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2019 Toyota C-HR Test Drive Review: A Dip Into Sporty Waters

Test Drive / Comments

Don't say Toyota cars are boring anymore.

Tired of hearing that his company's cars were boring, president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, told his employees to stop building boring cars and to start building interesting ones. The result? Well, it's the 2019 Toyota C-HR, proof that Toyota is capable of taking an interesting concept and turning it into reality.

The C-HR started off as a concept car back in 2014, and the production version manages to stay remarkably true to its roots. Its name has three meanings, including Compact High Rider, Cross Hatch Runabout, and Coupe High Rider, so choose your favorite and stick with that. Whatever you want to call it, the C-HR stands out as the most interesting vehicle in Toyota's SUV and crossover range.

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To find out what the car is like, Toyota kindly provided a 2018 C-HR finished in an eye-catching shade of Emerald Green with the optional Iceberg White roof. Unfortunately, a 2019 model wasn't available, so I will attempt to point out some of the differences between the two model years. Chief among them is a new head unit with Toyota's Entune 3.0 system and new pricing - I'll get into the specifics later, but the 2019 update essentially fixed any issues I had with the C-HR.

Throughout the week, it became clear that the C-HR isn't like most Toyota cars. It didn't blend into the background, rather, it became a topic of discussion everywhere I went. The extreme styling and wacky color selection were either loved or hated among people I spoke to. More than any other car I've tested, the C-HR may be the most polarizing, with people either adoring it or calling it the ugliest car they'd ever seen.

Unlike the onlookers, I sit somewhere in the middle in regards to the C-HR's styling. I think the front end could use a little work - a larger grille would be a good start, as the painted front end became smattered with bugs after a few trips on the highway. The rear is much better, reminiscent of extreme hot hatchbacks like the Honda Civic Type R. Sometimes SUVs with a sloped rear end can be tough to see out of but the C-HR manages to avoid losing any visibility.

Emerald Green won't be offered for 2019, but Toyota will still offer some interesting colors in its place. Too bad people will likely go with something boring. This wild shade of green may not be for everyone but come on people, I'm begging you, stop filling our roads with boring white, black, and silver and order a color!

Thanks to its diminutive stature, C-HR competes in the rapidly growing sub-compact SUV segment, which is quickly replacing all of those hot hatchbacks that automakers don't want to sell in the US anymore. Other vehicles in this segment include the Ford EcoSport, Jeep Renegade, Kia Soul, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3, and Nissan Kicks and Rogue Sport. Many of these competitors are larger than the C-HR but lack its distinctive styling. The Kicks comes close and the Kona also comes in some vibrant colors, but the C-HR sits on a tier of its own when it comes to style.

Pricing for the C-HR is the first big difference between the 2018 and 2019 model years. My 2018 tester was an XLE Premium - the top trim for 2018 - with an MSRP of $24,350 and as-test price of $26,434. For 2019, Toyota has brought the price down and added new trim levels. The base LE trim starts at $20,945 and still includes LED daytime running lights, dual-zone automatic climate control, Entune 3.0 with Apple Car Play compatibility, and Toyota Safety Sense with pre-collision warning, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, road sign assist, and adaptive cruise control (that only works at cruising speeds).

Stepping up to the XLE trim (which is essentially the same as my 2018 XLE Premium test car) for $22,980 adds 18-inch wheels, heated seats, blind spot monitoring, auto-folding mirrors with puddle lights, in-cabin pollen filtration, smart key with push-button start, leather trimmed steering wheel with Bluetooth controls, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Toyota has also added a new Limited Trim for $26,000 that adds leather seating with power front seats, automatic wipers, and Entune Premium Audio. I'd easily skip the leather seats in the Limited trim and opt for the more affordable XLE trim, which is now over $1,000 cheaper for the 2019 model year. In terms of value, the C-HR doesn't offer the most bang for the buck in the segment. The Nissan Kicks is over $2,000 less expensive and achieves far better fuel economy, but lacks the driving character of the C-HR.

