morris Mini and 1100, gives the C-HR a relatively-long wheelbase which is good for stability.
The wide track reinforces that and makes the car feel planted on the road, and an engaging companion for an afternoon’s rapid driving.
Add in quick, accurate steering and an eagerness to turn-in to a bend and then corner flatly, and you have the basis for a very engaging drive on a challenging, twisting and turning country road.
My usual passenger has never been a fan of that sort of terrain, and when we’re running quickly on such roads, I get accustomed to sharp intakes of breath and utterances of “Michael!” Well, not exactly “Michael” but as this is a family-friendly magazine, we’ve deleted the expletives.
She’s getting more accustomed as we rack up the road test kilometres. After we ran rapidly through a very demanding road that’s occasionally on our test route – it’s not the sort of place you’d push a van hard so we don’t always use it – she was very impressed by the C-HR’S ability.
She didn’t give me a standing ovation but I like to think she felt
I did justice to this outstanding little SUV. She saved the ovation for the C-HR which flattered my ability on this former rally special stage.
The basic handling trait is mild understeer but even on the toughest bends in that gnarly old special stage, the front wheels never ever felt like breaking away. The nose never ever ran wide, and there were no heart-in-mouth moments.
The four-wheel disc brakes were also impressive, dragging the car down from speed time after time with no softening of the pedal or signs of fade.
The C-HR is not as accomplished as, say, a first-generation Mazda MX-5 sports car – few vehicles are – but for a fiveseater, front-wheel drive SUV it’s pretty darned good.
The windscreen wipers are strong and efficient, and the LED headlights provide astounding illumination, carpeting the road ahead with light.
As I grow older, I’m not as good driving at night as I once was, but the wall of light the C-HR provided, even on low-beam, was
How good is the C-HR? We think it’s very good indeed. A friend who’s a V8 fan and hot-rodder as well as a motoring writer had approached the car with few expectations, based on its looks. After driving it, he was impressed by its competence.
LCV Magazine’s Associate Editor, Dean Evans, a Targa Tasmania tarmac rally star in vehicles including legendary drivers’ cars like Lotuses, had been equally sceptical, and was equally a convert after driving it.
The C-HR is a very attractive and competent car and would be right at the top of our shopping list if we were in the market for a compact SUV.
Try it, we’re sure you’ll like it.
Striking styling bears little relationship to Toyota’s traditional restrained approach, and looks more like a motor show concept car than the production model it is.
Above left: Wide track and wheel-at-each-corner layout makes for a very stable platform and agile handling. Above right: Extravagant styling line runs from front wheel arches and rises along doors to underline Toyota’s trademark rail-lights.
Above: Stylish dashboard, instrument layout and sporty steering wheel add to the C-HR driving position’s cockpit-like feel. Below: Rear door is all but invisible in this photograph, emphasising coupe look.
Above left: Two-pedal layout gives the clue to self-shifting gearbox – it’s a CVT but excellent low-rev torque blends perfectly with a type of gearbox we usually don’t like. Above centre: C-HR’S rear styling is a riot of angles that come together in surprising harmony. Above right: Dynamic 18-inch alloy wheels look on the move even when the C-HR is standing still.