2018 Toyota C-HR: The Fun Little Crossover That Deserves To Go Faster

Photo credit: Toyota Motor North America
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Are you a #young #hip #millennia—hold up, I can’t finish that sentence without dry heaving. This is the 2018 Toyota C-HR—originally planned as a Scion, but living on as a Toyota. It has funky good looks, it’s just a smidge smaller than a RAV4, and Toyota wants to sell it to young people.

But did it miss the mark? It’s reasonably practical and looks fantastic, but it’s down on popular features and options that tightwads my age will actually spring for—things like sunroofs, satellite radio, and an interior color besides black cloth. While I like the idea of a stylish small crossover, part of me wonders if there’s not enough substance under all that pretty sheet metal.

(Full disclosure: Toyota wanted us to check out the C-HR so badly, they invited us to check out their launch event around Austin, Texas, picking up the tabs for food and gas.)

What Is It?

Manufacturers are finally starting to put more effort into making crossovers that don’t just look like a big blob on wheels, thank goodness. The Toyota C-HR is delightfully sculpted everywhere, and you can even order it with a color-contrasting roof if you so desire.

The C-HR stands for “Coupe High-Rider,” and as such, it comes with some good and bad elements of coupes put into a crossover. Its muscular-looking fender flares wouldn’t feel out of place on a hot hatch and it handles surprisingly well, but its styling-over-all approach also gives it a big blind spot in the rear corners.

The entire package is meant to be quirky and fun, providing a good, usable amount of space in an inexpensive, small crossover. It will get you from point A to point B and occasionally to Ikea.

Why Does It Matter?

Try as we might to stay within our car-club cocoons of un-gently used sports cars, crossovers are everywhere. They are unavoidable. They are legion, and you will be assimilated, er, um, stuck driving one at some point.

Somewhere, one of the people you know will just want a good, reliable car, with space for pets or stuff—just in case. They like the visibility of riding up high as if no one has ever explained the concept of “center of gravity” to them, or perhaps they weren’t alive when rolled Ford Explorers kept making the news. (Sigh.)

So long as crossover mania is still a thing, crossovers will still matter. That being said, some companies are now trying to win over crossover curmudgeons like myself through better styling and big promises of better performance. It’s the slow and gradual admission that pedestrian crossovers shouldn’t be penalty boxes on stilts, and I dig it.

Toyota even entered a C-HR in the 24 Hours Nürburgring, and claims that they used knowledge from that race to improve the production car. That rules. It’s a welcome sign of life from Toyota that they haven’t given up on performance entirely. They’re out racing now, not just relying on some jabroni to talk about how their car is “grounded to the ground.” I’d like to see more of that across their lineup.

It’s Still A Toyota, Therefore It Is Roomy And Comfortable

Toyota based the C-HR on a new platform shared with some of its larger cars like the Prius, instead of raising up one of its subcompact platforms. Toyota did this for various reasons, including better handling and the ability to share parts with other Toyotas, but the most noticeable benefit right away is in its space.

Space-wise, it simply doesn’t feel like a small crossover inside, especially when you’re up front where the wide windows and windshield let a lot of light in. Visibility out of the windshield is superb. The seats are pretty basic econobox fare, but they are all soft enough as well as a nice enough shape to be comfortable on a longer drive, too.

On the rear bench seat, three people may be a squeeze as with any other compact car, but two people could get very comfortable and spread out with ample leg room. There’s even a good space on the inside of the door that’s just a smooth expanse of plastic. It’s the perfect size for a travel pillow.

There’s 19-cubic feet of cargo volume behind the 60/40-split folding rear seats. Fold those back seats flat, and you have 36.4-cubic feet of room. One of Toyota’s engineers said they were able to fit 768 cans of Red Bull in the rear with the seats down and were still able to see out the rear window. That’s impressive.

You could easily fit an entire week’s worth of camping gear for two—complete with bags, tent, sleeping bags, coolers and everything—in the rear end of this thing.

It Corners Shockingly Well

The C-HR you can buy won’t exactly break any Nürburgring records, but I was pleasantly surprised that Toyota’s engineers were able to back up all of their racing chat with a surprisingly well-handling car.

The steering rack is electric and feels as light as you would expect from a crossover. It becomes easier to turn the wheel at lower speeds for ease of use. That being said, the steering wasn’t distractingly numb, and the steering column and dashboard on the driver’s side were even designed to allow ample room for the driver’s legs underneath.

Toyota refused to add an optional sunroof to keep the center of gravity low. The C-HR is definitely just a tall car, as opposed to an SUV, as it only has 5.9-inches of ground clearance. A set of TRD lowering springs is even in the works as a factory accessory for the C-HR—it is no truck. (Never mind that I would love to see what the C-HR looks like when it’s raised a little and riding on big, meaty rally tires.)

Even stock, however, the C-HR has a shockingly small amount of body roll, as the C-HR’s Sachs dampers do a good job of smoothing out road bumps without being too harsh, soft or numb.

Its car-like qualities continue underneath, where you’ll find MacPherson strut suspension up front, and double-wishbone suspension with a 26 mm stabilizer bar in the rear. Four-wheel disc brakes do a more than adequate job of slowing down the C-HR as well.

