STYLE STATEMENT: New Toyota CH-R arrives in Australia in late February with daring design, stunning cabin and excellent spec inclusions
STYLE STATEMENT: New Toyota CH-R arrives in Australia in late February with daring design, stunning cabin and excellent spec inclusions Iain Curry

Toyota C-HR compact SUV road test and review

TOYOTA is arriving at the hottest party in town fashionably late.

Said party is the small SUV segment which has seen unprecedented growth in Australia for the past few years. Think Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi ASX, Nissan Qashqai and Honda HR-V, but where's Toyota's player?

Countdown is on to a late February arrival in Australia for the brand's new baby SUV, the C-HR. Those letters stand for Coupe High Rider, and it is 25cm shorter, 15cm lower and 5cm skinnier than Toyota's current RAV4 mid-size SUV, but interestingly, the C-HR is a fair bit longer and wider than the successful first generation five-door RAV4  built from 1994-2000.

Built on Toyota's new global TNGA architecture as found on the latest Prius, the C-HR's centre of gravity is low to try and match the dynamics of hatchback offerings. Australia gets one engine - an 85kW/185Nm turbocharged 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol - a choice of manual or CVT auto gearboxes and in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive layout.

Australian Toyota dealers are already licking their lips in expectation for the new compact SUV, and we were able to test the Turkish-built left-hand-drive C-HRs in Spain ahead of the arrival in Australia of Japanese-built versions we'll receive in a few months' time.

Striking visuals

Toyotas are boring? Designers of the C-HR missed that memo.

Polarising the styling may be with its sea of creases, angles, curves and coupe-esque sloping roof line, but it could never be accused of being boring.

2017 Toyota C-HR pictured in Spain on its European launch
2017 Toyota C-HR pictured in Spain on its European launch Iain Curry

In the metal it looks long, chunky and with a sporting edge, with an incredible shape to the rear especially with tiny side rear windows, high-mounted door handles, a thick C-pillar that merges with the door and curved roof, plus a complex rear light extending far from the body work. 

You can option bi-tone paint (our test car suited its black roof over silver body), there's a giant roof spoiler and Australian cars score 17-inch wheels in entry level specification and 18-inch wheels for the range-topping C-HR Koba.

Un-Toyota cabin

Even if the body style doesn't do it for you, the interior is a triumph in anyone's eyes, not least for a Toyota playing in the small SUV segment.

Seats in our test car were leather accented and truly sink-in and premium in feel. The touch points too belied the Toyota badge with proper soft touch surfaces throughout, piano black for the centre console and dash strip and a sharp, dynamic and very modern diamond-shape design. Toyota calls the driver's side of the cabin its "Me Zone", nicely angling the touchscreen and heater controls towards the pilot.

Toyota C-HR small SUV. Photo: Contributed
Toyota C-HR small SUV. Photo: Contributed Sebastien Mauroy

The 8-inch touchscreen the Europeans score sadly won't make it into Australian cars (ours will be a tad smaller), while a funky blue strip that runs the length of the doors and dashboard also probably won't reach Aussie cars.

And while we're grumbling, Toyota still hasn't licensed Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for the C-HR, which may prove a sales stumbling block when the target market for this baby SUV is clearly the connected generation either young or young at heart.

Toyota CH-R small SUV.Photo: Contributed.
Pre-production right-hand drive cabin for Toyota C-HR

Impressive practicality

Toyota has worked wonders with cabin space for a car in this class. The boot offers 377-litres - ample for a small family's cargo such as a pram and bike - and a very wide boot opening will make loading easy.

Not only do the front passengers score head room belying the C-HR's compact nature, but rear travellers do too. There's literally acres above your head in the back, even for the middle seat, even if leg room is a tad cramped.

And while that funky rear body design gives exterior style, there's not much glass for rear passengers to enjoy. Claustrophobic kids beware.

