Toy­ota’s op­ti­mistic high-rid­ing coupe ar­rives fash­ion­ably late and dressed to im­press. Could it be the life of the boom­ing baby SUV party?

Wheels (Australia) - - Headtoheao­d - WORDS BY­RON MATHIOUDAK­IS PHOTOS NATHAN JA­COBS

TOY­OTA has been in the grip of a mas­sive mid-life cri­sis.

Early this decade, fol­low­ing highly pub­li­cised re­calls and law­suits, flam­boy­ant com­pany pres­i­dent Akio Toy­oda promised that bet­ter and more ex­cit­ing cars would fol­low. Ones that would be lead­ers but also true to the brand’s leg­endary rep­u­ta­tion for re­li­a­bil­ity.

Big talk from the Ja­panese gi­ant that has foisted a long line of main­stream dullards on us, right up to the cur­rent Yaris and Camry, but the re­sult­ing first fruit of Toy­ota’s mind­set re­set – last year’s dra­mat­i­cally styled fourth-gen Prius and now the C-HR (for Coupe High Rider) – are any­thing but av­er­age.

Sit­ting be­low the RAV4, the lat­ter is a small SUV with the Her­culean task of tak­ing on the hot-sell­ing Mazda CX-3. Of course, the com­pany is con­spic­u­ously late to a party that’s al­ready in full swing, so the fact the C-HR’S strik­ing styling turns heads is a good start. A brash con­ver­gence of cross­over and coupe, it could be the sur­pris­ingly like­able lovechild of the Hyundai Veloster and BMW X6, suc­ceed­ing aes­thet­i­cally where the Ger­man par­ent hasn’t. We cer­tainly didn’t see that com­ing from Toy­ota!

That’s a promis­ing start, par­tic­u­larly as knock­out de­sign has helped drive CX-3 sales ever up­wards. In $33,290 Akari 2.0-litre front-drive auto guise as tested, the Mazda costs $50 more than the up-spec Koba 2WD that Toy­ota reck­ons will prob­a­bly be the most pop­u­lar C-HR vari­ant. Game on.

But what to pitch against the showy new girl and the dar­ling prom queen from Hiroshima? Not the pen­sion­able Mit­subishi ASX that some­how al­most matches the Mazda’s sales vol­ume, nor the Honda HR-V, which was run­ner-up to the Mazda in our last small SUV shoot-out (May 2015 is­sue).

Both the CX-3 and C-HR de­serve fresh blood, so how about three re­cently up­dated wannabes?

The Holden Trax was one of the seg­ment’s trail­blaz­ers when it sur­faced back in Oc­to­ber 2013. Pre­cisely the same time, it turns out, as our fourth player, the Peu­geot 2008.

Coin­ci­den­tally, facelift ver­sions of each sur­faced in Fe­bru­ary, bring­ing dif­fer­ent lion-badged nose treat­ments (sleeker on the Holden and bol­shier for the Peu­geot) for pun­ters to bet­ter tell new from old.

While the Trax – rep­re­sented here as the range­top­ping LTZ 1.4 turbo auto from $30,490 – also re­ceived a wel­come dash­board re­design (and rear disc brakes!), the 2008 in­stead un­der­went an urgent heart trans­plant, ditch­ing the dated 1.6-litre four-pot and four-speed auto combo for a lightweigh­t 1.2 turbo triple with a six-speeder, which is now stan­dard across the range. The 2008 found barely 350 buy­ers in 2016,

so the change couldn’t have come soon enough. Ours is wear­ing mid-level $30,990 Al­lure at­tire.

Sim­i­lar en­gine down­siz­ing and trans­mis­sion up­grad­ing head­lines the 2017 Suzuki SX4 S-cross, though an in­ex­pli­ca­bly gothic nose job means calling it a facelift would be too kind. Now just two 1.4 turbo vari­ants are of­fered in lieu of the nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 1.6/CVT snooz­ers that came pre­vi­ously. We’ve gone for the exxier $29,990 Pres­tige.

All the con­tenders are front-drive, all are auto, and all are five-seaters. And all but the CX-3 have some­thing to prove. But the uni­for­mity stops there.

Let’s take the C-HR first. It might be Toy­ota’s small­est SUV in Oz, with wedgy styling and trun­cated up­swept side glass sug­gest­ing a cabin that’s tighter than Putin and Trump, yet the group’s long­est wheel­base by some mar­gin de­liv­ers a de­cep­tively spa­cious in­te­rior. Hmm… then the penny drops – the ‘C’ in the name could also de­note ‘C’ seg­ment, or Corolla-class space. And, in­deed, a four­some of six foot­ers should have suf­fi­cient head, leg, knee and foot room. That ex­pan­sive feeling is backed up by a sense of width, deep cush­ions, a vast wind­screen, thin pil­lars and a low-cowl dash.

