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Toyota C-HR: Scion’s last idiosyncratic hurrah

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It is the result of an older sibling’s uncontrolled growth spurt and a crosstown rival’s geekily proportioned, willfully ugly rally car/small crossover SUV mashup that succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s also the last idiosyncratic hurrah of Toyota’s ultimately failed attempt at creating a separate, youth-oriented marque to better attract buyers that saw the parent brand as dowdy and old-mannish.

Toyota’s RAV4 has generally been hailed as the first compact crossover SUV, given its combination of off-road sports utility styling on unibody front-wheel-drive-centric Corolla and Carina underpinnings. (although Russia’s Lada Niva and France’s Matra-Simca Rancho might beg to differ). What is undeniable, however, is its unrelenting ballooning in size from its origins in the mid-1990s to the present. Yes, this is a malady that has afflicted many vehicle lines over the decades, but seems particularly egregious in the RAV4 (as Jalopnik‘s Jason Torchinsky so accurately pointed out). Going by the numbers, the original 4-door RAV4 sat on a 94.9″ (2410mm) wheelbase, while its latest descendant (the latest 5th-gen/XV50 RAV4) has seen that number grow to 105.9″ (2690mm). Overall length has grown from the 163.8″ (4160mm) of the original to 181.1″ (4600mm) for the outgoing 4th-gen XV40. As for overall width, it’s gone from the original’s 66.7″ (1695mm) to the 5th-gen’s 73″ (1855mm). Enough of a growth spurt to call for a smaller crossover to slot in below the latest RAV4s. Enter the C-HR, the “it” alluded to at the very top of our story.

And the talk of an oddly proportioned, verging on ugly yet unexpectedly successful rival? That would be the Nissan Juke. Introduced in 2010, its quirky style nonetheless proved unexpectedly popular around the world, exceeding Nissan’s expectations and surely serving as an inspiration to Toyota designers. Even Nissan’s reputed 23 samples of the 545-to-600 hp Juke-R were countered by the one-off 600+ hp Toyota C-HR R-Tuned shown at the 2017 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.

Scion’s last idiosyncratic hurrah
Around the turn of the (20th-to-21st) century, Toyota launched a couple of ill-fated initiatives to help reverse its reputation as an old person’s brand and attract a younger demographic. In the U.S., it was separate “Project Genesis” marketing for Toyota Echo (a fugly 3-box version of the original Toyota Yaris) as well as the final versions of MR-2 and Celica. In Japan, it was the quirky trio of WiLL-branded models (Vi, VS and Cypha [née VC]). The former was a clear failure after only a couple of years, replaced by “Project Exodus”, which led to the separate Scion brand.

Scion unveiled its first two production models, the iconic boxy original xB and its smaller brother, the slope-nosed, rear flared-fendered xA, in January 2003. Since then, the brand careened back and forth between ugly caricatures of the pure boxiness of the original xB (its 2nd-gen successor and xD) and conventionally-styled vehicles (both tCs, FR-S, iA and iM). We’d argue that only the iQ and C-HR matched the spirit of deliberate unorthodoxy that distinguished the marque’s launch.

Yes, the C-HR was originally intended to be the third and final new model to revive the brand, and by far the one closest in spirit to Scion’s original raison d’être. The plan went as far as rolling out a repainted and rebadged-as-Scion version of the 2015 Frankfurt Auto Show Toyota C-HR Concept. Just a month before the 2016 Geneva Motor Show debut of the production version of the C-HR, however, the company killed the Scion brand, and the North American C-HR would share its Toyota badging with the rest of the world.

With Scion gone, so is mono-spec
Among Scion’s basic tenets was its “mono-spec” vehicles, where the only choice to be made from the factory is exterior color and either manual or automatic transmission. As C-HR moved from Scion to Toyota, so did the notion of a single factory trim level. Our Ruby Flare Pearl “base” model, in fact, wears an XLE trim denominator, and is well-equipped with standard features such as dual-zone climate control, 18″ alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter boot, 60/40 split-folding rear seat and rear side-mounted airbags. Its base MSRP is $22,500 plus $995 Delivery, Processing and Handling Fee.

The XLE Premium trim adds fog lights, auto-folding outside mirrors, Smart Key System with Push Button Start, heating and power lumbar support for the front seats, and Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA) functionality to the standard Toyota Safety Sense-P suite of safety nannies assists (more on this later).

