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Toyota takes on the Audi Q2 and Mini Countryman with its own style-led crossover

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Finding ‘white space’ between the glut of compact crossovers currently on the market has become a preoccupation for many car manufacturers of late.

Toyota, though, seems to have found some for the C-HR, a stylish crossover model that has replaced a number of more humdrum five-door offerings in the firm’s international line-up.

All that sculpture in the bodyside looks fussy in pictures, but it makes the C-HR really interesting to look at in the raw

The disparate nature of its predecessors (which include conventional hatchbacks as well as a short-lived, oddball mini-MPV, the Urban Cruiser) helps to explain some of the thinking behind the model’s mixed-up looks, designed to combine coupé, hatchback and crossover influences.

This approach could hardly be claimed as novel – crossing over conventional vehicle norms being what ‘crossovers’ were always intended to do – and yet, on first inspection, the C-HR seems to do it with more conviction than most.

Just as it showed with the current Toyota Prius, Toyota is demonstrating a new-found fearlessness when it comes to design that is likely to lose it as many fans as it wins.

Still, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the C-HR might meet with a warmer reception from a fashion-savvy crossover-loving crowd than the Prius does with its largely middle-aged, moderate, conservative customer base.

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Underneath the skin, though, these two Toyota siblings are not so different. They share the same global architecture, and the crossover also incorporates the latest version of the petrol-electric hybrid powertrain that made the Prius so famous in the first place.

The parallel hybrid set-up is available in either 121bhp 1.8-litre or 182bhp 2.0-litre guises, which until recently looked out of step with coupé, hatchback and crossover rivals that feature downsized diesel or petrol motors. However, the current rush toward electrification has left the Toyota looking rather on-point in the powertrain department, especially when you consider that the brand has recently dropped the 1.2-litre pure petrol alternative.

The C-HR was originally conceived for Europe exclusively but has since been seized upon by a raft of other markets – most notably Japan – as an essential and presumably desirable part of the brand’s line-up over the next decade.

Is it deserving of that kind of recognition?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Toyota C HR 2021 RT hero side

The apparent determination of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda to take the shackles off the designers for the C-HR is to be applauded.

With the smart C-HR, Toyota banished the visual drudgery of the old Toyota Auris, while at the same time setting the tone for the curvaceous Toyota Corolla, among others. The distinctive crossover has been key in changing buyers’ perception of the Toyota brand, which for too long majored on the stolid and sensible.

Our test car caused admirers to stop us and demand to know what it was. And which was the last Toyota to do that?

Whether or not the stylists succeeded in their aim is open to interpretation, but there’s no question that the Coupé High-Rider, to give the Toyota its full name, represents a proper swing for the fences.

The indulgence of the coupé part of the equation – that swooping roofline and rear three-quarter – is enough to ensure that the model gives up some practicality to a raft of crossover-shaped opposition, a fact that Toyota acknowledges with the assertion that it is targeting a customer chiefly driven by “emotional considerations” with this car.

But are we to expect this mash-up of a crossover to be as exciting to drive as it is to look at? It isn’t clear.

The C-HR’s powertrain – a familiar tie-up of Atkinson-cycle petrol engine and electric motor assistance – is the very latest iteration of the Toyota hybrid, meaning that it is lighter, sharper, more powerful and more efficient than before, with a CO2 output as low as 110g/km.

But the hybrid’s familiar calling cards are smoothness and economy, rather than the mid-range punchiness that is so often the hallmark of the diesel-powered compact crossover.

There’s a choice of 1.8-litre and 2.0-litre displacements for the internal combustion element of the drivetrain, The former delivers a system total of 121bhp with the aid of 53kW electric motor. For the larger unit there’s a bigger 80kW motor that helps provide an all-in output of 181bhp. There’s also more torque with the 2.0-litre (140lb ft plays 105lb ft) although it’s delivered at a heady 4400rpm. 

As with the Toyota Prius, the C-HR drives its front wheels through the familiar Hybrid Synergy Drive transmission. Effectively a continuously variable set-up, but rather than a series of belts it uses a planetary gearset to balance the inputs from both the electric motor and internal combustion engine.

The C-HR shares the GA-C variant of Toyota’s new TNGA modular architecture with the Prius, along with its front MacPherson struts and rear double wishbone suspension, although it gets a slightly shorter wheelbase and wider tracks. Toyota also says the underpinnings enable the car to have a lower centre of gravity than any direct rival.

INTERIOR

9 Toyota C HR 2021 RT dashboard

Despite its lower-than-the-average-crossover hip point, the C-HR still has a driver’s seat that you slide directly on to rather than bending down to access it.

The A-pillars and roofline trace quite close to your head as you sit at the wheel, so this isn’t a car to recommend to a particularly tall driver.