The new dash de­sign is the com­pany’s most com­pelling in aeons. Koba spec trans­lates to Lexus­lite, with pleas­ing in­stru­ments, tac­tile ma­te­ri­als, lovely cen­tral switchgear de­tail­ing, a fine driv­ing po­si­tion, and wide, sump­tu­ously padded seat­ing.

But the C-HR’S is a cabin of two halves. If you plan to carry rear-seat rid­ers reg­u­larly, then be­ware that an ex­tra-wide door pil­lar and fat tomb­stone-shaped front seats ob­scure vi­sion. Great for elud­ing pa­parazzi, not so much for claus­tro­pho­bics. The ab­sence of cuphold­ers, a cen­tre arm­rest, over­head grab han­dles or USB ports, along with con­stant tyre drone, fur­ther un­der­scores the Toy­ota’s front-row fo­cus.

The op­po­site ap­plies in the Peu­geot, which some­how man­ages to feel spa­cious in the rear de­spite nearly 100mm less wheel­base and 10mm less height. Maybe it’s the com­par­a­tively gen­er­ous glasshouse you peer through while perched on the 2008’s grippy, yet softly sup­port­ive seats?

The airy sen­sa­tion is en­hanced by the 2008’s some­what divi­sive high-bin­na­cle/low-wheel driv­ing po­si­tion, while el­e­gant in­stru­men­ta­tion, stor­age aplenty and uniquely smart trim are fur­ther plus points. Se­ri­ously, when the lack of a start but­ton, a tiny glove­box and wil­fully small, anti-star­bucks cuphold­ers are the only real bug­bears, you’re on to a good thing.

Also miss­ing in the group’s sole Euro is in­tru­sive road and tyre noise, which is preva­lent in all the oth­ers. The Pug’s hush cabin adds an­other layer of re­fine­ment and com­fort to a sat­is­fy­ingly thor­ough in­te­rior ex­e­cu­tion. Not os­ten­ta­tious like the Toy­ota’s, but qui­etly cos­set­ing. Like

They’re front-drive auto five-seaters. But the uni­for­mity stops there...

great French cars al­ways have been.

The ca­pa­cious S-cross, mean­while, is large and ac­com­mo­dat­ing in ev­ery sense of the word and, like the C-HR, is built on a C-seg­ment plat­form (shared with the Vi­tara). Easy en­try/egress, plenty of vi­sion, and the most invit­ing back row of the quin­tet high­light typ­i­cal Suzuki thor­ough­ness.

But the dash­board’s top con­sists of crude, mis­matched plas­tics that wouldn’t pass Kinder Sur­prise qual­ity con­trol; the front seats are fixed too high on their low­est set­ting (lim­it­ing head­room); and our car suf­fered from ever-present road noise (the Con­ti­nen­tal eco tyres seemed prone to drone), a loose in­stru­ment bin­na­cle, and sev­eral mys­tery rat­tles. Dis­ap­point­ing in a Suzuki.

We sus­pect nei­ther the smaller Holden nor the even cosier – though never cramped – Mazda suf­fered from such ail­ments, but we can’t be sure since they too are boom boxes on bad roads.

In the Trax’s case, it was more me­chan­i­cal at higher revs, since the good qual­ity Con­ti­nen­tal Premium Con­tact rub­ber helped keep the tyre hum in check. For a pert lit­tle SUV, the Holden’s pack­ag­ing brings a com­mand­ing driv­ing po­si­tion, backed up by ad­e­quate all-round vi­sion. But the LTZ’S seats lack suf­fi­cient long-dis­tance sup­port, its vinyl trim doesn’t breathe and its air-con strug­gles in hot weather. Pity, be­cause the new dash is a stylis­tic and func­tional ad­vance over the patchy old one.

Noise is prob­a­bly the worst part of the CX-3’S cabin ex­pe­ri­ence (or best, if you like the sound of in­duc­tion noise, which the Mazda is al­ways will­ing to de­liver). Eas­ily the most co­her­ent and stylish, the Akari is also the most overtly sporty, with a coolly at­trac­tive ana­logue/dig­i­tal cen­tre dial flanked by the group’s sole head-up dis­play. Stitched leather/ Al­can­tara trim, sup­port­ive cush­ions, the best door arm­rests and a driv­ing po­si­tion that seems to draw you in as part of the car make the CX-3 feel like an en­thu­si­ast’s refuge in a world of lum­ber­ing SUVS.

It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that trans­lates wholly on the move as well. En­sconced in the driver’s seat as you are in the best mod­ern Maz­das, the CX-3 shrinks around you and never cuts the con­nec­tion – for bet­ter or for worse.

The 109kw/192nm 2.0-litre Akari is the only nat­u­rally as­pi­rated con­tender here, as well as the most pow­er­ful on pa­per.

