The crossover market is so dominant that some automakers will stretch their brand identities to include more crossovers in their lineup. Consider Toyota: for more than a decade, it has been a steady, unassuming, massively successful automaker. Their cars are safe, reliable, and predictable—the default standard for many car buyers. If Toyota cars were music, they’d be played in elevators.
So, it raises eyebrows when Toyota kicks a door in with an aggressive design. Even though the crossover market is crowded and heavily competitive, there’s always room for something new and different. When Toyota trotted out the C-HR in North America for 2018, it ticked “different” off the list immediately. Broad, low to the ground, yet trim and sleek from nose to haunches, the C-HR was an obvious departure from the conservative design concepts of the mega-selling RAV4 or Camry.
In its conception, the C-HR is an urban crossover: a small SUV/large hatchback for transporting people and a limited amount of their gear around cities and suburbs. Its dual nature—splitting the difference between hatchback and SUV—was obviously in mind when Toyota’s designers and engineers named the vehicle. If you settle in and do a little research online, you’ll find at least three explanations as to what its name represents. It might be Cross Hatch Run-About, Coupe High-Rider, Compact High-Rider, or something else entirely—take your pick.
What is this thing?
While Toyota lists the C-HR as a “subcompact crossover SUV,” a jury of any imaginary automotive court would unanimously judge the vehicle as a big hatchback. And that’s a good thing. Toyota already offers the RAV4, the Highlander, and the 4Runner—before the real beefy SUVs muscle up the line with the Sequoia and the Land Cruiser. The C-HR is another example of how the worlds of crossovers and hatchbacks are coming together. Their marriage all but wiped the station wagon from the market by offering the same level of functionality with more aesthetic appeal.
Toyota’s in-house info indicates the C-HR is based on the RAV4 Short Wheelbase version formerly available only in Asia. With the RAV4 already selling well in the US and wrestling with the Camry for the title of the automaker’s best seller, there was little call to confuse the issue by offering another domestic RAV4 variant. Instead, Toyota brought forth a machine aimed at its own class with a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine across three separate trim levels—the C-HR LE ($20,945), XLE ($22,980), and Limited ($26,000). The power plant puts out a lean 144bhp (107kW) and 139lb-ft (188Nm) of torque, but it’s enough to keep the pared-down C-HR moving along nicely.
Trimming the C-HR tree
The essential technical specs for all three trims of the C-HR remain the same, with the extra cash buying enhanced comfort and entertainment bells and whistles. All trims are front-wheel drive with electronic Toyota Direct Ignition (TDI). The C-HR rolls on MacPherson strut independent suspension setups with a stabilizer bar, coil springs, and hydraulic shock absorbers up front. Multi-link rear suspension includes coil springs, trailing arms, a stabilizer bar, and the same shock absorbers.
Electric power steering points the driver in the right direction. The whole package is brought to a stop with power-assisted brakes, ventilated up front and solid in the rear. Finally, all versions earn MPG marks of 27 city, 31 highway, 29 combined—utilizing adjustable driving modes of Sport, Normal, and ECO.
As a would-be buyer works up through the trim tree, they can add Toyota’s Entune infotainment and audio system with apps, a six-speaker sound system, eight-inch touch-screen, Apple Car Play, and a Verizon-powered Wi-Fi Connect option. Inside amongst the seats, buyers can choose between fabric, leather, or a blend of both.
The driving experience is clearly more hatchback than crossover. It’s quick and tight with enough power to get around its intended urban environment—and it will only serve well in civilized surrounds. While its styling suggests it might be aiming at the Subaru Crosstrek, the C-HR is not an off-road adventure vehicle. It exists to zip around over pavement and the occasional curb or railroad track. Its power plant and suspension would rather avoid fording streams or two-stepping over rocks.
Though hybrid versions are available in Asia and Europe, Toyota has yet to introduce such a model to the US market. Odds are the car builder is giving the gas-powered version a chance to breathe and gain a little traction in the market. If they keep the same styling and similar driving feel, a hybrid C-HR will offer a very appealing alternative to the Prius in years to come.