First Drive: Toyota’s new C-HR cuts a visual dash and has premium appeal

This is a car Toyota has needed since the medium-sized crossover market exploded

Make: Toyota

Model: C-HR

Year: 2016

Fuel: Hybrid

Date Reviewed: November 22, 2016

Tue, Nov 22, 2016, 16:58

   

It was perhaps apposite that the car which dropped me to the airport was a Toyota Avensis. If there’s a better depiction for the division between the past and the future of Toyota than getting out of an Avensis in one airport and hopping into a new C-HR crossover at the other end, then I am unable to think of it. That is not meant as a criticism of the Avensis – Toyota’s long-serving saloon remains a dependable, down-to-earth sort of car, the kind that provides years of unobtrusive and reliable family motoring, but which is more or less divorced from a sense of desire or excitement.

The C-HR is different. It is a car which Toyota has needed for some time, that time specifically being the point at which the RAV4 got bigger and more expensive and when Nissan introduced the Qashqai. Since then, the medium-sized crossover segment, or C-segment crossover if you want to get technical, has exploded in sales terms. It now represents as much as 21 per cent of the entire Irish car market and is predicted to entirely eclipse the likes of conventional hatchbacks, saloons and MPVs within the next two years. It is a vital sales pond in which to be splashing, and the C-HR is Toyota’s first chance to get its feet wet.

Desirable to look at

It is, and this is where the division between old Toyota/new Toyota really kicks in, remarkably desirable to look at. Not conventionally pretty, perhaps and it may make traditional Auris and Corolla drivers spit-take their Complan, but it is striking from that deep, chiselled nose to the dramatically cut down and swept back rear end. There’s a touch of new Honda Civic around the rear, but the rest is distinctive and defined in a way that previous Toyota products simply have not been.

Inside, if anything, the story improves. The diamond-facet styling theme is lifted from the outside and utterly dominates the cabin. Almost everything from the door trims to the roof lining to the steering wheel buttons is cut and shaped to look like a diamond, or quilted to look like leather. In our range-topping Sol specification test car, there is indeed also real leather, on the seats, the dash top and steering wheel. The fascia is angled, 1980s BMW-styleé, towards the driver, and the big 8in touch screen is standard on all models. It is without question Toyota’s best and most impressive interior to date, cleaving closer to the premium German brands in feel and comfort, and vastly superior to those offered by the likes of a Qashqai or a Renault Kadjar.

Interior dimensions

Toyota swears that the cabin volume is equal to those Franco-Japanese rivals too, but it doesn’t look like it. The hot-rod roofline and swept up side glass give the impression of something much more confined. Actually, there is room, just, for a six-footer behind another similarly tall, but headroom is tight and the angled window line means it’s gloomy back there. That sharp rear styling also means that the 377-litre boot can’t compete with the Qashqai’s bigger luggage area. Toyota seems happy to take the practicality hit to allow for more dramatic styling. So be it.

What we really weren’t expecting was the emphasis on dynamics. A decade ago, Toyota introduced an Avensis model saying that its engineers could have made it handle like a BMW 3 Series but such dynamic sharpness would have scared its traditional customer base. Wow – the C-HR is not like that. Indeed, C-HR engineering chief Hiroyuki Koba told The Irish Times that “being in my spare time a racing driver, I have to say that I was very impressed with European drivers – you do not like to slow down, and so the C-HR was honed on European roads.” Not just roads, either. This family friendly crossover has actually been raced in a 24 hours event at the famed Nürburgring in Germany, where it finished 84th out of 160 starters.

Underneath is the same Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA) platform which we’ve already tried under the new Prius. Here it’s a little shorter and wider, and the dynamic brief was to provide consistency of response, smoothness and actual, real driving fun. And Toyota has succeeded. The steering is a touch over-light and doesn’t have much real feedback but it responds sharply. That doesn’t mean nervously though, and the C-HR’s inherently soft chassis settings allow you to find a smooth transition from straight to corner and back to straight. It feels planted and reassuring, adjustable and biddable. Yes, it’s a fun mainstream Toyota. Who would have thunk it?

Sweet spot

There are only two engines on offer – the 105hp 1.2 petrol turbo and the 122hp 1.8 Hybrid, borrowing the same hybrid petrol drivetrain as seen in the Prius. The two engines are expected to take an even share of the predicted 3,000 C-HR sales in Ireland next year, although Toyota reckons that the Hybrid could yet prove to be the bestseller. Certainly, across the rest of Europe, it’s the part-electric C-HR that’s expected to lift 75 per cent of sales. There won’t be a diesel version. A few years ago, that might have been commercial suicide, but Toyota Ireland reckons that diesel’s recent dark publicity means far more people are now prepared to try hybrid.

To drive, it’s like any other Toyota hybrid – slightly frustrating at times, but impressively smooth when you get it in its sweet spot. Accelerate too hard and the CVT transmission lets the engine labour (although impressive refinement means it’s not as intrusive as in an old Prius), but use gentler inputs and the electric motor’s extra torque can really fling you out of slow corners and roundabouts. Driven hard, and out in the countryside where it’s not in its natural habitat, and the Hybrid C-HR still returned mid-40s MPG. Not bad, really, but you’ll have to drive it verrrry gently to get close to its claimed 72mpg.

All models come, as standard, with the Toyota Safe Sense package, which includes pre-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, automatic high beam headlights and, on all but the base Luna model, road sign recognition. Prices start from €26,895 for the 1.2 while the most affordable Hybrid is just over €29,000.

This could be a turning point for Toyota. A brand that historically prided itself on erecting styling bushels to hide its engineering light has now produced one of the most stylish cars around, with one of the best interiors and with a responsive, enjoyable driving experience. The Avensis is the respectable, honoured past. But the C-HR really could be the exciting, dramatic future.

Lowdown: Toyota C-HR 1.8 Hybrid Sol.

Price: €32,950 as tested (range starts from €26,895)

Power: 122hp

Torque: 142Nm (petrol) 163Nm (electric)

0-100kmh: 11.0sec

Top speed: 170kmh

Claimed economy: 3.9-litres per 100km (72mpg)

CO2 emissions: 86g/km

Motor tax: €180 per annum

Verdict: A genuine breakthrough model for Toyota. Adds desirability to reliability

Our rating: 4/5