Ini­tially at least, the CX-3 lacks the the­atri­cal turbo kick of the oth­ers, but what it has in­stead is steady and de­ter­mined ac­cel­er­a­tion that just keeps grow­ing stronger as revs in­crease. To 60km/h there is only one-tenth of a sec­ond be­tween it and

Un­like the S-cross, the Trax and CX-3 were rat­tle-free. But they’re boom boxes on bad roads

the 103kw/200nm Trax, yet the CX-3 is a full sec­ond quicker than the Holden from 80-120km/h. That the Mazda also con­sumed nearly 10 per­cent less premium un­leaded speaks vol­umes of the vo­cal pow­er­train’s in­her­ent ef­fi­ciency. Oh, and the circa-170kg dif­fer­ence in kerb weight be­tween the two…

Maybe that’s why the Holden feels fun­da­men­tally lazier left in Drive than the oth­ers, even though it does ac­tu­ally de­liver a de­cent turn of speed. The ini­tial tip-in re­sponse is abrupt – per­haps too much for some – but then the driver needs to keep prod­ding the throt­tle if ex­tra oomph is de­sired. A gear­box tuned for econ­omy is our guess why, since this can be read­ily rec­ti­fied by se­lect­ing man­ual mode and then us­ing the in­cred­i­bly un­in­tu­itive thumb-op­er­ated lever switch to tog­gle through the ra­tios. Only then does this rorty, if at times rau­cous, old-gen GM en­gine re­ally feel alive. How­ever, we can’t imag­ine small SUV buy­ers re­sort­ing to such driv­ing tac­tics.

At the other ex­treme is the 103kw/220nm Suzuki, the undis­puted feath­er­weight of the five­some at 1170kg, but a heavy hit­ter in the thrust league. The quin­tet’s high­est power-to-weight ra­tio, com­bined with what might just be the world’s smoothest yet most mus­cu­lar pro­duc­tion sub-1.5-litre turbo petrol en­gine go­ing, re­sults in a vel­vet mis­sile. That slick torque­con­verter auto con­trib­utes, too. To­gether, this so-called Boosterjet uber-duo pro­vides a lux­u­ri­ant abil­ity to glide you in Teflon-coated me­chan­i­cal bliss. Once into triple dig­its, nothing can catch the speedy S-cross. It’ll nudge the old ton (160km/h) 3.6sec be­fore the CX-3.

That it was also the most eco­nom­i­cal on test is some­thing the mo­tor­cy­cle maker should fur­ther be proud of. Bravo, Suzuki.

Ah… the lus­cious and lively C-HR, which ush­ers in an 85kw/185nm 1.2-litre turbo four – Toy­ota’s first mod­ern main­stream forced-in­ducted petrol pow­er­train – and de­liv­ers im­pres­sive urge and re­sponse from the out­set. Quiet, smooth and al­most shock­ingly like a con­ven­tional auto in its CVT op­er­a­tion, the new­comer

You won’t search for the long way home in the S-cross, de­spite its peachy pow­er­train

ac­tu­ally de­liv­ers some very re­spectable num­bers (0-100 in 10.9sec) con­sid­er­ing it’s also the heav­i­est here, at 1440kg (blame the Corolla di­men­sions, re­mem­ber). Only above that na­tional speed limit do the laws of physics be­gin to re­strain the T-bot’s en­ergy.

That’s where the 2008 shines. Up to 100km/h (which it took the long­est to reach, at 11.1sec), the Frenchy has to rely on light­ness and sen­si­ble gear­ing to make the most of its feisty – and thrummy – 81kw/205nm 1.2-litre three-pot turbo’s power band, mean­ing that it feels far spright­lier at lower speeds than the ho-hum fig­ures sug­gest. But given its head, the SUV from Sochaux will just hum along qui­etly, re­ly­ing on a tor­rent of mid-range punch to pull the lusty 2008 through when over­tak­ing du­ties beckon.

And when the roads start to twist, or crum­ble and heave, you then un­der­stand why there is no sub­sti­tute for 135 years of con­tin­u­ous car man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­per­tise. As un­likely as it might seem given the dumpy styling and Peu­geot’s re­cent ca­reer-low drive­abil­ity malaise, in this com­pany the hum­ble 2008 dis­plays near flaw­less dy­namic ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“You can trace the line like no other here,” quipped se­nior road tester Nathan Ponchard. Sharp yet ut­ter­lyy faith­ful, the 2008’s steer­ing is pre­cisely mea­sured andd matched to a chas­sis that is both old-school French sup­ple and Ger­man poised, re­veal­ing a lin­ear­ity that ul­ti­mately led the Peu­geot to be ev­ery­body’s take­home favourite. Yes, there is some body roll, but it’s con­trolled and in keep­ing with the lop­ing na­ture of this re­lax­ing beast. And don’t for­get the 2008’s road and tyre noise is by far the most con­tained.

