Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
The C-HR itself has no real heritage, it slots into a market that didn’t exist until a few years ago, one that Toyota is dipping its toes into for the first time. But Toyota themselves have a lot of history inside the SUV/crossover world. Back in the annals of motoring time there were only two real choices if you wanted something tough to drive off road: a trusty Land Rover if you lived in Britain, or a Toyota Land Cruiser if you lived basically everywhere else. The Land Cruiser was the mud-plugger that saved the world, that liberated people from war-torn zones with a massive UN sticker on the side. It was the car that sheiks drove up near-vertical dunes and made internet stars of madcap Middle Easterners who attempted to drive them on two wheels.
In the mid 90s they branched out, pretty much inventing the modern crossover with the RAV4. Here was a smaller 4x4 that still offered the high-riding capability that people liked along with the space of an SUV but with a more road-aligned design. Suddenly it launched a thousand crossovers and began the process (along with the Honda CR-V which was hot on its heels) of changing the automotive world forever. The RAV4 and Land Cruiser still soldier on today, both still shifting numbers that many manufacturers would die for across their whole range, but other companies have long since squeezed another crossover into a market that never existed before just below the RAV4. Thus, following the mindblowing success of Nissan’s Juke and Honda’s HR-V – here is the answer you’ve been waiting for from Toyota – the C-HR.
Companies have always found compact crossovers tricky to design, the original Honda HR-V was a bit of a style icon, but can still split opinions as to whether it is actually good looking, the Juke is a little cosmetically challenged and many other contenders in the market can easily be accused of merely being existing compact cars with a bit of cladding. Fortunately for us Toyota elected to stand out from the market rather than blending in when they conceptualised the C-HR, there is no way you will miss on in the streets. The C-HR is a genuinely good looking thing. Obviously designed to have more coupe lines than crossover, the swooping roofline blends into the rear in a ratio normally seen on modern four-dour grand-coupes rather than high-riding city cars. The front is aggressive and purposeful, managing to at the same time hide the height of the C-HR and keep its presence on the road.
Inside is no different story, with swooping lines that continue around the cabin (in our case swathed in black leather, with the lines an eye-catching shade of electric blue) and taking in an infotainment system that is genuinely focused on the driver and a piano-black set of dials and controls that never feel cheap. It’s a genuinely nice place to be, with no scratchy plastics to let it down in sight. Rear legroom is decent, although anyone of over 6ft, front or rear, may find themselves feeling a little claustrophobic, or just developing a crick in their neck.
Not something you expect to be discussing at length with a crossover, but Toyota have gone to great lengths to bring the centre of gravity down as low as possible in the CH-R – that low roofline and coupe looks don’t exactly hurt that effort. That means the CH-R is actually quite a nippy little thing, perfect for its natural habitat in the city, but also quite fun on a windy road. Hurl the car between the twists and it won’t complain, and if you are treating it hard enough you can generate the tiniest whiff of lift-off oversteer. The 1.2-litre, turbocharged petrol unit isn’t particularly inspiring, but if you keep the revs up high enough for the turbo to be kicking in then we found it to be perfectly useable, the transmission is satisfying and even includes an auto-blip on the downshifts.
Could this be the first time a compact crossover can be described as passionate? The CH-R not only brings the good looks of a much smaller car, but it carries them off well and manages to handle with some real pep. You genuinely wouldn’t feel sad if you were handed one and pointed down the A272. The crossover world is a new one, but one which is so competitive that any car in it needs to stand out and stand out hard, have Toyota finally found the formula to make real car lovers like them.