A CarsDirect report, citing Toyota order guides, suggests a further realignment for 2019, with base LE, mid-level XLE and top-of-the-line Limited variants. Oh, and Apple CarPlay support is expected to become standard then.

An unexpected manufacturing site
Historically, one thought of Toyotas for the U.S. market as built either locally or in Japan, with a couple of models built across our borders in Canada or Mexico. In mid-2013, however, Toyota turned to its French plant in Valenciennes to supply 3rd-gen (XP130) Yaris hatchbacks for North America. And, with the C-HR for North America comes yet another unexpected production source near the crossroads of Asia and Europe, the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Turkey (TMMT) facility in the Arifiye district of Sakarya province.

Although our test vehicle’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) code starts with NMTK (confirming its Turkish manufacture), a chance visit to a local Toyota dealer revealed over a dozen or so C-HRs all with VIN codes starting with “J” and a final assembly point of Iwate in Japan. Why the change of sourcing? Toyota and Google are officially silent on the subject, but our best guess is that greater-than-expected European success is the cause. (For 2018 C-HR is Toyota Europe’s second best-selling model behind Yaris). Even then, Japan-built C-HRs have 40% Japanese and 45% Turkish content.

From the outside…
Yes, the Toyota C-HR is smaller than recent RAV4s, but don’t expect shrinkage all the way down to original RAV4 levels. With its 103.9″ (2640mm) wheelbase, 171.7″ (4360mm) overall length, 70.7″ (1795mm) width and 61.6″ (1565mm) height, C-HR is still larger overall than the 2nd-gen (XA20) RAV4. In fact, its size is closest to the 4-door short-wheelbase version of the 3rd-gen (XA30) RAV4 sold outside North America.

The front of the C-HR is fancifully described as keeping with Toyota’s current Under Priority and Keen Look design identity. To us, it looks very much like the outgoing, post-2016 facelift 4th-gen RAV4, but with a bulkier, narrower nose and headlights stretched to the sides in a rather Chevrolet Spark-inspired manner.

The pronounced side sculpturing is fancifully likened by Toyota to faceted diamond-like surfaces, but, to this critic, the look is more like the random swoops, gullies and crevices left behind by receding tides on a sandy beach. Rear door handles are located high on the aperture’s rear corner, almost at the point where the door meets the roof. This helps create the illusion of a 2-door coupe (and, indeed, most accounts suggest C-HR stands for Coupe-High Rider), but the exterior handles should’ve preferably been top-hinged rather than their front-hinged design that can easily catch children’s fingers. Black plastic trim around the wheel wells and on the sides scream “I am a crossover SUV” while admittedly doing much to lower the C-HR’s visual height.

The taillights recall another recent Toyota design: the Prime/Plug-In version of the latest Prius. A rearward extension of the lower body black plastic cladding includes a faux central exhaust indent (the actual exhaust is a barely-visible single pipe in the lower right rear corner behind the bumper). Both a subtle lip spoiler connecting the taillights and a much larger wing spoiler atop the fastback rear window signal the C-HR’s sporty intent.

…and the inside.
Open the doors to step inside, and they’ll close in a reassuringly solid manner. No lightweight tinniness here. Before closing them, though, you might’ve noticed that the diamonds alluded to earlier are actually a thing inside. Look down, and all 5 lower door sills (including the rear hatch) have a diamond-shaped pattern embossed on the black plastic. Ditto the rear side airbag covers. Look up at the headliner and…more diamonds. Even the carbon fiber-inspired texturing on the door panels have something of a diamond pattern to them. And the sound system speakers on the doors? Yes, there, too.

Given its sporting pretensions and Scion mono-spec roots, the 2018 C-HR’s interior is available in “any color so long as it’s black” that would do Henry Ford proud. Even in its unremitting blackness, though, there are enough varying materials and textures to keep things from going totally blah. Materials run the gamut from the pliably soft, padded and stitched vinyl leatherette pad that runs atop the dashboard to soft-touch trim on the front door tops and armrests and the center console armrest to harder (but good quality and well-grained) plastics elsewhere.