If the Peu­geot’s dy­namic prow­ess comes as no shock to you, then surely the Toy­ota’s new­found vigour and verve will cause doubters’ heads to ex­plode.

Planted, poised, se­cure, ma­ture, re­fined… these are words that in­stantly come to mind when as­sess­ing the C-HR’S dy­namic traits, which ben­e­fit from be­ing the only SUV here with­out a tor­sion beam rear sus­pen­sion (it uses dou­ble wish­bones out back).

And that’s in Nor­mal. Se­lect Sport mode and there’s a bit more heft to the helm. A world away from a RAV4 or Prado then, what’s on of­fer here is keen, calm and ac­cu­rate steer­ing for the driver to en­joy – if not revel in – com­bined with an ab­sorbent and iso­lat­ing ride that’s likely to please all on board. Now the en­gi­neers from Nagoya need to make things a bit qui­eter.

Also a driver’s SUV, but in a more en­gag­ing way, is the CX-3. We ap­plaud the Mazda’s direct, agile steer­ing, that’s been tuned and weighted per­fectly for fun, fluid and ex­pres­sive turn-in, backed up by en­cour­ag­ing poise and con­trol… on smooth cor­ners.

How­ever, as we’ve dis­cov­ered in pre­vi­ous en­coun­ters with front-drive CX-3S, bumps throw each end off line slightly at dif­fer­ent points through a turn, re­sult­ing in skit­tish and oc­ca­sion­ally scrappy (but still amus­ing) han­dling. Ad­di­tion­ally, the CX-3’S ad­justable bal­ance means that if you’re over-driv­ing it, it’s pos­si­ble for un­der­steer to switch rapidly to over­steer. The ESC will step in (very ef­fec­tively), of course, but it still pays to

The hum­ble 2008 dis­plays near flaw­less dy­namic ca­pa­bil­i­ties

be alert in this zoom-zoom ma­chine.

Kind of the op­po­site hap­pens in the Holden. Just as with the lazy pow­er­train, the chas­sis needs to be stoked for it to stir into ac­tion. That’s be­cause the steer­ing, though quick and re­spon­sive, seems a lit­tle re­mote in feel, while the firmly sprung sus­pen­sion is con­stantly bar­rag­ing you and your oc­cu­pants with what’s go­ing on be­low. Maybe a bit more from col­umn A and a bit less from col­umn B might be a bet­ter ev­ery­day com­pro­mise?

Find a fast rib­bon of road, how­ever, and the set-up gels nicely, turn­ing the wooden Trax into an en­gag­ing T-rex, so to speak. It’s dated but still dy­namic.

You won’t be hunt­ing for the long way home in the Suzuki, how­ever, de­spite that peachy pow­er­train. While chas­sis bal­ance is fun­da­men­tally sound, the steer­ing is numb and gooey, par­tic­u­larly around straight ahead. It im­proves with speed, but bumpy roads up­set the S-cross’s bal­ance (while in­sti­gat­ing rack rat­tle, like the Mazda), the ride is never ab­sorbent enough, and its eco-bi­ased tyres whine and squeal in equally ab­hor­rent mea­sure. A straight line ex­press best sums things up.

While we won­der whether the Trax’s su­pe­rior rub­ber might im­prove the Suzuki’s manners, there’s prob­a­bly lit­tle more that Holden’s en­gi­neers can do to re­fine their age­ing Opel-based Chevro­let SUV, so last it comes. Be­hind the S-cross, whose per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency are tran­scen­den­tal. Both feel like works in progress, though Trax makes some sense as a $26K LS.

It’s then a big step up to the far-more com­plete CX-3. Sporty and dy­nam­i­cally fo­cused like no other ri­val pe­riod, the en­gag­ing Mazda oozes panache, es­pe­cially in lovely Akari guise. But we’d spring for AWD to quell the chas­sis quirks, or wait for the im­mi­nent up­date.

So what we have left is a Peu­geot and Toy­ota. One for the head and one for the heart. But which and why?

Sweet, com­fort­able, ef­fort­lessly torquey, and with a zeal and zest that be­lie its homely styling, the 2008 is surely the aca­demic’s choice in this com­paro, be­cause it does ev­ery­thing so well and very lit­tle wrong. Fol­low­ing in the 308’s wheel marks, the French au­to­mo­tive rev­o­lu­tion con­tin­ues.

But the C-HR, too, is a con­sum­mate all-rounder, with de­grees of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and soul thrown in to seal the deal. Not just a small SUV, it is a spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to the bet­ter Cel­ica coupes too, while also a break­through in de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing for this class.

It’s one small step for crossovers, one gi­ant step for you-know-who. Keep this up, and Toy­ota’s mid­dle-ofthe-road cri­sis is over.

The Toy­ota C-HR has de­grees of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and soul thrown in to seal the deal

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