2017 Toyota C-HR on location in Madrid, Spain
2017 Toyota C-HR on location in Madrid, Spain Iain Curry

Heavy specification

Europe scores three grades of C-HR but Australia has bagged just the top two, emphasising Toyota's wish to have this car seen as a premium choice in the compact SUV segment.

The full specification for Australian cars hasn't been confirmed, but we know all models receive Toyota's Safety Sense as standard. This is a huge win as it brings active systems such as pre-collision alert and brake assist, autonomous braking when a frontal collision is imminent, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering control, blind spot and rear cross traffic alert. Parking sensors and a reversing camera are also included.

Top-spec C-HR Koba (named after the car's chief engineer) models score heated seats and smart entry and start, plus no doubt a few other goodies when we know the full equipment list for Australia.

2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.
2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.

On the road

Toyota says it created the C-HR to be fun and confidence-inspiring with driving dynamics closer to respected hatchbacks like the VW Golf rather than typical higher-riding small SUVs.

On our Spanish test drive the C-HR proved a gem through Madrid traffic and urban roads, easily manoeuvring through tight spaces, and absorbing road imperfections very well indeed. Hitting bigger bumps was the only time the suspension felt in any way stiff, but never crashy.

Strapped in those cosseting seats the C-HR served just as it should: a comfortable riding, well insulated and very simple to drive SUV. As it will spend the bulk of its time being a swish urbanite, Toyota - as per usual - has nailed the remit.

Back road hero exploits won't be the C-HR's usual hunting ground, explaining why it's not a thrilling steer out of town. It is well balanced with decent grip, yes, but the steering feels very light with not a great deal of feedback.

2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.
2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.

It's not a quick car either - not that it needs to be really - the 1.2-litre getting the C-HR up to 100kmh in around 11 seconds. That said it's a zippy thing with the manual six-speed gearbox if you use it well, the turbo four-cylinder displaying decent pull once the revs creep into the fun zone.

But Toyota expects only 5% of Australian sales to be with a manual gearbox, which is a shame as the CVT auto gearbox - while more relevant and desirable for urban duties - is a whiny thing when pushed (the nature of seemingly all CVTs) and doesn't help back up the C-HR's sporting intentions.

No steering wheel paddles either robs you of eking any more sense of driver involvement from these CVTs, but to be fair, many buyers won't and shouldn't care a jot.

The lowdown

The C-HR could be something of a funkier turning point for Toyota, and is certainly not the vanilla small SUV it could have been existing only to chase sales. Instead, there's a decent dose of emotional involvement here.

It's a very bold design that bravely, and to my eyes successfully, stays true to its youthful and edgy concept design. Toyota is oft seen as a tad boring and predictable in its domination - like the automotive version of Michael Schumacher - but the C-HR is Toyota letting its hair down, much like its other design wins in the FJ Cruiser and 86 sports car.

A brilliant premium-feel cabin, notice-me exterior looks and strong on safety and specifications, the C-HR's a truly likeable thing, if not exactly living up to its sporting promise.

Toyota highlights the Nissan Qashqai as its chief rival - a car starting at $25,990 before on-roads. If the compelling C-HR is priced similarly (we'll know price details closer to its February launch date), then look out compact SUV class: Toyota's futuristic-looking extrovert could well be next season's must have.

2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.
2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.

Vital statistics

Model: Toyota CH-R.

Details: Four-wheel drive or front-wheel-drive compact SUV.

Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol generation maximum power of 85kW @ 5200rpm and peak torque of 185Nm @ 1500rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed manual or CVT automatic.

Consumption: From 5.5L/100km.

Performance 0-100kmh: From 10.9 seconds (FWD manual).

Bottom line: TBA, but predicted to be from approx. $25,000.

2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.
2017 Toyota C-HR compact SUV.

What matters most:

What we liked: Stunning cabin in terms of comfort, features, design and space; brave exterior design, comfortable ride, ease to drive, active safety features as standard.

What we'd like to see: Bit more steering feel to boost driver engagement, chassis could handle more power, CVT is whiny when pushed and needs steering wheel paddles, no Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will knock it off many buyers' shopping list in this segment.