Sure, this comes with a few caveats: you will feel the car’s extra height and all of its 3,300-pound curb weight. It is small in size, but by no means light. It’s set up for understeer, as you tend to get on regular mass-market cars, but not painfully so.

The smallest amount of trail braking—the act of staying on the brake just a little bit as you start to turn—was enough to help it turn in pretty well. Our test drive took us through the ultra-curvy roads around Lake Travis outside of Austin, where the C-HR was very predictable and amusingly tossable.

It Wants To Keep You Out Of Trouble

Toyota Safety Sense P is its collision avoidance system, which comes complete with pedestrian detection, lane departure warnings, dynamic radar cruise control (which automatically slows you down before you hit whatever’s in front of you) and automatic high beams. The lane departure warnings were a bit paranoid when we used them, but could be useful on an open highway.

It also comes with the usual suite of stability and traction control, anti-lock braking and the like, along with 10 airbags in total. It’s like Toyota’s seen bad crossover drivers in action before or something.

A CVT With An Identity Crisis Makes Sure You’re Going Very Slow

The C-HR’s continuously variable transmission is, in a word, awful. The CVT is programmed to have fake “gears,” meaning, it’s not allowed to act like a CVT. A CVT is meant to hold an engine in its optimal revs for the situation you’re in. Programming in “gears” really just means this CVT is perpetually confused in the name of “feeling sporty.”

Can we kill off this idea once and for all that a CVT should pretend to be something it’s not? A CVT does not need the faux-whirring and sudden drops in revs of a gear change. It needs to be predictable, smooth and functional. If the placement of my foot on the throttle pedal doesn’t correspond to the revs of the engine, you have ruined your CVT.

Toyota claims that their naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four cylinder engine only makes 144 horsepower at 6,100 rpm, and 136 lb-ft of torque at 3,100 RPM. My kingdom for a turbo here.

There’s little power in low revs to speak of, so perhaps the C-HR’s driveability woes could be fixed with a manual transmission, where revving the snot out of it would be part of the fun. Americans would buy exactly two of those manual C-HRs, ever, so alternately, I’ll suggest that the C-HR may just need a more powerful engine and a normal, non-geared CVT.

The Rear End Is An Abyss

I can respect Toyota’s decision to forgo offering a sunroof to keep its center of gravity low, but the C-HR’s rear interior design looks claustrophobic in spite of its ample space.

To make the design work on the outside, the rear doors’ windows are super-small. The C-HR’s cool door handle and swoopy design blocks out an expansive chunk of the door.

Worse yet, the same bodywork that obstructs most of the back seat’s view from the sun also creates a huge blind spot for the driver. It’s manageable thanks to the flashing merge warning indicators on the rear-view mirrors, but far from ideal.

Perhaps they should have taken a page from other small cars and crossovers, and opted for a panoramic sunroof, just to brighten things up a bit—or at the very least, used a lighter color than black for the top half of the interior.

The Worst Stereo I’ve Heard In A Modern Car

When I say the C-HR lacks options, I’m not just talking about how all-black is the only interior color. The C-HR’s touchscreen-based infotainment-lite unit was the only option available for this car, and it doesn’t even have navigation or satellite radio. It feels like a bad aftermarket solution plopped right into the dash. It is miserable.

Fortunately, you can connect a phone, however, there are no Apple CarPlay-style mobile services—something that’s standard in a Mitsubishi Mirage at this point. You can use the Aha app through your phone to access more stations—which does have its own tab in the C-HR’s weak head unit. Otherwise, you’re stuck with terrestrial radio or whatever else is on your phone.

When you connect your phone to either the stereo’s Bluetooth connection or its USB port, it probably won’t pick up right away that you’d like to play music. So, you hit the play button, and then it starts playing your phone’s music through your phone speakers. In a couple seconds, it will start playing over the car’s stereo.

When you tire of whatever’s on your phone and go back to the radio stations, it doesn’t even go back to the station you were listening to previously. The FM radio tab in our testers kept opening up to fuzz instead of anything in the programmed-in presets.

I’ve never had a stock radio this kludgey in a late-model car, and because younger crossover buyers tend to care more about cool, useful tech gadgets in cars, I have to wonder: did they talk to anyone under thirty when they made this decision, or no?

Early Verdict

The C-HR is maybe the coolest looking crossover in its class, especially with one of the two-tone paint jobs that highlights the roof and doors in white. It’s futuristic and fun, with a diamond pattern theme that runs throughout its roomy interior.

That being said, I’m left with one big question: were decent handling and quirky looks enough to gloss over the fact that it’s slow and has few options and upgrades to choose from? Will the millennials Toyota is after spring for this thing or go somewhere else for its lack of tech

Good effort, Toyota. Your job now is to dig into the parts bin and see how you can do better.

Specifications (per Toyota)

  • Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC turbo inline 4
  • Power: 144 HP at 6,100 RPM / 139 lb-ft at 3,900 RPM
  • Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission with intelligence and Shift mode (CVTi-S) with seven simulated gears in Sequential Shitfmatic mode
  • 0-60 Time: Not specified
  • Top Speed: Not specified
  • Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
  • Curb Weight: 3,300 lbs
  • Seating: 5
  • MPG: 29 combined / 27 city / 31 highway
  • MSRP: $22,500 for the base XLE model; $24,350 for the upgraded XLE Premium