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Putting the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned to the Test at Willow Springs Raceway

Slow car fast meets fast car fast

When I got the invitation from Toyota to drive the C-HR and its raced-out R-Tuned sibling on track at Willow Springs Raceway, I couldn't help but jump on the offer, even if it meant getting up well before dawn to make the drive from BMW Test Fest in Palm Springs.

Before we could get into the hot 600-hp racing-spec C-HR, we first eased into our day at the track wheeling the pedestrian C-HR XLE and XLE Premium around Streets of Willow. It made for a great learner vehicle—the 144-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes peak power deep in the powerband at 6,100 rpm. We were able to get the small crossover up to a decent chuff but still have enough time between turns to take instruction from Toyota's racing drivers.

The road-going Toyota C-HR was the slowest car our friends at Motor Trend tested in 2017, taking an agonizing 10.8 seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph—and I had already experienced the compact crossover's glacial pace firsthand a few months ago. However, I found the C-HR made up for it lack of pace with great chassis control and steering feel—for a crossover.

When it comes time to take a turn, the C-HR handles with remarkable poise. There's little perceptible lean in the corner and chassis remains easy to control even as the skinnier tires neared their limit. It wasn't hard to keep the engine humming in its sweet spot as I kept the momentum up through the track.

After my week driving a 2018 Toyota C-HR XLE Premium tester on the road, I concluded although the car isn't the quickest, "the C-HR is fun to chuck through corners." My time in it at the track only corroborated this verdict, and it left the posse of journalists hosted by Toyota begging them to drop in a more powerful engine and a sportier transmission than the existing economy-oriented CVT.

In a sense, Toyota did just that by dropping us in the R-Tuned C-HR, which was built by Dan Gardner, creator of the DG-Spec performance brand and racing team. Gardner's team put 10,000 man-hours into the development of the R-Tuned car, and it only takes a quick glance to notice how different it is from the standard model. The initials "C-HR" may stand for "compact high-rider," but the R-Tuned version abandons this completely, sitting lower than most supercars.

Other modifications visible from the exterior include four-piston Brembo brakes up front, slick racing tires, and aero for days. Gardner says the car makes about 300 pounds of downforce thanks in part to a front splitter and a massive rear wing with an added Gurney Flap.

Look under the hood and there's an even bigger difference: a turbocharged 2.4L 2AZ-FE replaces the standard 2.0-liter naturally aspirated unit in the stock car. The CVT is gone too and instead the driver shifts gears through a Toyota E-Series 5-speed manual transmission. The Franken-car nature of the build continues with a powertrain that's a far cry from what one would find in a factory car. All this reworking is good for 600 hp and 550 lb-ft of torque.

To cope with the crazy speeds when it comes time to change direction, Gardner's team revised the entire suspension. This includes triple-adjustable remote reservoir racing coilovers up front and triple-adjustable remote reservoir racing aluminum body shocks in the rear.

How does all of this work on the track? Even though Gardner turned down the turbocharger boost for a power output of a little more than 300 hp, the C-HR R-Tuned is still a monster on the track. Power is still sent just through the front wheels, but torque steer remains absent even under full-throttle acceleration. I caned the lowered and lightened crossover through the turns of Big Willow with easy - it's an intuitive drive even though the performance is akin to the way I imagine the racecars of the European Touring Car series drive.

When it was time to hop out after my lap, Craig Stanton, my instructor, told me with a grin, "I wish I could drive with you all day." Not bad for my first time behind the wheel of a proper race car. Because I had kept my eyes trained on the upcoming apexes for the entirety of my drive, I never got a chance to check the speedometer, but given that I made it deep into fifth gear, I would guess I made it past 125 mph on the back straight. Not bad for a car that began life as a subcompact crossover.

Toyota brought a Nissan GT-R out to the track to drive home how hardcore Gardner's creation is. The Japanese supercar, while still enormously quick, felt flaccid and heavy in the corners. It was like lapping a 565-hp wet rag compared to the roll-cage stiffened super-crossover. Toyota has billed this project as a supercar killer, and although the C-HR R-Tuned would be less than ideal for daily driving, it proved its point at the track.

Gardner refers to the C-HR R-Tuned as being "Frankenstein but sophisticated" and after putting my foot to the floor on a race track I'm inclined to agree. He told our group of auto writers that his aim was to develop a project "built to go outside the SEMA convention center," and after allowing our group of enthusiasts to lap his baby around the track, I'd say he accomplished that goal.