Funky CH-R

Toy­ota’s bold mini SUV

New Zealand LCV - - FRONT PAGE - BY MIKE STOCK

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

con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing.

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.

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