The future is here, and it’s not lower, not wider, not sleeker, and not faster, and it wears ridiculous taillights. Look past its robot Donkey Kong styling and the 2018 Toyota C-HR is the vehicular embodiment of lazy conventional wisdom as the second decade of the 21st century dissolves away. It’s not bad, but it’s not trying, either. It’s okayish by default.
Now that trunks are swiftly being eradicated like smallpox, the C-HR is naturally a five-door thing like a crossover, except that all pretense of off-road ability—including even optional all-wheel drive—has gone AWOL. It sort of fills the slots that Toyota used to populate with both the larger Venza and the smaller Scion xD, with a shout-out to the Matrix. The letters stand for Coupe (though it isn’t one) and High Rider (though it doesn’t ride all that high). As such, it’s a philosophical rejection of the boxy-box Scion xB aesthetic that once seemed destined to endure and now survives only in the Kia Soul.
The C-HR is essentially Toyota’s interpretation of the Nissan Juke with a hyphenated nudge to the Honda HR-V. It’s bigger than either of those—the 103.9-inch wheelbase exceeds the Juke’s by 4.3 inches, and its 171.2-inch overall length is 8.8 inches longer. Like those competitors, it includes similar features such as high-mounted rear door handles and a foreshortened tail. And somewhat like the Juke, the C-HR has the profile of a crouching chimpanzee.
Ordinary to an Extreme
Under that crouching-monkey exterior is a mechanical package of astonishing ordinariness. The C-HR is structured around the same Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) that underpins current Prius models. It’s likely that the next Corolla will share much of this CUV’s basic engineering when it appears soon.
It’s a unified structure supported atop a strut front suspension and a control-arm setup in the rear, the latter being fairly progressive for the class. The rack-and-pinion steering is electrically assisted, the anti-lock brakes are ventilated discs in front and solid discs out back, and the engine is positioned transversely up front driving a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Consider every small-car conventional-wisdom box checked.
Propulsion comes courtesy of a 2.0-liter member of Toyota’s now decade-old ZR four-cylinder engine family. It has dual overhead cams, 16 valves with variable timing, and a relatively long stroke. But it is rated at just 144 horsepower way up at a screaming 6100 rpm. The torque peak comes at a more reasonable 3900 rpm, but there’s only a meager 139 lb-ft. This is an unpretentious and modest powerplant.
Modesty and unpretentiousness don’t, however, work well with a CVT. Generally speaking, CVTs operate best when lashed to modern turbocharged engines with a thick low end and a torque curve that starts down low and stays flat good and long. For example, the 174-hp turbo 1.5-liter inline-four that Honda installs in the Civic (as an upgrade to a 158-hp, 138-lb-ft 2.0-liter four) produces its 162 lb-ft of peak torque at only 1700 rpm and sustains it all the way to 5500 rpm. That car’s CVT doesn’t need to seek out higher engine speeds to find adequate grunt.
In contrast, the relatively peaky and not-very-generous torque curve of the C-HR’s naturally aspirated inline-four means that the CVT’s drive belt desperately hunts for thrust. And that results in a thrumming drone that is most irritating at full throttle.
By 2011 standards, the C-HR’s drivetrain is fine for a CVT. But for 2018 it feels, and sounds, painfully archaic. That said, there is a bit of fun to be found using the preprogrammed virtual gears accessed via the transmission lever, but it’d be easier if there were shift paddles behind the steering wheel. There aren’t. Although we suppose that, with this half-hearted attempt at manual shifting, it’s better half a heart than no heart at all.
A mere 144 horsepower will have a rough go at propelling 3286 pounds, no matter what the transmission. Throw a brick at the accelerator pedal and the C-HR dawdles to 60 mph in 11 seconds flat and completes the quarter-mile in 18.4 seconds at 79 mph. That’s using the M mode in the transmission; it’s marginally quicker—a relative term—than is the fully automatic mode. But it’s the lack of responsiveness in passing that adds some terror into the mix. It takes the C-HR a lackadaisical 7.5 seconds to groan from 50 to 70 mph. That’s at least a half-second slower than any of the six twerp-utes C/D compared in 2015. It’s a massive 1.8 seconds behind the 146-hp Mazda CX-3 Touring that won that comparo while also fighting the parasitic drag of an all-wheel-drive system. Clearly, the CVT murders what little performance potential there was in the C-HR.
At least it pays off in highway fuel economy. Although we measured 28 mpg in mixed use—1 mpg lower than the EPA combined rating—the C-HR recorded 37 mpg on our 200-mile highway fuel-economy test, a whopping 6 mpg better than the official highway estimate.
All C-HRs come wearing 18-inch wheels inside 225/50R-18 all-season tires, and their grip is all used up at 0.81 g on our skidpad, accompanied by severe understeer. The steering itself is light and the communication through the leather-wrapped wheel is surprisingly satisfying, but the overall result is a competent telling of an uninteresting story.\
Lots of Equipment per Dollar
Toyota offers the C-HR in two trim levels: the $23,495 XLE and the $25,345 XLE Premium (so the XLE part is kind of pointless, but whatever). It’s in the feature content for the buck that the C-HR shines most brightly. The XLE’s standard equipment list includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, projector-beam headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather on the steering wheel and shift knob, and a 7.0-inch centrally mounted touchscreen for displaying and controlling entertainment and communication systems. The XLE Premium, the one we tested, adds illumination for the visor vanity mirrors, blind-spot monitoring, heated cloth seats, a proximity key, fog lights, and lights in the side-view mirrors that project the C-HR logo on the ground alongside the front doors. The only option on the one we drove was $194 worth of floor and cargo mats.
But there are gaps in all that, too. Toyota’s Entune audio suite isn’t offered in the C-HR. The backup camera’s image doesn’t appear on the center screen; instead it’s in a little tiny square embedded in the rearview mirror. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also aren’t on the (nonexistent) options list. Navigation system? Use your phone, or just know where you’re going before pressing the start button. It seems as though Toyota couldn’t fully commit itself to the latest technology.
The C-HR’s cabin is sweetly detailed in piano-black plastic, but the available space isn’t expansive. The seats are perfectly shaped and supportive, although passengers in back will be squeezed and may knock noggins getting in beneath the sloping rear roof. That roof also impedes cargo space with the rear seats up—the Soul has fully 5 cubic feet more in that situation. The C-HR’s luggage volume is on the low end of class norms when the rear seats are folded (36 cubic feet), too, but they do go down flat. All U.S.-market C-HRs are assembled at Toyota’s plant in Sakarya, Turkey, and there’s no apparent compromise in material or assembly quality.
The C-HR is a Toyota, and that means, treated right, it might be reasonable to expect it will outlive you and several generations of your descendents. But this is a vehicle that deserves some mechanical engagement to go with its origami bumper covers and trendy countenance. If Koko the gorilla can learn sign language, this ape deserves some tricks of its own.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $25,539 (base price: $23,495)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 121 cu in, 1987 cc
Power: 144 hp @ 6100 rpm
Torque: 139 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 103.9 in
Length: 171.2 in
Width: 70.7 in Height: 61.6 in
Passenger volume: 84 cu ft
Cargo volume: 19 cu ft
Curb weight: 3286 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 11.0 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 33.8 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 48.6 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 11.8 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 5.5 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 7.5 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 18.4 sec @ 79 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 115 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
EPA combined/city/highway: 29/27/31 mpg
C/D observed: 28 mpg
C/D observed 75-mph highway driving: 37 mpg
C/D observed highway range: 480 mile