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First Drive: 2018 Toyota C-HR

Welcome to the subcompact party

AUSTIN, Texas — Great, now the gang's all here. Subcompact crossovers are popular in a very, very big way, and we've been waiting for quite a while to see what Toyota had in store for the segment. It's still a land rush at this point, but the competition is fierce, with offerings from Honda, Mazda, and Kia already commanding a large chunk of the market. When the offer to drive the new 2018 Toyota C-HR came in, we jumped at the chance to discover what it has to offer in the blossoming segment.

If the funky design of the C-HR seems a bit at odds with Toyota's contemporary ethos, there's a good reason for the angularity. Initially, the C-HR was developed for Scion as a much needed boost for the flagging nameplate. Too little, too late, it seems; the decision to pull the plug was made before the crossover materialized and the C-HR was absorbed into Toyota like the Scion FR-S, iA, and iM. Of course, it wasn't too hard to scrape the Scion badges off - the car still would've worn Toyota badges in every market outside the U.S.

In person, the odd bodylines work. C-HR stands for Coupe-High Rider, and if you squint hard enough from a distance, it hides the rear doors fairly well. The Scion DNA is definitely still there, but this is a segment with fairly young buyers, so standing out from the rest of Toyota's SUV offerings might not be so bad.

Size-wise, the C-HR rides the line between segments and a wheelbase just 0.8-inches shorter than that of its RAV4 sibling. Aimed at yanking sales away from B-Segment mainstays like the aforementioned Honda HR-V, the C-HR is underpinned by the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that made its debut with the fourth-generation Prius and boasts slightly larger proportions inside and out than its rivals.

U.S. buyers will be offered just one powertrain available at launch, Toyota's 2.0-liter 3ZR-FAE four-cylinder. In the C-HR, it makes 144 hp and 139 lb-ft of torque, which is routed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. This is adequate for puttering around town and reaching highway speeds, but you won't be breaking the tires free even if you punch it on a backroad. Power is on par with the base engines found in most segment siblings, but short of the competition's premium engine options, some of which produce 20 - 60 more hp than the Toyota.

If you're wondering where the all-wheel-drive variant is, keep dreaming. According to Toyota, to keep weight down, a decision was made to make the U.S.-spec C-HR front-wheel-drive only. Other markets have an AWD C-HR variant available, alongside an alluring hybrid model.

This sluggishness isn't lost on Toyota and, to compensate, the engineering team worked tirelessly fine-tuning the chassis. The chief engineer of the C-HR program was rightfully proud of how much chassis development was done on and around the Nurburgring, and how confident he was in the car. On paper, it's all there - the C-HR has a MacPherson front and double wishbone rear suspension along with relatively thick anti-roll bars. Toyota says this all adds up to make the C-HR the best handling entry in the segment - a title most often lost on Toyota's other cars.

Out on the surprisingly twisty backroads of Texas Hill Country, the time invested on the 'Ring shines through the fog from the lazy powertrain. It's stable, forgiving, and genuinely enjoyable to huck around. The electric-boosted steering errs on the light side, but you're never left wondering what the front wheels are doing. We're not sure it beats out the Mazda CX-3 for smiles, but the C-HR is at least a convincing runner-up.

Inside, Scion's revenant still lingers. Quirky trim pieces and interesting dash design match the eye-catching exterior while the mixture of cloth, leather, and plastic is what you would find throughout the Toyota lineup. In keeping with the Scion bloodline, the C-HR is available in only two trims: XLE and XLE Premium. Standard kit is fair, including leather-wrapped steering wheel, backup camera, and two-zone climate control. Step up to the XLE Premium and heated front seats, power driver's seat, and keyless entry with pushbutton start are added.

Things get wonky when you arrive at pricing. The C-HR XLE starts at $23,460, hopping up to $25,310 for the XLE Premium. The average base price of the compact crossover segment comes out to just over $18,700, a $4,700 deficit compared to the C-HR. It's true, the C-HR arrives with a chunk of standard features, but that gives competitors a fair bit of breathing room for options.

Despite this, the C-HR still makes a great deal of sense for Toyota. The C-HR will fit the bill for buyers looking for storage and utility, but want something between the Toyota Corolla iM hatchback and the RAV4 SUV. On the other side, for those who require the increased space but desire the driving dynamics of a car, the spunky C-HR is ready to serve.

In the end, we're glad to see market gaps being filled. The 2017 Toyota C-HR is an enjoyable entry in a burgeoning segment — and is a necessary model for the brand. Despite a handful of remediable drawbacks, the C-HR is still one of the best-driving and sharpest-looking offerings from Toyota.

2018 Toyota C-HR Specifications

ON SALE April 2017
PRICE $23,460 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/144 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 139 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 27/31 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 171.2 x 70.7 x 61.6 in
WHEELBASE 103.9 in
WEIGHT 3,300 lb
0-60 MPH N/A