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JOHANNESBURG – This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new C-HR. And, yes, that's a Toyota badge plastered to its bravely forged snout.

Surprised? We don't blame you. You see, unlike the vast majority of products that currently make up Toyota South Africa's formidable stable (bar, perhaps, the 86 and FJ Cruiser), the C-HR is rather radically styled. In fact, it'd even be fair to say it sacrifices some of its practicality at the altar of bold design – something for which Toyotas are not exactly renowned.

Furthermore, unlike any other machine in the Japanese brand's current local line-up, the C-HR draws its urge from a turbocharged petrol engine. Change, then, is most certainly upon us.

And it doesn't stop there. The C-HR is Toyota's belated foray into the light crossover segment, which is positively booming these days, and it hopes to grab a healthy slice of the ever-expanding pie with this daring newcomer. In short, it's an immensely important vehicle for the brand, which makes Toyota's bold approach all the more intriguing.

Where does it fit in?

While the accompanying photographs may suggest otherwise, the C-HR does not compete directly with the likes of the Ford EcoSport or Nissan Juke. No, it's a little bigger than that. In fact, it's not far short in size of a Nissan Qashqai, which one might consider its most natural rival (Toyota also identifies the likes of the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V as competitors, while we'd probably throw the new Hyundai Creta into the mix, too).

It's pertinent, then, that the single engine option in the local, three-model line-up at launch – Toyota says it will consider adding a 1,8-litre hybrid powertrain pilfered from the Prius at a later stage – matches the base Qashqai's unit for size.

This exceptionally refined 1,2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol mill is quiet both at speed and at idle, something further emphasised by the wads of sound-deadening material Toyota has clearly thrown at the body. The turbopetrol provides the front wheels with 85 kW and 185 N.m, with the latter on tap between 1 500 and 4 000 r/min. Power delivery is relatively linear, and the engine exhibits noticeably less lag than Nissan's mill. Turbocharged it may be, but it still delivers the sort of fuss-free driving experience one has come to expect from Toyota.

The range-topping C-HR featured here employs a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which – as is so often the case – comes across as somewhat irksome on the ear ... but thankfully only when you're really pushing on. Drive with some degree of restraint and it's not all that intrusive at all. Interestingly, however, this transmission (complete with its seven virtual steps) is slightly less efficient than the six-speed manual model, with a claimed fuel consumption of 6,4 L/100 km.

Manual or CVT?

Which should you buy? Well, unless you absolutely abhor that third pedal (or, indeed, spend a fair chunk of your life in soul-vaporising traffic), there's little wrong with the manual, which as luck would have it, is really rather good. Not only is it pleasingly slick and satisfyingly precise, it also boasts the Japanese brand's clever iMT system (first seen on the Hilux), which automatically blips the throttle on down-shifts.

There are even three driving modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) on offer, which is perhaps a little superfluous in a vehicle like this. Still, despite the less-than-stellar 10,9-second sprint to three figures, the C-HR is actually relatively dynamically talented, exhibiting impressive body control and serving up more than sufficient grip.

Running on the same new platform as the latest Prius, the C-HR boasts a lower centre of gravity than most light crossovers, and rides somewhat closer to the ground, too. In fact, from behind the leather-wrapped wheel of this Plus derivative, it feels more like a hatchback than a crossover – albeit one with a raised driving position – and its sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension helps to deliver a pleasing middle ground between comfort and composed handling.

In contrast to its divisively styled exterior, the new Toyota boasts a cabin that is likely to find favour with the majority of those who encounter it. Indeed, the facia is one of the brand's best recent efforts, mixing materials that are of a high perceived quality with a modern yet decidedly ergonomic design. In fact, it's almost premium up front, particularly in the Plus variants (all three feature a touchscreen as standard).

And the bad?

So, what about those compromises we mentioned earlier? Well, the frankly enormous C-pillar (which also hides the exterior rear door handles) and sloping roofline that lends the C-HR something of a coupé shape also conspire to create a nasty blindspot. And, while leg-room in the back is perhaps better than one might expect when first viewing the vehicle from the outside, the rising belt-line and thick pillar will leave rear passengers feeling more than just a little boxed in.

The luggage compartment, too, isn't the most generous, a fact accentuated by the (otherwise welcome) inclusion of a full-size spare wheel that sees the boot floor sitting ever-so-slightly proud of the loading lip.

Interestingly, although each of the three models in the local range boasts vehicle stability control, there are just two airbags on offer. Why the lack of curtain airbags in an otherwise polished product? Well, Toyota SA says global demand for the C-HR – which is, for the time being, produced exclusively in Turkey – is so high that it was forced to launch the new model here without its intended range-topper. And it's this absent flagship, the brand says, that will have a full complement of airbags if and when it arrives (along, perhaps, with the option of a bi-tone colour scheme) at a later stage, with the possibility of this filtering down the range.

The stock issue also means that, in the short-term at least, South Africa has been allocated just 150 units a month (although the local arm has managed to stockpile as many as 600 in the build-up to the launch). A pity considering the obvious interest from the public in this vehicle.

Plenty to like

There's no doubt that the new Toyota C-HR's concept car styling will divide opinions (in much the way the Juke's did), but if the exterior design appeals to you, you certainly won't be disappointed with the levels of refinement on offer, nor with the quality of the cabin. The whisper-quiet powertrain, too, provides sufficient poke for most uses, and handily doesn't have its oomph sapped at altitude.

So, thanks at least partly to fairly competitive pricing – particularly in terms of the entry point to the range – there's little doubt that local demand will far outstrip local supply for the foreseeable future. But here's hoping models with more airbags are added soon.

Ultimately, in more ways than one, the C-HR is a brave, utterly uncharacteristic move from Toyota. But it's one that is all but certain to pay off…


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