Much of the reason for the lackluster fuel economy ranking of 27/31/29 mpg city/highway/combined is due to the C-HR's portly curb weight of around 3,300 pounds. That's as much as many cars in the compact class and more than its competitors even when equipped with all-wheel-drive, which isn't even available on the C-HR. The Nissan Kicks tips the scales at less than 2,700 pounds and even an all-wheel-drive Honda HR-V only weighs 3,100 pounds.

Though the C-HR's 2.0-liter four-cylinder producing 144 horsepower and 139 lb-ft of torque is fairly average for the class, its nearly 11-second 0-60 mph time can be blamed on the excess weight. We'd love to see a 2020 refresh with the new 168-hp engine from the Corolla hatchback.

Despite what the numbers may suggest, driving dynamics are where the C-HR excels. It's not on par with my favorite car in the segment, the 201-hp Kia Soul Turbo, but in terms of chassis and steering feel the C-HR can hold its own against almost all of the vehicles in this segment. Toyota has done wonders with the chassis, as body roll is manageable and even with 18-inch wheels the ride comfort is extremely pleasant.

The car does understeer at the limit, but this is understandable for a non-sport-oriented compact SUV. We've seen Toyota transform the C-HR into a 600 hp front-wheel-drive track monster, but that was only a one-off build to show off at SEMA. I would love to see Toyota dip more than just a toe into sporty waters and give the C-HR the power it deserves. With more aggressive tires, around 200 hp, and a six-speed manual, the little crossover would be sublime.

As it sits, the C-HR isn't a huge step forward in eliminating Toyota's boring car persona. Clearly, when Mr. Toyoda told his employs to build more interesting cars, the first example was meant to test the water. That's what the C-HR feels like, Toyota's first effort to prove that it can build an interesting looking car, without taking a risk on a performance car that could potentially flop.

Even with just 144 hp, the C-HR is fun to drive. That power is mated to a continuous variable transmission, which I typically hate. This one is tuned extremely well and has seven pre-selectable gear ratios. I'd be lying if I said the transmission feels sporty when driven hard, but drive it sensibly and it does a fantastic job of feeling like a true automatic. Toyota even fashioned the gear lever out of a faux-metal material that looks great and feels nice to the touch.

The interior is a bit drab compared to the exterior, unless you opt for the brown leather on the limited trim. Other markets also receive brightly-colored trim pieces that really make the interior come alive. Despite having a low roofline, the C-HR's cabin doesn't feel too cramped, and there is a fair bit of storage for such a small vehicle.

Getting in the rear seat does require you to tilt your head, but once seated, there's a decent 38.3-inches of headroom. I had my grandmother attempt to sit in the back seat, and she was able to climb in without any problems -taller passengers may disagree. Legroom is also a fairly manageable 31.7-inches, but the middle seat is a tight squeeze. The only noticeable issue with the rear seats is visability. Due to the shape of the rear door, rear passengers need to lean forward to see out of the window because their head will rest next to a giant piece of trim.

Practicality is key when it comes to crossovers and the C-HR is far from the best. Storage behind the second row is 19 cubic feet and increases to 36.4 cubic feet with the seats folded. This lags behind segment leaders like the Honda HR-V, which has 23.2 cubic feet of storage with the seats up, and 55.9 cubic feet with the seats folded. Toyota has clearly made a decision to focus more on appealing to its consumer's hearts rather than their minds. Those sporty looks do come at the cost of storage space, but it could be a tradeoff that many buyers are willing to make.

Despite what the figures suggest on paper, the C-HR is a highly enjoyable experience. The styling is clearly subjective, so it will be up to you to decide if you love it or hate it. The biggest fault of this car was found in the dashboard, where one of the most basic head units in the auto industry previously sat. It was so basic, that even the backup camera was relegated to the rearview mirror, where it looked small and had poor resolution. Toyota is fixing this issue for 2019 by including its Entune 3.0 system as standard. It isn't the best system out there, but it is a massive improvement over the 2018 car. Knowing that Toyota has already addressed the infotainment and lowered what seemed like too high of a price, the C-HR is a Great Buy.