I never knew a cupholder could make me so happy, but the C-HR’s are genius: teardrop-shaped, beautifully illuminated and deep

Head room is even more limited in the back, but leg room is generous enough in both rows. For a smaller adult or teenager sitting in the back seats, the high and tapering window line will make it feel more claustrophobic than it really is.

We can perhaps afford to leave reservations about the C-HR’s practicality to one side, though, given that this car is aiming to appeal for its sense of style rather than outright space.

And having done that, we’re left with a fairly comfortable, entirely pleasant, solidly built and consistently well-finished interior that shows evidence of thoughtful design and the same stylish flourish that distinguishes the exterior.

An asymmetrical fascia is a time-honoured trick for making a car feel instantly driver-focused, and the C-HR’s similarly-designed layout runs beyond the waterfall stack to the centre console below.

Above, the integration of an 8.0in infotainment screen as a protrusion from the dashboard has allowed Toyota to keep the car’s fascia volumes low and preserve a sense of space up front.

Toyota has used plenty of high-gloss piano black plastic as interior decoration, about which we’re ambivalent. It’s very eye-catching and on trend but shows up dust and fingerprints.

In front of and behind the gear selector are deep, teardrop-shaped cupholders whose clever design more easily admits a mug with a handle than a round one will, and under the centre armrest is an equally deep storage cubby with a 12V power outlet contained within.

The one thing you can’t miss in here is the effort made by Toyota to ensure a high-quality material finish. The tactile quality of the C-HR’s switchgear, its careful location and its designed look is sufficiently impressive that the car could probably pull off a Lexus badge without too much trouble.

Even the entry Icon comes with a full array of driver aids in the form of Toyota Safety Sense 2, which includes autonomous braking, pedestrian detection and adaptive cruise control. There are also LED headlamps and dual zone climate control.

Infotainment and sat-nav

The 8.0in Toyota Touch 2 infotainment system is standard equipment on this £26,890 model, and includes Apple CarPlay and and Android Auto, as well as a reversing camera and DAB radio. 

Design trim adds the Toyota Touch 2 with Go system that uses the same-sized screen but also brings with it online connectivity options that work through your smartphone’s data connection and add real-time traffic information via TomTom.

It also gives you Google Street View and allows you to browse fuel prices, weather reports and parking availability at your destination. The navigation mapping isn’t displayed in brilliant detail and the system isn’t particularly quick to respond to fingertip inputs. We’d still prefer an auxiliary input device.

Also featured on the Design are upgrades such as heated seats, keyless entry and ambient interior lighting. There’s also a handy hands-free self-parking system and front and rear parking sensors.

At the top of the range are the luxurious Excel and the more racily designed GR Sport. The former gets leather trim for the seats, a heated steering wheel and adaptive LED headlamps. For the GR Sport there’s a subtle body kit, 19-inch alloys and an interior that’s gets perforated leather for the steering wheel and a smattering of red stitching.

Both these models are available with Toyota’s optional JBL premium audio system, which has 10 speakers and 576 watts of power and comes as part of the £1595 Premium Pack. It sounds strong but not outstandingly so, particularly by the standards of premium brands.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

14 Toyota C HR 2021 RT engine

Toyota’s modern petrol-electric hybrid driving experience is now sufficiently well established that time at the wheel of the C-HR is unlikely to surprise or bemuse a great many UK drivers.

But it’s disappointing that in 1.8 form this particular car conforms so closely to that dry, plodding, one-dimensional Toyota hybrid type, given that it has been designed and engineered in so many other ways to represent a bolder and more exciting take on the crossover.

It feels very stable and secure through faster kinks

It wouldn’t have taken much, surely, for the C-HR’s hybrid powertrain to create a more athletic impression than the rather more upgright crossovers it’s up against: the Nissan Qashqai, Seat Ateca and Renault Kadjar for instance. Given the strides Toyota showed with the current Prius, which shares the C-HR’s hybrid powertrain, that didn’t feel like such an unrealistic expectation before we drove the car.

But the C-HR is not only relatively slow but also feels reluctant. The powertrain has Eco, Normal and Power modes, as Toyota hybrids tend to, and part of the problem is that they’re switched not via a button on the centre console (as they have been on every hybrid Toyota we can remember) but via the drive computer and the buttons on the steering wheel spokes. So you can drive for a long while without realising that there’s a way to mitigate the deadness of the accelerator pedal’s initial travel.

In outright terms, it’s only about a second that the car gives up to its rivals on 0-60mph acceleration and half as much again on 30-70mph sprinting. But given that you have to flatten the pedal to make the C-HR feel like it’s picking up speed with any urgency whatsoever, you’d guess the difference was much greater.

