Where competitors have long had an entrant in Australia’s small SUV segment, Toyota has lagged behind the pack when it comes to downsizing its broad SUV offerings - surprising for a company that helped spur the SUV craze with the original RAV4.
Japanese rivals Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V have both planted their flag in the sand with a sizeable head, as have the likes of Ford, Holden, Renault, Suzuki, Peugeot, Jeep and Citroen, with Volkswagen and Hyundai set to stake their own claims soon.
So what kept Toyota so far behind the rest of the pack? The answer lies with C-HR chief engineer Hiroyuki Koba, who made a bold call partway through the model's development, to restart the program using the Toyota New Global Architecture developed for the latest Prius and set to underpin the next-generation Corolla.
With greater scope to hone on-road dynamics, plus the option to add hybrid powertrains the TNGA is just one way Toyota hopes the C-HR will make its mark on the small SUV market.
Vehicle Style: Small SUV
Price: $26,990-$35,290 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 85kW/185Nm 1.2-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | CVT Automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.3-6.5 l/100km
Toyota has high hopes for the C-HR, saying it will be a pillar of its small car stable for years to come. Executive director of sales and marketing at Toyota, Tony Cramb, characterises it as a "brand builder", a model following in the tyre tracks of the Toyota 86 coupe by giving customers a style-centric option outside its fleet-friendly comfort zone.
Rather than choosing the vehicle based on its price, reputation, or ownership credentials, Toyota hopes the majority of customers will choose the C-HR based on design - and that almost all of them will be new to the brand.
The car's styling engages the eye from any angle, its myriad Lexus-like folds and creases holding or reflecting light as intended.
Some of the test examples on launch were finished in a range of bold colours including bright yellow, cyan and red tones - many with contrasting black or white roof and mirror treatments to accompany a choice of eight different alloy wheel designs that form part of a new personalisation program.
- C-HR: Fabric seat trim, front sports seats, dual-zone climate control, remote central locking, active cruise control, leather-look steering wheel and gear knob, rain-sensing wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels
- C-HR Koba: (in addition to C-HR) rear privacy glass, leather seat trim, power-adjustable front seats with seat heating, proximity key with push-button start, LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: Touchscreen navigation, six-speaker audio, CD-player, AM/FM radio, USB input, Bluetooth connectivity
- Cargo Volume: 377 litres, expandable via 60:40 folding rear seat
As well as the bold exterior the C-HR is similarly interesting on the inside, where a diamond-shaped motif featured on the bodywork reappears as scalloped hollows in the headlining and a dimpled texture to the door cards.
We're less convinced of the interior palette in high-grade models that feature charcoal and silver trim augmented by glitter-infused piano black elements and large swathes of brown-coloured leatherette or plastic across the dash top, centre console and door cards.
The interior basics are well-sorted - supportive sports seats join a nicely placed steering wheel amid adequate occupant and storage space. Niggles include a lack of shift paddles on automatic models, the budget-look double-DIN stereo with just one awkwardly placed USB point and the absence of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity.
Boot space and rear room are also a little tight, and the car's upswept window line could leave back seat passengers feeling queasy or claustrophobic.
The basics are there - all models get sat nav and a reversing camera as well as a comprehensive safety suite with autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control and blind spot monitoring fitted as standard.
Priced from $26,990 plus on-road costs, the standard C-HR gets silver-coloured 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, cloth seats and a six-speed manual transmission. Factor in another $2000 for the CVT automatic option that Toyota expects 95 per cent of customers to choose, and a further $2000 for adaptive all-wheel-drive.
An upmarket C-HR Koba model brings extras such as two-tone 17-inch wheels, heated leather seats with electric adjustment and a high-tech moisturising climate control system for another $4300, topping out at $35,290 plus on-road costs before you factor in metallic paint or a broader-than-usual range of accessories.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 85kW @5600rpm, 185Nm @1500-4000rpm
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, front wheel drive or CVT automatic with front or all wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Steering: Electric power steering
- Towing Capacity: 1100kg braked, 720kg unbraked (manual) 600kg braked, 600kg unbraked (CVT)
The 85kW/185Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine in the C-HR marks the first use of turbocharging in a petrol-powered Toyota passenger car since the limited edition Toyota Corolla Sportivo of 2001
The 85kW peak power figure seems small for what is a generously-sized car, and the C-HR can feel lumpen and stressed when pressed into use on steep hills or when overtaking. It even feels less special around town, despite a decent 185Nm torque peak on tap from 1500 to 4000rpm.
Part of the problem lies in Toyota's choice of automatic transmission, a continuously variable unit that feels as though it saps power while blurring driver inputs. The same can be said of its optional all-wheel-drive system, which feels entirely unnecessary when each Bridgestone Potenza sports tyre is only tasked with transmitting 21-and-a-quarter kilowatts to the ground.
The model's Ducati-riding, open wheeler-racing, classic Supra-driving chief engineer says the entry-level, two-wheel-drive manual model is the only way to go for enthusiasts. We wouldn't argue with that.
Whichever way you go, the C-HR feels surprisingly quiet and refined on the highway, with road noise well under control.
It sits flat when cornering, soaks up bumps nicely and has the best steering of any small Toyota - save for the 86 - in recent memory.
It's possible that Koba didn't strictly need to go back to the drawing board, but we're glad he did, as his car is all the better for it. It's a stylish and dynamically impressive machine let down by an undernourished engine.
The C-HR's handling also points to a bright future for the next Corolla, which will be based on the same platform as this model.
ANCAP Rating: 5 Stars - The Toyota C-HR scored the maximum ANCAP rating based on crash data collected by Euro ANCAP.
Safety Features: Seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain, driver’s knee), ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, reversing camera, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and autonomous emergency braking.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Servicing: The C-HR is the first Toyota to extend service intervals to 12 months/15,000km compared to the usual 6 month/10,000 intervals of other models. Toyota Service Advantage capped price servicing costs $195 per service for the first five years/75,000km (whichever comes first).
The biggest problem that Toyota is likely to face won’t be anything to do with the C-HR itself, rather that Australian capacity is limited to 6000 examples this year.
International sales of the C-HR have been so strong that Toyota’s local arm was only able to secure a fixed number of vehicles, meaning some customers are going to have to wait a while before getting into a car.
While that should stop the C-HR from winning its sales race in 2017, it should be enough for Toyota to get a foothold in an increasingly competitive market. And enough to have rivals trembling.
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