2018 Toyota C-HR: Bold, youthful design hides mediocre cabin tech

In college, I remember an impromptu midnight trip up the coast with my newly-found dorm friends for a beach bonfire followed by hot-tubbing. Ah youth, when release gives way to myriad possibility. That youthful spirit of adventure infuses the 2018 Toyota C-HR, a mini-SUV sporting a bold design that sets itself apart from the more practical considerations of its stablemates.

With the C-HR's risky design, Toyota looks to embrace youth once again.

As someone who appreciates those who stand out from the crowd, I cheered the C-HR as it appeared in concept form at auto shows over the last couple of years, finally revealing its production version at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show. And then it was my turn to drive this punky little car during a Toyota-sponsored trip to Austin, Texas' quirkiest city.

2018 Toyota CH-R

The C-HR comes out with bold styling, although that approach is not uncommon in the compact SUV market.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

From the Los Angeles introduction, I came in knowing that a 2.0-liter four cylinder engine, making 144 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque, powered the C-HR. I also knew that Toyota would not offer all-wheel-drive, just front-wheel-drive, disappointing many.

However, countering expectations driven by those specs, the C-HR makes use of a new platform from Toyota, the same one that makes the new generation Prius actually drive like a real car. That platform uses MacPherson struts up front and a double-wishbone at the rear to make up the C-HR's suspension, components that generally lead to good driving dynamics.

A small hatchback with standard 18-inch wheels and a higher riding position than a typical car, the C-HR begins with Toyota design language at the front end, similar to the new Corolla and Camry. From there, things get a little crazy. The headlight casings stream down the robust front fenders, a deep contour line swoops up the rear fender to meet the down-curving roofline, and a slotted spoiler hangs over the hatch.

Although the strong design of the C-HR invites comparisons to the Nissan Juke, folks I talked to thought the Toyota didn't look quite as goofy.

2018 Toyota CH-R

The C-HR marks Toyota's entry into the compact SUV segment, expected to be increasingly popular.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

Reflecting the diamond profile of the C-HR's side, the interior designers put diamond-shaped imprints in the door panels and headliner. That unique styling drops down to earth with hard plastic trim pieces around the cabin. Looks aside, the cloth-covered, manually adjustable front seats offered well-padded comfort, while headroom proved adequate in the front and rear.

The C-HR may look like the automotive equivalent of gauged ear lobes, but the dashboard electronics feel a little more like Grandpa's clock radio. Only one USB port graces the cabin and the 7-inch touchscreen in the dashboard merely shows digital audio and a hands-free phone interface. The C-HR lacks navigation, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. The six-speaker sound system offers no subwoofer nor LED ambient lighting effects, like you can get in the Kia Soul.

Once behind the wheel, however, I forgot my disappointment in the C-HR's cabin electronics. True to my expectations for the platform, the C-HR felt solid, with engine, transmission, steering and suspension all working in harmony.

The C-HR's continuously variable transmission (CVT) metered out the 2.0-liter engine's modest power in a linear and predictable manner. Punching it created a turbine-like whine, surprising considering the naturally-aspirated engine. The acceleration, while not breathtaking, felt adequate for most traffic maneuvers, although I would be careful about passing on two-lane highways.

2018 Toyota CH-R

Although the 2-liter engine isn't overly powerful, the C-HR exhibits solid driving dynamics.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

To select Eco, Normal or Sport modes, I had to dig into the instrument cluster display, suggesting the average driver won't be changing them. And frankly, I noticed only minor differences in the throttle mapping for each one.

The CVT, which uses bands instead of fixed gears to minutely adjust drive ratios, worked seamlessly. Although likely chosen to aid fuel economy, the result of 27 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway is only middling.

Traversing the twisty roads of Texas hill country, I made use of the CVT's manual mode, letting me choose from its seven virtual gears to keep the power up in the turns. Here the C-HR's suspension showed its worth, delivering composed handling. The electric power steering assumed a bit more heft at greater speed, and I felt a little rotation as the car negotiated turns at speed.

Coupled with reasonably good handling, the C-HR felt comfortable in more sedate driving, its dampers doing an excellent job of soaking up the road.

2018 Toyota C-HR

Along with a set of solid colors, Toyota will offer the C-HR in three colors with a white roof overhead.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET Roadshow

The big bonus for C-HR comes from Toyota's decision to equip all its cars with its Toyota Safety Sense driver assistance package, a collection of safety features using camera and radar to automatically brake before a collision and warn drivers of lane drifting. On top of that standard package, the C-HR also incorporates standard adaptive cruise control, which automatically matches the speed of slower traffic ahead, and can bring the car to a complete stop.

The emphasis on safety tech, and the lack of modern dashboard electronics, belies the youth-orientation of the C-HR. Its looks may be risky, but the driving experience certainly is not. And given that youthful buyers may need parental help for financing, Toyota may have hit on the perfect combination of youth and responsibility.

The Toyota C-HR comes out as a 2018 model year car in two trims, XLE and XLE Premium. Pricing comes in at $22,500 for the former, $24,350 for the latter, with the car hitting dealers in April of this year. Given the extensive standard equipment for the C-HR, don't expect to jack up the price with options.

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