On the Road Review: Toyota C-HR Premium

Critics have assailed Toyota’s designs for decades, labeling all too many new products as bland and unappealing. While reliable as a stone, these pundits indicated that Toyotas lacked emotional appeal — the personal connection that other brands bring to their automobiles. Recent introductions indicate that there is a shift within Toyota to make its products more visually interesting and more rewarding to own.

Using the design influence recently seen on the RAV4, the newest Prius and to some degree in the latest Camry, this compact C-HR five-door appears to target a millennial generation that has openly stated it lacks the connection to driving that previous generations of youth have embraced. Perhaps a niche product, perhaps not, the C-HR is slotted into a narrow category with other similar-looking cars like the Nissan Juke (departing), Kia Soul, Honda Fit, Subaru’s Crosstrek and Ford’s upcoming Eco-Sport.

Available in two-tone paint like recent Mini Coopers or Ford’s long-running Flex, the C-HR is at once eye-catching and different — two attributes that Toyota strived for. It also is the best interpretation of Toyota’s bug-eyed headlight treatment.

The C-HR is a series of contrasts, not the least of which is its name — Coupe-High-Riding. With five doors, it really isn’t a coupe, and while the stance is higher than the Corolla platform that underpins the vehicle, the driver’s hip-point is slightly higher than in a car, but not as high as a conventional crossover. One could easily draw a line from this C-HR back to the previous Matrix, a five-door hatch that shared assembly with the former Pontiac Vibe a decade ago.

Eight inches longer than the Kia Soul, 4 inches shorter than the Subaru Crosstrek, the C-HR is about the same dimensions as Honda’s HR-V — 171.2 inches long on a 103.9-inch wheelbase. With good room inside, the C-HR also is the heaviest entrant in this segment (3,300 pounds) despite only offering a front-drive layout, while the Subaru, HR-V and the pending Eco-Sport will come with AWD or it is available.

The C-HR falls mid-pack in power supplied. Using a 2.0-liter four-cylinder mated to a CVT automatic transmission, peak output is 144 horses with EPA ratings of 27/31/29 mpg. Realized economy ranged from 29 to 35 mpg with no negative logbook comments about power production, although the CVT is sometimes a droning and buzzy companion as it holds “gears” during elevated acceleration requests. The Crosstrek feels quicker, and the Kia’s two optional engines produce lots more power, yet buyers won’t shy from the C-HR because of how fast, or slow, it is.

Ride dynamics and steering feel are commensurate with this class. Nimble feeling, stable and composed with its fully independent suspension, the Toyota delivered consistent road manners that represent the brand’s responsible outlook on performance.

What sets the C-HR apart from many rivals is content. Toyota has thrown a lot of safety gear into the C-HR, with much of it standard. Ten airbags, traction and stability control, precollision braking assist with pedestrian detection, smart-stop technology, lane-departure alert with steering assist, dynamic radar-guided cruise control and automatic high-beams are all included on base XLE-trimmed ($23,910) models. XLE Premium, our Blizzard Pearl sample ($26,294), adds rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and smart-key access and ignition, as well as power folding side mirrors, front seat heaters and front fog lamps.

Yet, this is where more contrasts appear. The leather-covered stubby transmission shifter is very nice, as are other surfaces your hands interact with, while the abundant steering wheel buttons lack any discernible tactile feel and require that your eyes must focus on them for any interaction. The dual-front climate buttons are clear and easy to use, while the tiny buttons on the 7-inch audio-information touchscreen are the exact opposite. There is a volume knob — hurray for common sense — but you must toggle a minute switch to select a different station. AHA access is available, however Toyota’s versatile Entune audio system is not offered, and neither are Apple/Android connectivity, nor even XM satellite radio or navigation. The three-stage seat heaters are very welcome with the cloth seats, contrasted by only a power lumbar control and very limited adjustability for the manual seat. Two hours in the saddle induced fidgeting.

A rear-view camera is included; it is a tiny square in the corner of the rear-view mirror and difficult to determine the scope and range of objects that might be obstacles. And, with the unique styling, Toyota (like Nissan’s Juke) has mounted the rear door handles up very high, leaving access difficult for children. Once inside, the rear seating is reasonably spacious but very claustrophobic with minimal visibility.

Built in Sakarya, Turkey, the C-HR is sold under several titles in numerous markets around the world. The styling has great street appeal, the driving dynamics will please many, the five-door layout offers utilitarian functionality, plus Toyota’s reliability reputation will close the deal for others. The C-HR is an interesting package that could be so much more.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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