An undulating and subtly color-flecked band of piano black trim connects the center and right-side air vents and envelops the climate-control panel. The audio system controls reside in an oh-so-trendy stand-up 7″ touch screen that at least sees some attempt at integrating it into the surrounding dashboard, as opposed to looking like a stuck-on tablet or iPad. The glove box door is sharply angled back, which is fine and dandy for increasing passenger knee room but makes it nearly invisible and a too-low reach to find it. Worse, opening it involves a counterintuitive push on a totally flush rectangular handle. At least, once opened, it is usefully roomy, even as it then bangs on your passenger’s knees.

The traditional instrument gauges are housed in two deeply hooded Alfa Romeo-esque dials (tachometer and engine temperature on the left, speedometer and fuel level on the right), and this is the first new car I’ve driven in recent memory that lacks a redundant digital speed readout. No big loss. In the center resides a vertical rectangular Multi-Information Display. Besides obligatory functions such as outside temperature, average fuel economy, Drive Mode and Toyota Safety Sense controls, it includes an unexpected G Monitor. Don’t expect detailed readouts of how many Gs you just pulled in that sweeping left-right-left freeway on-ramp, however. This is not Dodge Performance Pages or Chevrolet’s Performance Data Recorder. Rather, this is a gimmicky birds-eye view of a car chassis with a series of concentric, target-like circles and a movable red ball that purportedly shows where the vehicle’s center of gravity is at any given point.

The center console includes two open cupholders (the rearmost one including a removable insert to allow for deeper or shallower cups). The transaxle shifter is encased in a leather boot and topped by a stylish brushed-metal handle. The center armrest is rear-hinged (for easy access by both driver and passenger), and its storage compartment is deep, usefully roomy and has a padded bottom. It also contains a single 12-volt outlet. At the front of the console is a small shelf purportedly for a cell phone (though it’s rather narrow, especially for newer, larger phones) and a single USB port. The hard plastics on the console sides and edges are my single biggest materials complaint. It would be nice to lean my right leg and knee on a more pliable surface.

The front door pockets’ downsweeping shape is aesthetically pleasing but makes them uselessly shallow for much storage. At least they include a bottle holder in their leading edge.

The seats are cloth-upholstered (not in a diamond pattern, surprisingly), comfortable and well bolstered, but we’d love to have the power lumbar support of the XLE Premium model.

The rear seat is also fairly comfortable and acceptably roomy (although for my 5’9″ frame, the “sitting behind myself” test is no big deal). The door trim materials are harder to the touch than they are up front, but the difference isn’t jarring. Amenities in the back are scarce, though. Notably missing are a center drop-down armrest, front seatback storage pockets, coat hooks and even grab handles. Well…there is a decently-sized cupholder in each rear door armrest.

Overall, the Toyota C-HR interior is a commendable but not super-outstanding effort. It was the only recently-launched Toyota and Lexus product that failed to win a WardsAuto 10 Best Interiors of 2018 award. (The latest Toyota Camry and Lexus LS did get the prize). As the publication’s editors stated in their Quick Hits commentary on the 40 nominees:

Embossed headliner and faux carbon-fiber trim are nice touches but won’t make up for all-black interior with fabric seats and barely any brightwork. Also lacks rear passenger and cargo room.

We wouldn’t say rear passenger and cargo room were that lacking, but bear in mind that this is, arguably, the smallest crossover coupe now sold.

So, how does it drive?
Just backing out of the driveway reveals the Toyota C-HR’s first major demerit: the backup camera is not in its logical place in the dashboard’s 7″ audio screen, but on the left third of the inside central rearview mirror. Apart from being small and a bit above one’s natural line of sight, its translucency and being prone to washouts by bright sunlight and glare (even with the standard autodimming rearview mirror) make this a notable annoyance.

Once under way, things aren’t made much better by the Aisin-built K114 CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Although better sorted, more durable and reliable than its JATCO-built Nissan counterparts, the K114 still suffers from common CVT gripes such as revs that rise faster than actual forward motion. An “M” position in the transmission shifter allows for a “manual” mode for cycling through 7 preset “ratios”. They somewhat quell the notorious CVT “rubber band” effect but don’t help matters with fuel economy. We achieved 22.2 mpg in mostly city stop-and-go traffic with the air conditioner running full-blast in an overall combination of roughly 60% Sport Mode / 30% Normal Mode / 10% Eco Mode driving. Official EPA fuel economy figures are 27 mpg city / 31 mpg highway / 29 mpg combined.

