Echoes of a past Toyota in C-HR baby-SUV
It's hard to imagine now, but back in the 1990s supermini-sized cars were a dull, unappealing lot. Cheap boxes for city and fleet driving, nothing more.
One of the cars that really changed that was the Toyota Echo, launched in NZ in 1999 to replace the Starlet. It was really the first supermini that looked and felt like a truly desirable product.
There was a cool Kiwi-produced television advertisement (remember when people watched TV? Sooo-1990s) portraying the Echo as the Pied Piper, but Toyota NZ also offered an incredible array of very distinctive accessories for its small-car star. You could customise away with contrasting spoilers, exterior trim elements and bright interior colours. And people did.
TNZ would like to think of the new C-HR as today's Echo. After all, SUVs are the new hatchbacks, it certainly looks striking and it is available with a massive catalogue of Echo-style accessories - most of which are reasonably priced, meaning you can go crazy ticking boxes without racking up a huge bill.
Our test car pictured here wears everything from $243 mirror covers to $2232 machined alloy wheels. Ten individual items in total, totalling $5279.
But there are a couple of problems with C-HR's supposed game-changing status. First, Toyota is really late to the party with C-HR, so it's following rather than leading. There are already plenty of fashion-forward baby-SUVs to choose from, including the acclaimed Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V (a car with which the C-HR seems to share a few styling cues).
Second, there's more style than substance in the C-HR. I really, really, really wanted to like this car and on paper it looks brilliant. Underneath the in-your-face styling (which is not to all tastes, making it even better/braver) there's Toyota's brand-new global platform and a 1.2-litre turbo engine.
The equipment looks good, too. Being a new-generation model it has the suite of Toyota Safety Sense equipment, including Pre-Crash System, Lane Departure Alert with steering assistance, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (more sophisticated than the system in some Lexus models) and Automatic High Beam headlights.
In addition, you also get Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Trailer Sway Warning. That last item is kinda cute: our test vehicle had the $1375 towbar option, but of course being pint-sized the C-HR only hauls 600kg braked. Still, if your garden trailer starts weaving, the C-HR's electronics will be on it.
So what's the problem? It's just not that much fun, thanks largely to the continuously variable transmission (CVT). There's nothing wrong with a decent CVT for a small car, but the C-HR's seems to really struggle with the little engine's modest power and torque. A seven-step mode does give you more control over the revs, but it still flares and fusses far too much.
It's not all bad: the chassis is actually excellent, and if you're prepared to be a little brave the C-HR is capable of carrying significant speed through tight corners, which means you can make the most of the engine's linear power delivery on a light throttle and spare yourself the CVT-pain.
The other issue is practicality. True, this is really just a city car for one or two occupants, but it's fair to expect some degree of passenger-friendliness in an SUV, isn't it? The rear seats are spacious enough but there's zero visibility out those letterbox-sized side windows. Nor can the driver see much during reversing or lane-changing.
The cabin is corporate-Toyota, which is not bad thing. The company has evolved quite an interesting cabin-design template with lots of layering and a variety of textures.
The C-HR also embraces the current fashion for tablet-style display/touch screens, and this one is more integrated into the dashboard than the likes of the Corolla's "look I stole an iPad" unit.
If only the technology acknowledged current fashion as well. The sat-nav with Suna traffic information is excellent but the operating system looks and feels old-school clunky. Toyota still steadfastly refuses to be a joiner with phone projection technology such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Apparently it's developing its own. Mistake.
There's a lot to like about the C-HR and if you're locked into the Toyota world, as so many are through either personal allegiance or business/fleet association, then something this interesting is a godsend.
But it does also seem like something of a wasted opportunity: when you park the C-HR, lock it and walk away you don't give it a second thought. That certainly wasn't the case with the old Echo.