The man behind Toyota’s edgy C-HR is a performance freak, and he wants his compact SUV baby to morph into something properly swift. Is a C-HR GT4 on the way?
HIROYUKI Koba is, in typical Japanese fashion, a fairly unassuming chap. Middle-aged with a neat haircut and wearing a grey suit with a Toyota pin on the lapel, he appears to have emerged from the same cookie cutter as most other Japanese car company execs. Beneath the surface, however, is a man driven by performance.
The latest entry on his curriculum vitae is Chief Engineer for the Toyota C-HR, Toyota's all-new compact SUV contender that will do its best to challenge the dominant – and similarly style-driven – Mazda CX-3. With just a 1.2-litre turbo with 88kW under the bonnet it’s not what you’d call a firecracker, yet Koba reckons it has significant performance potential.
When talk turns to performance cars, Koba’s eyes light up. Behind the grey suit, Koba is a dyed-in-the-wool fast car freak, and he's eager to preach. In Australia for the first time to help launch the Toyota C-HR, Koba's visit was just two days long – he had to return to Japan by the weekend to steer his open-cockpit race car in competition at Suzuka.
A 30-year veteran of Toyota, a look at Koba’s resume and nothing really jumps out. His name is against SUVs, hybrids and a workman’s pickup. Money-makers, sure, but not the most exciting metal.
However, waiting for him back home is a last-generation Toyota Supra. Twin-turbo, naturally. In past years he's also owned two MR2s - a first-gen AW11 and a second-gen SW20 – so the man is no stranger to fast Toyotas.
This passion has clearly rubbed off on the C-HR.
Our first drive showed that besides dull (if authoritative) steering and a sedate powertrain, the C-HR handles sweetly and could, conceivably, be turned into a fairly swift hot hatch. Hustle it hard and you'll discover excellent suspension and a chassis that's surprisingly willing to rotate.
Asked by Wheels whether he'd like to put a drivetrain like that offered by the dearly departed Toyota Celica GT4 – a potent two-litre turbo AWD for those with memory issues – Koba perked up. “This kind of car I would love to do,” he said. “It is my dream!”
The bones are good. The TNGA platform – specifically the GA-C sub-architecture – that lies beneath the C-HR’s wild sheetmetal shows great promise in the C-HR.
And Toyota has spent money on things that this kind of car doesn’t necessarily need. Double-wishbone rear suspension instead of a torsion beam, rose joints rather than squishy rubber bushings, a predictive rather than reactive AWD system, downshift rev-matching for the manual – a compact SUV needs none of these features.
You get the feeling that Koba spent a great deal of time in Toyota City boardrooms arguing for their inclusion, and we’re glad that he emerged victorious – the C-HR is a better car for it. When there’s already a veritable sea of compact SUV rivals – and many more coming – making performance a point of difference is a sound strategy.
But there’s definitely some significant headroom.
Is a fast one coming? Koba is playing coy for now, but having a bona-fide driving fiend at the helm of the project bodes well for the prospects of a C-HR GT4. With buyers migrating to SUVs in ever-increasing volume and Toyota currently lacking a proper hot-hatch in its line-up, a C-HR GT4 would allow the company to capitalise on the former while rectifying the latter, while also blazing a trail with the first mainstream high-performance SUV in the compact category.
If Koba-san gets his way, that is.