C-HR is powered by the aging 3ZR-FAE 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine with the Valvematic variable lift intake system. Its 144 horsepower and 139 lb/ft of torque are barely adequate at propelling the vehicle’s hefty 3300 lb. curb weight, and that’s with just front-wheel-drive. (AWD versions of C-HR are not sold in North America).

Also subject to some grumbling is the C-HR’s audio. Jalopnik‘s Stef Schrader opined that it’s “the worst stereo I’ve heard in a modern car”. I wouldn’t go that far. The sound quality to me was acceptable, but I wasn’t able to properly sync up the Aha app on my phone to the car, and even the connection to the music library on my iPhone was a bit spotty on the last day I had the car. Satellite radio and even an old-school CD player would’ve been nice options over just terrestrial radio or whatever’s on your phone.

And here, the complaints stop. The C-HR is quiet for a compact crossover, with both wind and road noise not totally absent but very well controlled and lower than many of its rivals. Its 5.9″ ground clearance is more tallish car than true off-road SUV, but nevertheless its handling prowess is a revelation and an unexpected surprise. Body roll is surprisingly low, and it tracks steady and true through curves. Fun would be an apt way to describe it. And, for this, we have 4 letters to thank: TGNA.

Toyota’s New Global Architecture, first announced in 2012, with followup reports issued in 2013 and 2015, is best summed up by this passage from the latter:

(R)epositioning and lowering the center of gravity of powertrain components has contributed to achieving attractive, low-stance designs, responsive handling, a high-quality drive feel, and collision performance that offers safety and peace of mind. By rethinking body structure, Toyota plans to first increase overall body rigidity by as much as 30 to 65 percent, and then further improve rigidity by joining body components using laser screw welding technology.

A large part of the credit for the C-HR’s handling prowess is due to Deputy Chief Engineer Hiroyuki Koba. A number of reports mention that he is a diehard racer with speed coursing through his veins and a racing nut who celebrates Toyota’s concept of waku doki (which means “heart-pumping excitement) who took it to the Nürburgring to tune its handling. I had the privilege of meeting Koba-san at the Lexus HS long-lead press preview, where I learned that his then-daily driver was a Toyota MR-S (MR2) Spider, with some TRD modifications.

Toyota Safety Sense-P
Call me a Luddite, stuck in the past or an endangered dinosaur, but I’ve hardly been a fan of the newfangled suite of automotive safety assists. My 10-year old Mazda MX-5 Miata NC1 has anti-lock brakes as its sole modern driving assist. My newer 2011 Lexus IS 350 F Sport adds the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) suite of handling, brake and steering assists.

Mind you, I’ve sampled the latest Lexus Safety System+ and Mazda i-ACTIVSENSE in my reviews of the GS F and MX-5 Miata ND Grand Touring, respectively, and my feelings for both were rather tepid.

My friend and colleague Kevin Watts’ lavish praise of the Lexus Safety System+ in his 2018 IS 300 AWD, however, was an eye-opener. Was I, perhaps, giving short shrift to the positive qualities and capabilities of the essentially similar Toyota Safety Sense-P as found in my test C-HR? In an attempt to answer this, I made a concerted effort to more carefully evaluate its individual components.

Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection (PCS w/PD). Alert timing can be set for Far, Middle (default setting) and Near. The system can also be turned off.

I actually put this to an early test in its Middle default setting when the system’s warnings, my passenger’s admonitions and my slamming on the brakes converged in a blur to help me avoid rear-ending a car in suddenly stopped traffic.

In other settings, though, I found that braking as last-minute as I dared did not set off any PCS intervention.

Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist (LDA w/SA). The core Lane Departure Alert can be set to High or Normal sensitivity. A separate Steering Assist function can be turned on or off. When activated, this makes small corrective steering inputs to help keep the vehicle in its lane. Also includes a Sway Warning System function to detect inadvertent zigzagging, usually when the driver is drowsy or inebriated. This so-called “coffee cup alert” can be set to high, medium or low Sensitivity levels, or turned off altogether, as can the LDA system as a whole. It’s important to note that LDA, even when activated, is only meant to function at speeds of 32 mph (50 km/h) on relatively straight roads.

The system’s beeps were annoyingly evident in situations when oddly-angled lane merge and end markings confused the system. I see value in LDA, though, if it helps turn signal-averse drivers (seemingly 80-90% of the southeast Florida driving population) signal their intentions when changing lanes.

Automatic High Beams (AHB). This is a simple on/off function.