Toyota persists with its policy of blending regenerative braking in with friction braking as you progress through the pedal’s initial travel, making the brakes feel spongy at times and overly sensitive at other times. But at least familiarity takes the edge off that problem.

RIDE & HANDLING

15 Toyota C HR 2021 RT on road front

You may have read elsewhere that the C-HR is the first ‘normal’ car to be based on Toyota’s all-important new TNGA architecture.

That is to assume that the Toyota Prius isn’t a ‘normal’ car, with which we’d disagree: there has never been a more normal-feeling Prius than there is right now.

Grippy chassis and well-weighted steering make it easy to get the car around hairpins

It’s true, though, that the C-HR uses modular underpinnings that will benefit almost every new small Toyota from here on in – and that they also promise great strides for the way those hatchbacks, saloons, crossovers and estates will ride, handle and steer.

The C-HR has close, progressive ride control, crisp handling responses, good lateral adhesion and well-balanced grip levels. It rides fluently and quietly, keeping constant close tabs on excessive vertical body movement. And it steers with a very sophisticated meeting of weight and directness that gives you an instinctive command over the car’s position on the road and its direction along it.

The relatively low centre of gravity and sophisticated rear suspension pay dynamic dividends here, because they allow the C-HR to come by its sense of handling response and precision easily – without needing to fall back on unyielding springing, oversized wheels, beefed-up anti-roll bars or extra-firm bushing.

And so what’s pleasing about the way the car conducts itself around town, arcing around a motorway slip road and on a country lane is that it controls its mass very cleverly, stays balanced at all times and manages not to let any movement adversely affect the authority of its steered axle or the consistency of its grip level.

Can you enjoy driving the C-HR quickly? If you can overcome the discouraging need to squeeze every drop of available pace out of that hybrid powertrain, yes, absolutely.

The C-HR copes well when you fling it into a tight hairpin on a chilly winter morning. Slowing the car smoothly to the ideal entry speed and bleeding off the brakes as you turn in isn’t as easy as it should be, because the brake pedal is short on feel.

Even so, the car’s nose turns in keenly, its body settles quickly on its outside wheels and the chassis will even allow you to tighten your line mid-corner, such is its assured hold on the tarmac. Understeer is held off very well indeed.

On the exit of a corner, your line is often made untidy by the lack of progression to the accelerator pedal, which functions more like a switch than a pedal at times. Traction is generally strong, though, and the traction control system is dependable.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Toyota C HR 2021 RT hero front

With no conventional combustion engined model propping up the range (the 1.2-litre turbo was dropped some time ago), entry to the C-HR club is more costly than many rivals.

That said, the £26,890 starting price for an Icon-spec looks like decent but not outstanding value when you consider the generous amount of standard kit available.

A warm reception is predicted for the C-HR, which CAP expects to keep residuals higher than key competitors

As for economy, that is something the C-HR can be good at. On our fairly gentle touring economy test, it got within a hair’s breadth of 60mpg – better than pure petrol rivals that we’ve tested.

Changes to official testing methods in the form of WLTP have meant hybrids don’t look quite as clean on paper as they did. Even so, the 110gkm delivered by the 1.8-litre Icon model is lower than many equivalent and similarly powerful petrol rivals, while the 181bhp 2.0-litre emits only another 10g/km on top of this figure.

 

Although there are levels at which the C-HR’s generous kit count does make it look a bit pricey, the low CO2 emissions of the hybrid model should help to compensate for company car tax-paying fleet drivers (although not by as much as you’d think), and for those buying on a PCP, strong residual value forecasts should keep monthly costs sensible.

 

VERDICT

19 Toyota C HR 2021 RT static front

The Toyota C-HR is an interesting, refreshing and genuinely good addition to the crossover class.

The difference between ‘good’ and ‘very good’ for this car might have been a more rounded, big-selling engine.

Avant-garde crossover gets everything right apart from the engine

Toyota’s latest 1.8-litre hybrid powerplant would probably have struggled to motivate any car of this size and type, but throw it in one that’s cast as youthful and exciting and it’s way out of its depth.

And yet Toyota has impressed us with this car – wheezy, monotone powertrain and all. Creating a crossover that stands out for its dynamic sophistication is a tall order these days and getting tougher all the time.

Doing that on a vehicle that also so plainly shows the effect of time and effort lavished on its styling and cabin is an even greater feat.

Although it is not quite a class leader, the C-HR feels like the product of a giant of the global car industry getting out of its seat on the periphery of the European market to up the ante.

Although for now the C-HR is fifth on our list of crossovers, with the Cupra Formentor, Volkswagen T-Roc, BMW X2 and Mazda CX-30 all having the edge over the Toyota.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Toyota C-HR (2016-2023) First drives