On Autos: Flashy new Toyota crossover has key drawbacks

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The 2018 Toyota C-HR is a flashy new subcompact crossover that's priced from $23,495. (Brady Holt/The Current)

When the Kia Soul hit the market as a 2010 model, it was an unexpected smash hit. In hindsight, though, its strengths were easy enough to pin down: a winning combination of head-turning looks, economy-car pricing and a surprisingly roomy interior.

Toyota’s all-new rival to the Soul, the 2018 C-HR, has no shortage of style. Love it or hate it, this subcompact crossover’s bold looks help it stand out in an increasingly crowded class, which also includes such popular models as the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade. Its coupe-like silhouette was gently raised just enough to provide a higher seating position and to squeeze in carefully disguised rear doors.

But Toyota left out the other key parts to Kia’s successful formula.

The C-HR’s base price of $23,495 is hardly outrageous, to be sure, especially considering generous standard equipment. But when you can get a Soul for as little as $16,995, it’s easy to see why the Kia is the best-seller in its class.

The 2018 Toyota C-HR is designed to look like a coupe, a decision that affects its interior volume and rear visibility. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Moreover, the Soul’s boxy shape is a key factor in its quirkily endearing design — a design choice that results in ample room and easy outward visibility as well as a distinctive appearance. The Soul’s spacious interior in a subcompact footprint is ideal for city conditions.

But the low-slung C-HR has a cramped back seat, constrained cargo space and poor rearward visibility. There’s just 36 cubic feet of total cargo space, compared to 50 in the Soul and 59 in the HR-V. Both of these models can also seat four adults comfortably, while the Toyota’s tight rear legroom reminds riders of its “subcompact” designation.

There are other issues with the C-HR package. Like the Soul but unlike most other subcompact crossovers, it’s not offered with all-wheel-drive, which some drivers prefer for extra confidence in messy weather. Other common features are also missing from the options list: leather upholstery, a sunroof and even power seat adjustments. And although it’s an all-new model, the C-HR’s infotainment system feels a generation old — the touch screen is small and lacks Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration.

The 2018 Toyota C-HR doesn’t have the slick, modern in-dash technology found in key competitors. (Brady Holt/The Current)

That’s not to say that the C-HR lacks merit. At least based on a brief media preview drive, the Toyota is unexpectedly peppy and fun to drive at low speeds, with responsive acceleration off the line and confidence-inspiring steering and handling. (Reviews have been mixed about how its 144-horsepower four-cylinder engine performs at higher speeds; The Current is still awaiting additional experience in the vehicle.)

Meanwhile, EPA fuel economy estimates of 29 mpg in mixed driving are respectable for this class, and about 2 mpg better than the Kia’s. And the $23,495 base price does include fairly generous standard equipment, particularly on the safety front.

Overall, the C-HR is a viable option for someone who doesn’t prioritize interior volume — a safe, reasonably affordable subcompact crossover that’s fairly easy to park and offers more cargo space than, say, a sporty coupe. But if you’re not wedded to the Toyota’s looks, you’ll likely find a suitable hatchback or crossover that trumps the C-HR’s utility, comfort, technology and overall value.