As in past reviews, I’d say this could be helpful in dark country roads with sparse traffic. In my big-city suburban haunts, however, I habitually switch to high beams on dimly-lit residential streets when there is no vehicular traffic (something about aging eyesight, diminishing visual acuity and all that). AHB disagrees, and I’d settle the argument by simply shutting her down.

Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC). Although purportedly effective at speeds between 0 and 110 mph, a warning screen states that DRCC is for Use on Expressway Only. After a Radar Ready warning, it can be set for a Long (default setting), Middle or Short following distance. Interestingly enough, DRCC is actually the default system for cruise control. The On/Off switch must be held down for 1.5 seconds if you prefer old-school constant-speed-until-you-brake cruise control.

My first DRCC drive was only from one expressway entry to the next exit (no more than a couple of miles), but it was a revelation. It did an excellent job of staying with the ebbs and flows of traffic, slowed down appropriately for an off-ramp curve and even slowed down greatly to avoid rear-ending cars stopped at the off-ramp traffic light (although PCS and my own reflexes might have played a role here).

A second, longer drive at the default Long following distance setting and at a 62 mph speed was, perhaps, too languid and cautious for my taste, but I still marveled at the system’s smarts at moving with the ebbs and flows of traffic. A final expressway drive set at the Short following distance was still a mite more cautious than my habitual driving style, but a notable improvement over the default Long setting.

Not evaluated here are Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA), since these are only included on the higher XLE Premium trim level.

The beauty of electronic safety assist suites and Toyota Safety Sense-P in particular is the have-it-your-way freedom of choice between deploying varying levels of sensitivity or just turning it all off altogether. For more cautious types (such as Lexus Enthusiast‘s Kevin Watts), driving without TSS-P or Lexus’ LSS+ counterpart feels almost dangerous. For me, these systems are far from telepathic, sometimes intervening when you don’t expect them to and at other times not intervening when you think they should. Treat them as backups for your experience and alert attention as a driver and you’ll be fine. Just don’t be overconfident in their capabilities (Tesla Autopilot, anyone?) and keep in mind that the auto industry at large is still grappling with the autonomous driving Level 3 man-to-machine-and-back transitions. That, however, is a discussion that strays far from this Toyota C-HR evaluation.

In parting, though, I’ll add unqualified praise for one C-HR feature that isn’t even part of Toyota Safety Sense-P: Brake Hold. Activate it (via a button in the central console just behind the electronic parking brake), give the brake a deep push when stopped at a traffic light and then let go of all the pedals, and the car will just stay put, just like a manual on a level surface. Neat.

A promising omen for the upcoming Lexus UX 200?
The TNGA rollout has been a gradual and slower-than-expected process. In reality, TNGA is far more than just a more rigid and competent platform with a lower center of gravity. It also comprises improvements in factory productivity, more compact and less costly production lines and, above all, more efficient new-generation powertrains that were first announced in 2016, over 4 years after the original TNGA platform announcement. That meant that the first 2 TNGA-C Toyotas (the 4th-gen/XV40 Prius and C-HR) combined the new platform with older powertrains. Subsequent TNGA launches have seen a hodgepodge of old-generation and new “Dynamic Force” powertrains.

The upcoming Lexus UX, a more luxurious fraternal twin to Toyota C-HR, however, seems set to be the first Lexus or Toyota model to launch exclusively with the newest Dynamic Force powertrains. This would be the UX 200’s M20A-FKS 2-liter 4-cylinder engine which produces 168 hp and 151 lb/ft of torque (increases of 24 hp and 12 lb/ft of torque vs the current C-HR engine) coupled with the Direct Shift-CVT with launch gear. Its hybrid UX 250h sibling will feature an M20A-FXS version of the engine combined with improved 2.0-liter Toyota Hybrid System (THS II) and available E-Four 4WD.

Notably improved powertrains combined with excellent handling and chassis dynamics? What’s not to like? And many if not all those improvements could eventually make their way to C-HR. Indian Autos Blog reports that the Chinese-market C-HR and its Izoa twin will receive the Dynamic Force engine at launch later this year. As for North America, a 3ZR-to-M20A engine change should happen no later than the 2021 model year for the C-HR’s mid-life refresh.

Photo Credits:
Photos 7 (G Monitor) and 12 (Audio system screen): Toyota USA Newsroom
All other photos by Joaquín Ruhi

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