Car Reviews First Drives

2018 Toyota C-HR Hybrid Euro-Spec First Drive: Toyota’s New Sub-RAV4 Crossover

Toyota aims its compact crossover at trend hunters and drivers -- families not so much

Toyota aims its compact crossover at trend hunters and drivers -- families not so much

Only late in the day did Toyota decide to bring the C-HR to North America. It was conceived just for Europe. But it’s just as well the plan changed because this feels like a new chapter from Toyota. Its design and dynamics show a fresh intent, focus, and commitment.

The compact crossover segment is on fire in Europe; it amounts to almost one in six cars sold across the continent. The C-HR’s dimensions are similar to the previous-generation RAV4’s, but the crossovers that really shift the units in Europe are more carlike, less SUVish than that. Yes, even less SUVish than a RAV4. The first-generation Nissan Rogue (called Qashqai there) really opened the floodgates. Er, but has Toyota’s forgotten its own original RAV4?

C-HR project director Hiro Koba has an engaging candor not often seen in Japanese engineers. “There are now so many compact crossovers; Toyota is late,” he said. “So we need to be distinctive. Customers for these vehicles want a crossover for style. They mostly travel alone or with one passenger. So I traded rear room and visibility and luggage space for style.”

The main burglar of practicality is the heavily tapered rear cabin and sloping tailgate. In that quaint Japlish that gives many cars their nameplates, C-HR stands for Coupe-High Rider. The design execution is honest to that name. Sure, you can’t see out of the rear seats on account of the thick pillars. But in that respect if in few others, a Rolls-Royce is no different.
2018 Toyota C HR Hybrid European Spec front tHR Hybridee quarter

In side view the sheetmetal is bashed with an inclined X formation, and black rockers lift the body sides. At front and rear, angular light clusters stand proud. The tail has aero devices at three heights, although any anti-lift properties they may or may not bestow will be lost on a city car.

It’s too common to open the door of a radically designed car and find a drab, workaday cabin. Not here. Unusual colors and textures lift it, and a diamond motif catches the eye in all sorts of unexpected places. Plus the material quality reaches a new level for Toyota. The designers even won a battle for climate-control buttons that pick up the theme rather than cheaping out on off-the-shelf items.

The C-HR’s dimensions were going to be smaller still, which probably explains why North American sales didn’t initially enter the project team’s thoughts. It was meant to be on a smaller existing platform. But Koba is a keen driver and didn’t rate its dynamics. More evidence of Toyota’s new commitment.

So Koba hung in for the Toyota New Global Architecture to be ready. That meant going up in size, probably no bad thing given the package-inefficient styling. And it gave a much lower center of gravity, a more rigid body, and A-arm rear suspension. And a size of car that was suddenly more suitable for North American taste.

Broadly, this is a Prius platform, although the C-HR is shorter and wider has slightly different suspension geometry and even race-type ball joints in the rear suspension in search of cornering precision.

The Prius connection also runs to the powertrain, with the same fourth-generation front-drive 1.8-liter hybrid system available. As of this writing, Toyota hasn’t specified what will go under the hood of the North American version. Toyota will give clues in time for its L.A. show debut later this month. Europe also gets the option of a new 1.2-liter turbo gas engine with either a front-drive manual or AWD and CVT.

On the road, the chassis is well-honed. You can sense the body’s stiffness and the low center of gravity with every mile. Although the seating point is higher than a regular hatchback, the C-HR feels planted and true. It sways little in corners, yet in the straights you can tell it does without stiff anti-roll bars. It lopes along with surprising suppleness. Yet there’s plenty of agility in the steering and accurate, consistent reactions as you load it up.

But the consistency falls out of bed with the hybrid system onboard. In town it moves ahead with delightful, quiet smoothness. But demand more, and suddenly the droning engine hollers its way through the firewall. Back off, and it dies. Ask for a little more to trim the car in a bend, and the answer will be hard to predict. Slowing up, you’ll have to negotiate the capricious hybrid brake pedal.

Performance from the 1.2-liter turbo and its clean-shifting manual box is much the same as the hybrid, and it runs into its redline at just 5,500 rpm, but the delivery is far easier to modulate, and it’s all the more satisfying because of it. Trimming lines in corners is a game worth playing, and the brakes do exactly what your foot expects.

It might be slightly noisier in urban driving than the hybrid, but absent that strange speed-rpm dissonance, you notice it less. And urban efficiency shouldn’t be too bad given it can run in the Atkinson cycle when off boost.

In Europe the C-HR comes with a suite of active systems for highway driving: radar cruise control, an effective lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring. And at city speed it has autonomous brake collision mitigation that detects pedestrians. There’s also a JBL hi-fi with some 576 watts of amplification (how very specific) and new horn tweeters. I didn’t test the collision mitigation, but that hi-fi sure does the business. How much of this kit comes to North America is another thing the L.A. show will likely reveal.

But we now know that in its fundamentals, the C-HR doesn’t just have the style to make a splash among its peers. Even if it might not be a style you actually like, many will. And the dynamics back it up.