Madrid, Spain - In retrospect, Toyota should be on its second or third generation model in the compact crossover segment yet it finds itself just entering the fray.

As models such as the RAV4 have matured into bigger markets, Toyota has been slower than its rivals to seize the growing opportunities left in its wake. Nevertheless, the C-HR might just be thrown a lifeline from sinking into this crossover quagmire because its chic, chiselled shape is larger than several of its price-comparable classmates. Better still, the C-HR was conceived as an entirely new product so it avoids those jarring styling mishaps or muddled dynamics that so often occur when brands hastily slap a crossover look to an existing small city car.

It is Toyota’s boldest design effort of the past decade and seems to have a clear understanding of what the consumer wants. The C-HR’s sporty overtones with a low drag, affixed to the obligatory contrasting panels feign a butch look. At the front the lights and grille flow around the bonnet line with the lower section wedged around the grille, flanked by vertical cooling ducts. Rear styling will inevitably polarise opinion with its dramatic mix of pronounced arches, squinty lights, and cheeky spoiler. Predictably, the boot aperture is marginally narrowed as a result, with a high loading sill, but on a positive note it adds up to a gigantic step towards restoring a sense of passion surrounding the brand.

Giving the slightest bit of credence to the coupé description, the C-pillar incorporates the rear door handles before a rather aggressive kink into the roofline - all at the expense of rear-window visibility. Visually the C-HR mimics the futuristic Toyota Prius, which is perhaps no coincidence. The two cars share Toyota’s TNGA platform, which loosely draws the dynamic outlines to the way it drives with further synergies already in the pipeline when Toyota SA introduces a hybrid version.

Visual clout

The cabin layout brings design parity to the car’s flamboyant exterior. Toyota is adamant that the interior draws inspiration from a diamond pattern with angled panels a short touch away so that the driver feels like the C-HR was moulded around him or her. The intricate lines stretched across the dashboard form several interesting layers to avert the mundane with bright illumination strips adding visual clout.

The C-HR’s user-experience flourishes under an interior fused with diagonal lines, slim panels and separate controls for the climate system. In some instances, being solely reliant on a touchscreen interface can be a car’s downfall, but the Toyota system is snappy to respond and, once you’ve connected a smartphone and tailored a few essential settings, the bulk of interaction can be done from the steering wheel.

For the most part the soft rubberised buttons do a convincing job of eschewing a low-grade feel from the controls. Driving position ranks among the best in the segment; a raised view over the front haunches promotes accurate placement of the front wheels yet the centre of gravity feels lower than it does in a typical SUV.

Rear accommodation can be claustrophobic, with the pinched rear glass being the biggest culprit, which is a pity because the C-HR measures up well for head and legroom, making it still a viable choice as a family car. Even with a few loading niggles, the boot has commendable loading space.

Turbopetrol four

Toyota South Africa’s first turbocharged petrol engine, in the form of a 1.2-litre four rated for 85kW and 185Nm, drives the front wheels via either a six-speed manual or CVT transmission. For different reasons both transmissions impressed: the manual wouldn’t be out of place on a bona-fide sports-car and the CVT’s trademark whine could be avoided with a gradual throttle.

The smooth twisty roads on our test route at the media launch proved that Toyota’s modification of the Prius’ suspension is not without merit even though the exterior suggests greater driver entertainment. Yet to the targeted buyer, the C-HR’s amenable behaviour hinges on transmitting clear signals about grip - all the way to controllable understeer whereupon the traction aids sweep in.

In the grand scheme of things Toyota has several reasons to be optimistic about the C-HR’s chances come March when it arrives in South Africa priced from R320 000 to R350 000.

Not only is it cleverly sized to avoid direct comparison, but the brazen design won’t go unnoticed by the fashion-conscious.

From a mechanical perspective, the 1.2-litre turbo engine (to be joined by a hybrid at a later stage) is game-changing news and the C-HR epitomises a new generation of Toyota.

CH-R is Toyota's boldest design for some time, although not everybody will approve. It's aimed at the competitive compact crossover market.

Star Motoring