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Most people think of Toyota and think of reliability. They probably don't think about a really fun and enjoyable car. Maybe the word boring comes to mind instead.
As I found while reviewing the new 2017 Toyota C-HR XLE, however, you can find a lot of joy driving a Toyota.
If this car's any indication of the brand's newfound commitment to building fun cars again, they're off to a promising start.
Toyota CEO Akio Toyota has been adamant that he wants his company to build not just cars that people buy, but cars that people desire. Instead of generic styling that won't offend anyone, he's said in the past that he wants Toyota's brands to make cars that deeply appeal to some people, even at the risk of alienating potential buyers. He'd rather some love the designs and some hate them, then no one to care at all.
That's already come to fruition over in the Lexus camp, where the company's robo-carnivores are extremely attractive to me but hideously repulsive to my mom. Now, it appears they're trying to do the same to Toyota with cars like the CH-R and the new Camry.
It's immediately apparent that the CH-R is trying to stand out. The swept roofline, jutting chin and boomerang taillights are adventurous help define a shape not quite like any other crossover. I find it infinitely more likable because of this, as the endless parade of anonymous blobs out of the Trader Joe's parking lot gets tiring.
That's not to say there aren't growing pains. The headlights start in the grill and wrap most of the way up the hood, essentially dominating the entire front. And as hard as they try with tricks of the eye, Toyota is fighting the same uphill battle that faces all automakers in this segment: front-wheel drive subcompact crossovers are always going to look smushed, as their proportions are naturally off. Still, Toyota has done a much better job than most.
One of my favorite things about the CH-R is how Toyota has made budget materials feel and look more premium, keeping the experience upscale without inflating the $23,890 asking price.
For example, Toyota textured the hard plastic doors with diamond-shaped cuts to break up the blandness of the material. The piano black plastic that runs along the dash also gets some aesthetic support, as Toyota's mixed in some speckled colors that pop under sunlight. Small touches for sure, but they do a stellar job of classing up the cabin.
I can muster no warm feelings for the infotainment, which is provided by the same tacked-on display you'll find in the Toyota 86 or Corolla iM. It's a carryover that should have died with Scion. It's slow and looks dated.
It's confusing that the backup camera appears in a tiny display hidden in the rear-view mirror rather than the center screen. Toyota told me that was to save cost, but I can't figure out how putting a second screen in the mirror is cheaper than putting the video feed in the screen you already have. It's probably not a software problem, as the same head unit in the iM has the backup camera built in.
Lastly, the CH-R's back seat is a weak point. The raked styling and sloping rear end means that the windows in the rear are too slim and high-placed for passengers to comfortably see out of them. A nine-year old in the backseat will remind you about this more than once, based on my experience. It's also the first car she's ever asked me to move the front seat up in, and she's only a bit over four feet tall.
This was where the CH-R really surprised me. Traditionally, Toyota doesn't focus much on making its cars fun to drive. Luckily, this time the bosses had their chassis engineers working overtime. The CH-R is surprisingly light on its feet, with remarkably precise handling. I'd love a bit more communication through the wheel, but it's a subcompact crossover and I'll take what I can get.
The engine isn't all too exciting and lacks turbo- or supercharging. More notably, the CH-R's only gearbox option is a CVT that drains much of the fun out of country road storming. In classic CVT fashion, the engine sound doesn't match up to what you're actually feeling. You could be accelerating furiously, but the engine is already at its best RPM so the transmission will works it magic and leave the motor droning away and spoiling the fun.
The CH-R comes with Toyota Safety Sense P, the company's suite of active safety equipment. Automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, lane keeping assist and full-speed radar cruise control all come standard on every CH-R. This stuff saves lives, and I'm happy Toyota's shipping it with nearly every car they sell these days.
Every adult who saw the CH-R was surprised when I told them it only costs $23,890, especially with all of the active safety features, automatic climate control and Bluetooth controls that come with it.
Pay $25,740 for the XLE Premium and you'll add push-button start, blind-spot monitors, rear cross traffic alerts and more. That's quite a value for a small SUV, especially one that hit 31 miles per gallon no matter how hard I beat on it.
The only real negative in the value equation is the limited options. That XLE Premium model is the highest-spec one you can get, and you still won't find satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, leather or even a sunroof. This car was originally supposed to be a single-spec Scion model, and it shows.
If you don't care about those extra features and want a small crossover, the C-HR is an excellent choice. I think it's the best looking car in the segment and definitely looks more expensive than it actually costs. It has the legendary Toyota reliability backing it, along with a chassis that actually allows you to have fun.
It's not anything bordering on sporty and it's not perfect, but it's a darn good effort and a great car.
Driving experience: 4
Price as configured: $23,890