2021 Toyota C-HR Nightshade
A Strangely Unconventional Offering from Corporate Convention
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Brands like Toyota are usually not known for taking risks. Simply put, they don't have to, not when they're the biggest automaker in the world. But Toyota has been on a design renaissance that would see 2005 Toyota boardroom time travelers call out heresy and threaten to burn at the stake. Today, most all Toyotas have edgy designs that show some excitement is harboring inside that corporate façade.
The C-HR is rather interesting, though, because it's based on a concept that debuted in 2014. In that sense, this could be one of the earliest examples of the design trend that has propelled Toyota these past few years. C-HR stands for Concept High Rider, but is unfortunately too close in name to Honda's equivalent, the HR-V. That aside, the C-HR is a compact crossover thing. I don't mean that harshly because the C-HR in my eye is actually good looking; It looks like a future Martian rover of sorts. It's a lot hard lines here and there, but somehow it looks crazy enough to be good. And that's the best part of the design, because this is 'safe Toyota' making a positively weird and crazy appearing machine. The Nightshade trim is new for 2021 and adds gloss black accent pieces to add more visual flair. In this Supersonic Red example, it does give a further and attractive bump in aesthetic tension. It also makes a Nissan Juke, another odd looking offering, look like straight regurgitation.
This design does have some drawbacks, namely being the interior space and visibility. From the driver's seat, checking over your shoulder takes several very concentrated takes to make sure you're not missing anything. Luckily, blind spot monitoring was included on this C-HR. The other issue is space, because with that raking and tapered rear, the cargo space that you'd expect on a crossover just simply isn't there. I think a Corolla actually can fit more in its trunk. At 173" long by 71" wide, it's not actually that compact on paper, the length being similar to an old BMW 3 series, but you wouldn't know it after ingress.
For a vehicle in this seriously attainable price bracket, interior materials are more than acceptable, though they do fall slightly behind that of a similarly priced Corolla. I'm glad this C-HR had a more pleasing steering wheel to grasp rather than the 40 grit sandpaper wheel that gets placed in other affordable offerings. There are some more funky elements to be found in its quest to be hip, such as a cubist texture on the door panels and some odd imprints on the headliner. I'm all about some creativity inside and so these obscurities are more than welcome. The seats are decent yet not anything worth writing home about, but rear seat space is definitely compromised from the exterior shape. For example, a friend's Honda HR-V has loads more room in both the back and cargo volume.
Performance is...poor. Actually no, it's not poor, it's frankly awful. 0-60 MPH happens in a beard-growing 10 seconds and 50-70 MPH an unsurprising 6.1 seconds. Uphill, that also stretches to 10. Yikes. A Honda HR-V definitely has more kick to it and so did the Hyundai Venue I tried earlier last year. Pulling away from traffic lights, the C-HR feels easily adequate in normal driving and accelerating, but the fact is if you decide to put the pedal to the metal, there is literally no change in acceleration. So basically, you're using almost max acceleration everywhere. Some blame can be put to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that acts as a defective plunger to the engine's flow to the wheels. The fact is that a modern 2.0L inline-four with dual-overhead cams should provide more momentum than this, and a measly 144 horsepower rating does no favors, but the frank explanation is that the C-HR is just too slow. The motor also sounds a bit thrashy at higher loads and suffers from some coarseness.
What the little tractor engine is good for is efficiency. I saw 38 MPG at 71 MPH on the freeway and my overall was fluctuating between 28 and 29. Even if the engine is working hard at basically all times to move you, it's not using much fuel. I seem to remember the range computer estimating under 300 miles of total range, though a 13 gallon tank should offer nearly 400 miles of range in mixed driving at my consumption. So the range is there, but the computer is extremely conservative and led me to believe the tank had but 10 gallons for capacity.
How's it drive? Adequate. Yes, adequate. There's not much to expect from this class of vehicle and this price point, but the steering is accurate (if numb), and body motions are mostly well-controlled and resists exhibiting bad behavior when testing it. It's just boring is all. The Hyundai Venue displayed a marked exuberance and desire for quicker driving on winding roads, and the C-HR failed to deliver those same unexpected thrills. It's plenty competent and shows the same consistency and progress as other recent Toyotas in regards to driving dynamics (last generation cars were woefully underwhelming), but it lacks the sense of fun that the daring exterior suggests.
In day to day driving and occasions, yes, the C-HR is more than fine. Road manners are benign and friendly and it's easy to drive, even at freeway speeds. Road noise is noticeable, yet not intrusive (something the Venue suffered from), and it handles bumps decently without wallowing about. The normal driver will like how the C-HR handles your everyday tasks, just plan your overtakes accordingly. Like really, put some thought into them and make sure you have room.
So what we have here is what appears to be a mixed review, but that would be unfair. Toyota has to be applauded for the risks it took with the C-HR, as this is a funky Toyota that would cause its ancestors to have a cardiac arrest over. It's just a disappointment the driving characteristics are not as fun as the edgy and space-like looks would suggest. But for those not needing the last word in space, but wanting that has the higher seating position of an SUV on a budget, the C-HR could be an alternative and a way to stand out. However, usually space and practicality are the main reasons for wanting a crossover.
2021 Toyota C-HR Nightshade.
As-Tested Price $25,665
The Road Beat Rating: 3/5
Pros: Looks from out of this world; Affordable
Cons: Slow. Like, really slow; A crossover with little practicality
Verdict: An interesting looking Toyota, but impractical and uninteresting to drive