You can tell just by looking at it. The C-HR was supposed to be a Scion, right up until Toyota put the brand out of its misery. Like the rest of the survivors, it found asylum in Toyota, but it remains firmly a child of two worlds. As a result, it’s completely unsure of what it wants to be, and it shows.
Start with the name. C-HR stands for “Coupe-High Rider,” and it’s neither. The body side is styled to make it look like a coupe, with all the associated packaging drawbacks. The designers attempted to hide the rear door handles up near the roofline for a cool effect—but the location is inconvenient, especially for the children of the hip millennial families Toyota hopes will buy this thing. The kids won’t be able to see out of it, either, because like many a coupe, the rear side windows are tiny, up high, and way far forward of the rear seat, creating a cavelike environment in back. The interior also only comes in black, which doesn’t help.
It’s not much of a high rider, either, being just 2 inches taller than a Yaris and only available in front-wheel drive. It has slightly less passenger space than a Yaris but a bit more cargo space.
Like its rival Nissan Juke, the C-HR will look cool and appeal to the kids. But without Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the Toyota is something of a tough sell. Especially when you consider this brand-new product doesn’t have Toyota’s latest Entune infotainment system but rather an aftermarket-looking head unit with a similar user interface. More USB ports would help the case.
It’s not a techno wonder, but maybe the sporty handling could win them back. After all, it was developed on the Nürburgring. And despite its econobox roots, it really does handle tight turns quite nicely, with little body roll and excellent control. This TNGA platform is a wonderful advancement for Toyota’s vehicle dynamics. It goes around a corner much faster than you’d think, but nothing about the experience inspires you to drive the car hard. Performance without passion? Yes, it’s possible.
Responsibility lies at the feet of the powertrain, which is undersized and overstressed. The all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes just 144 hp and 139 lb-ft of torque, which might be OK in a Mazda CX-3. But the front-drive C-HR weighs 300 pounds more than an all-wheel drive CX-3. How and why a vehicle this small weighs 3,300 pounds is a mystery, but regardless of where it comes from, it’s an albatross.
Along with the weight, there’s the matter of the CVT. Not all CVTs are bad these days, but this one is a throwback to when they were. In-gear acceleration, like passing, is painfully slow. If it hits 60 mph in less than 10 seconds, I’ll demand a recount. If you’re trying to find a hole in traffic, you’ll step on the gas, count two, listen to the engine wind up to 5,000 rpm, count another two, then feel the car begin to accelerate—slowly. On the plus side, it gears itself aggressively at a stop, so zipping around a busy city from stoplight to stoplight is no problem. As long as you don’t need to quickly dart around an 18-wheeler plodding along at 45 mph, the acceleration is perfectly adequate. That’s where Toyota expects most of these will live, and urban dwellers will find little to complain about.
Except maybe the noise. Wind noise, tire noise, engine noise, whatever the source, it’s rather loud inside the C-HR. At least the fuel economy is competitive at 27/31/29 mpg city/highway/combined, per EPA estimates.
Then there’s the steering. It’s very quick for a crossover and a little heavy, which should impart a feeling of sportiness. It certainly changes direction quickly, but the steering has a dead spot on center then suddenly throws you into the curve when you turn the wheel past 5 degrees in either direction. Driving smoothly takes practice. You learn to make very small, smooth, and deliberate inputs to account for the dead zone.
Toyota attempts to increase the fun factor with a Sport mode—if you can unbury the command from the instrument cluster screen. It makes the throttle touchier and the steering heavier, but it doesn’t give it any more feel. The CVT is supposed to act like a seven-speed automatic, too, but it wasn’t noticeable.
It’s not all bad, though. The C-HR, even in its base form, is well equipped. Every C-HR gets the full-boat Toyota Safety Sense package of active safety features, including automatic high-beams, lane departure warning, lane keeping assistance, and automatic emergency braking with the ability to detect both cars and pedestrians. They also all get adaptive cruise control and a backup camera standard, though for some odd reason they put the camera image in the rearview mirror rather than on the also-standard 7.0-inch infotainment screen. The adaptive cruise control works in stop-and-go traffic, but you have to touch the throttle every time the vehicle comes to a complete stop, and even the shortest following-distance setting leaves plenty of gap for frustrated commuters to cut you off. Other sweet standard features: 10 airbags, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, an electric parking brake with a hold function, 18-inch alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sporty and comfortable bucket seats, and a cargo cover. All of that for just $23,460.
For about two grand more, you can step up to the Premium model, the only real option on the C-HR. With that, you get keyless entry and push-button start, heated seats, a blind-spot monitoring system, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Neither trim offers a sunroof, but you do get diamond impressions in the headliner to match other diamond-patterned interior panels, such as the kick plates and door trim.
The only other real option is the R-Code, which matches a white-painted roof with your choice of a red, blue, or aquamarine body, the latter of which is exclusive to R-Code models.
The 2018 Toyota C-HR is a bit of a contradiction. It seeks to appeal to younger buyers with futuristic rally-racer styling, but it’s missing the smartphone integration millennials demand. It was tuned on the Nürburgring, but it’s slow and passionless to drive. It carries all the disadvantages of a coupe body style and little of the functionality of a crossover. It is, however, an excellent value and will function very well for city dwellers who aren’t road warriors. The C-HR is trapped between two missions—trying to be a sports car and a rolling smartphone at the same time—and it achieves neither. At its heart, it’s the Corolla of crossovers, and for a lot of folks, there’s nothing wrong with that.