Although Scion was snuffed out last year, the spirit of the entry-level brand lives on in Toyota models like the new C-HR subcompact SUV crossover. Although the C-HR was originally destined to wear a Scion badge in the States, it was a relatively painless process for Toyota to pivot and bring the funky crossover in as a Toyota. (The C-HR was already slated to be sold as a Toyota in overseas markets.) With vehicles such as the Nissan Juke, the Kia Soul, and the similarly sized Honda HR-V maintaining steady sales, it was critical that Toyota field a subcompact crossover in the United States.
Like most organizations with a product to sell these days, Toyota wasted no opportunity to reference the M word, peppering its pre-test-drive spiel with all things millennial. After a day in the saddle in and around Texas Hill Country near Austin, we think Toyota should relax the pitch a bit and take a slightly more organic approach.
In keeping with its Scion roots, the C-HR’s trim hierarchy is simple with the XLE ($23,460) as the base model and the XLE Premium ($25,310) as, uh, the base model with a few tech and appointment upgrades. Standard equipment includes cloth-trimmed front bucket seats with six-way adjustability, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, one USB port, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with backup camera, and dual-zone automatic climate control.
The XLE Premium gets heated front seats, an eight-way driver’s seat, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and proximity entry and start. Those spunky two-tone models with the white roof and side mirrors? Those are R-code C-HRs, a treatment that is the sole available factory option in your choice of three colors: Blue Eclipse Metallic, Ruby Flare Pearl, and the R-code–exclusive Radiant Green Mica. Simple, right?
Here’s where it gets funky. Due largely to its development under the Scion banner and that brand’s weirdo radio head unit, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and navigation (very few Scions ever had factory navigation) are not available on the C-HR. For a small, affordable, and fashionable car marketed directly at millennials, these seem to be egregious omissions. That said, the Bluetooth works fine, and using your phone in a mount is a perfectly workable navigation solution. Also strange: The eight-way driver’s seat is entirely manual in operation except for power-operated lumbar support, which is akin to fitting a vintage mechanical watch with battery-powered dial illumination.
The interior quality suffices for a sub-$25K vehicle without feeling cut-rate or spartan. There are hard, embossed-plastic door panels, but they feel and look up to the task. While there appears to be no glovebox, the lower dash conceals a tiny latch that opens a big storage bin. The door openings both front and rear are deceptively large, and we found enough adjustment to the front seats and the tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel for a pair of six-foot-plus journalists to get comfortable, save for a little B-pillar intrusion on the wider of the two.
The back seat can be relatively spacious for such a tiny footprint (the 103.9-inch wheelbase is 4.3 inches longer than the Juke’s, while the width is up only 1.2 inches on the Nissan), depending on how the front seats are set. But when those seats were positioned where we were comfortable, foot and legroom in the rear were reduced to prison-restraint levels. Still, based largely on elbow- and knee room, our first impressions are that the C-HR’s front compartment is a tad more spacious and comfortable than those of the HR-V and the Juke.
You Gotta Spin to Win
Despite its high-hipped and quirky-for-a-Toyota “Transformer meets sturdy hamster gymnast” exterior design, the C-HR’s dynamic personality is pure Toyota. The naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four making 144 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 139 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm is an engine that needs to be overtly stressed if you want to have any fun. Of course, a continuously variable automatic (CVT)—the only transmission available in the C-HR—has few qualms about keeping the engine at the high end of the tachometer, especially when Sport mode is selected. The CVT, however, can easily be caught napping when exiting corners, taking a second or more to respond and leaving the driver with an embarrassing case of torqus interruptus. A quick tug of the shift lever allows the driver to hang on to the seven simulated fixed-ratio “steps” longer than necessary for sane operation. The C-HR will never be mistaken for a land rocket. Long, uphill sections can be torturous, and if you’re coming into the C-HR from anything but an economy car or another subcompact crossover, it will take some time to get used to the horsepower rationing. We’re convinced a slick manual would do wonders to improve the situation.
Kudos are warranted for the chassis tuning. Reportedly refined on the Nürburgring—so were our blender and socks, probably—the C-HR runs a strut front and multilink rear suspension with Sachs dampers at all four corners. Impacts through the standard 18-inch wheels are nicely cushioned, and the setup is tuned so that body control doesn’t loosen over broken pavement or go flabby in cornering, nor will the car attempt to take flight when cresting hills at speed. The electrically assisted steering is the weak link, offering little feel or feedback even when firmed up in Sport mode; indications of pending turmoil are signaled by tire squeal long before the steering wheel weighs in on the subject. The brakes offer smooth, linear response, but any data regarding their strength will have to wait until we can strap our test gear to the C-HR.
Unlike the Juke and the HR-V (and the majority of other subcompact crossovers), the C-HR wasn’t conceived with all-wheel drive in mind. While this is not a deterrent to us, there are consumers who feel they must have all-wheel drive. To them we say invest in a good set of winter tires, since the C-HR isn’t prepared for much more than off-road excursions to the overflow lot at Coachella, anyway, given the Toyota’s 5.9 inches of ground clearance and standard all-season tires.
Toyota has big plans for the C-HR, with hopes to sell 30,000 units by the end of 2017 and double that in 2018. Those looking for a funky alternative to the usual suspects—and not put off by the lack of Apple CarPlay, all-wheel drive, or factory navigation—will find the C-HR at Toyota showrooms in April.