We honestly cannot remember the last time we raved — as in got properly excited — about a new Toyota. There was a time, but lately there is no denying that they basically make practical, reliable and, in many cases, affordable cars, but exciting, no. They are the essential motoring item, like the days of the map book or the London A-Z. You need them, but you don’t get excited about them.
The 86 was a bit of an exception and it came at a time when the president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, promised more exciting cars. We waited patiently.
Then along came this, the C-HR. Usually when anyone asks about a Toyota product, our response is like the old Fiat ad: “It’s nice.” Asked about the C-HR my response was: “It’s brilliant!”
And it is. It looks unlike any other Toyota, as though they fired the entire design team and drafted in a bunch of youngsters fresh from design school who all use Instagram and drink craft beer. It has edges and creases and hidden door handles. It has a frontal design that could be a superhero’s mask and a rear that looks like it wants to shake its tail in the face of a Honda Civic. Toyoda is putting his promise into action.
The interior does not quite echo the funky external styling though. The design is rather good but it is a bit of a compromise, avoiding anything like cool colours or trim features and instead sticking to black cloth and plastics. Toyota missed a trick here. But there is nothing wrong with it in terms of essential design and ergonomics.
The rear seats provide plenty of legroom, but headroom is compromised by that coupe-like roof line. Taller people are going to struggle slightly and they are definitely going to have to take care not to bash their heads while getting in or out.
An option would be to use the back seats for luggage. We say that only because you might find yourself having to. The boot space is terrible. It is 328l but honestly, it barely feels like more space than that in a Yaris and that’s tiny. A big reason for this is the inclusion of a full-size spare wheel — useful in SA, but not so necessary in Tokyo or London.
This all brings us to the drive. If I didn’t know better I would think Toyota had poached engineers from Mazda. Those guys know how to make a driver’s car. But they are not alone anymore because the C-HR is a superb drive.
It seems like someone who actually enjoys driving sat in a seat and designed the ergonomics around them. The driving position is excellent, the steering wheel is in the perfect place and holding the manual gearstick it feels as though the car has been engineered with the stick as the central point.
All of this could have been let down by a mediocre drive, but it isn’t. The C-HR is great to drive. The 1.2-litre turbocharged engine punches way above its weight. There is barely any turbo lag, helped no doubt by the fact that our test model was the six-speed manual version, and it pulls almost instantly. It takes 10.9 seconds to reach 100km/h but it feels so much quicker.
It is how it handles that provides the biggest surprise. The engine is punchy with a little torque steer that almost gives it a bit of a hot hatch feel. Play with the gears and the engine revs nicely, providing great response that makes the commute more fun than you would expect. Find an open road and the suspension soaks up most undulations well and while the steering is on the lighter side, you can really enjoy that Sunday drive.
In the world of the crossover or small SUV, the C-HR has come in like a breath of fresh air. It lacks the space of the more expensive Ford Kuga and loses out slightly to the Nissan Juke in the torque stakes, but it beats both in the cool looks department. It also beats the recently launched Hyundai Creta, which we were impressed with.
Well done to Akio Toyoda on fulfilling his promise. If the CH-R is anything to go by Toyota has exciting times ahead. – Mark Smyth
Fast Facts: Toyota C-HR 1.2T Plus
Engine: 1197cc four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 85kW at 5600rpm
Torque: 185Nm at 1500 to 4000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-100km/h: 10.9-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 190km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 6.3l/100km (claimed
Price: From R346 700