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Toyota CH-R vs. BMW 218d Active Tourer

Since this pair were experienced in close proximity, and are similarly priced, it seemed sensible to speak about them in the same piece. On the face of it, a hipster crossover from a mainstream maker, and a small van from a premium maker do not warrant meaningful comparison: however, each offer a solution to the conundrum of being all things to all users – competent in an urban setting and on longer, freeway journeys, practical for a family, yet also conveying a modicum of status/style.

Toyota CH-R

Upon his ascent to the top job, apparently the current boss of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, great grandson of the founder, decreed “no boring cars”. To fight Hyundai’s challenge, Toyota has acquired and aggressive new corporate visage, especially prominent on the C-HR. It is reminiscent of an angry insect, especially in the new face with narrow, squinting headlights.

The test car was red, and in this colour the overall effect was particularly offensive; silver examples I have seen seem to show off the lines better. Or maybe black would be best, since it might hide some of those lines….ahh, those lines: all complex leaps and cut offs, like the Pompidou center had fallen down. The opposite of Pininfarina’s sixties ethic, of very simple ideas, executed with perfect proportion. Instead, we have tail lights protruding like a baboons backside.

Our example was petrol-powered, yet offered a driving experience similar to modern turbo diesels, with the turbo spinning up from low in the rev-range, initially giving a satisfying, lively feel, but which disappoints a few seconds further up the road as the power tails off. In this, it is the opposite of a boyhood friends father’s Saab Turbo, where nothing happened at first, but then suddenly it got exciting. Indeed, the C-HR seemed to run out of oomph precisely at the spot on the rev range when a Mustang V8 – my daily driver – actually wakes up.

Our test car was fitted with a six speed manual transmission, about which there is little to note. The test route was a route known well, a few hours of motorway, very fast dual carriageway, with a series of challenging roundabouts, giving way to classic British B-road. Handling was secure, without being enthusiastic, understeer not too prominent. Caught off boost, the C-HR is slow indeed. Variable weather conditions provide a thorough test for ancillaries such as wipers and lights too. Naturally, the Toyota excelled in these areas.

So to sum up, demented insect does not an unboring car make. To drive, this is like every beige Camry and Corolla before it; to look at, this is Toyota’s sad attempt at niche carved out by the Nissan Juke. Funny, I even thought I liked Toyota, after visiting the factory, and understanding where they came from. But the C-HR is a fashionista horror of over design and insipid driving characteristics which has re-ignited my teenage passion against Toyota’s worthy-but-dull mantra.

BMW 218d Active Tourer
“So you only have automatics?”
“Yeees. But we might have a manual in an hour”

In Italy, an hour is a figurative number, like forty days and forty nights; needing a car as we did right now, I did something I swore I never would, and had a rental car in Italy with automatic transmission.

“Nevermind” offered the Boss ‘its a BMW’.

And indeed, so the 216 proved: a BMW in soul if not in form.

For the 218 does without all of BMWs traditional differentiators: it is front wheel drive, has a low revving diesel motor, and a minivan body. When I first saw one, it so offended me I remember the exact time and place: it was in on a dealer’s forecourt in Switzerland, when I was helping my sister move house, with a Renault Master van. Only when the Porsche Cayenne launched have I been more shocked and appalled.

Our test route was almost 1100 miles, and included two long autostrada journeys while taking place mostly in the Chianti region of Italy. We covered many miles on the route of the Mille Miglia and over 100 miles on unsurfaced roads, since we were staying right up on the top of a ridge of hills accessed by a washboard dirt road(!). Getting anywhere involved a winding descent into the valley. The road is narrow, not so much that two cars cannot pass, but both drivers must be concentrating. On our last evening, we were late for dinner, and the Boss encouraged me to try and improve on the time the GPS was forecasting we would reach the restaurant. Cue an “eight tenths” descent, using all the knowledge of road and car gleaned in the previous week. In this role, with the family in car, it was all a BMW should be, predictable, planted on the road, secure under braking and plain Really Good To Drive. The automatic transmission, low revving diesel, and ugly body were utterly forgotten in those moments, and what remained was what I have always loved about BMWs.

Running on the autostrada the following day, with luggage and three people aboard, the 218 is comfortable at 160km/h, although a little floaty much beyond 165. Climbing one rise, the road was damp, curving and off camber, and this provoked a little front end washout; what is remarkable here is not that the 218 has its limits, but that they are so high: this is a very able design.

I recently sampled a US market 328i finding the car’s character transformed by the different driving modes offered. The 218 was similar in this respect. The mode shift button is a toggle switch down by the transmission, and it was easy and intuitive to change modes while driving, perhaps only to complete one overtake. Unlike the 328, with its four modes, the 218 has three, Sport, Comfort and Eco Pro. We never found the circumstances to use Eco Pro, our test route did not encompass the applicable driving conditions. Comfort was slow, but fine around town, and correctly is the default setting. In Sport it feels like a real BMW, in terms of the steering weight and feel, throttle responsiveness, and firm suspension. A graphic on the screen depicts the changes, allowing backseat passengers to comment “Oh, the Red Car, Daddy” alerting all passengers to the driver engaging Sport mode. Ulitmately, of course, the 218 isn’t very fast, but it is willing, and that makes all the difference for me.

The 218 makes the 328 feel old – the three box body design is old fashioned, the shape and performance more than is really usable on the road – it is BMWs past, not their future. Returning to California, and the Boss’ 113k 2004 325iA, it seems positively prehistoric, the transmission is so slow and clunky. It is worth noting that the biggest difference is ten years of design evolution, not the difference between the cloth seat front wheel drive minivan of 2017, and the sports sedan of 2017. Noteworthy also is that in Sport mode, the transmission of the 218 did not leave me constantly pining for a manual. The motor is also worth mentioning, while not having the howling red line of an M3, it was frisky enough to surprise me with its sporting character. What it had, it gave enthusiastically.

So after 1000 hard miles with a family, I find I like the car, being impressed by its absolute competency, and by the way it excelled in some areas. There is plenty of talk in motoring magazines nowadays about BMW having “lost their way”. In contrast, I find myself thinking yes, they are changing direction, just like they did with the E60 7 series: journalists all said it was ugly, and Buffoon Clarkson even said BMWs were ‘ruined’ by the deployment of E60 styling cues across the range . That the E60 sold in droves didn’t surprise me – after all shouldn’t big BMWs be ugly? – but that others copied its styling to the point of cliche – Lexus, Hyundai, and Volvo l am thinking of you – was the lesson for me. It is BMWs willingness to look beyond what we know we want, to suggest other things to us, which goes a long way to explaining why they are so often the yardstick product in a given niche.

There’s a lesson here about depth of design – a crazy new body, manual transmission and a gas motor does not make a great car; using everything from a century of car making experience, plus the very best of the twenty first century and you might just craft a product which can be everything to all people.

Sidebar: the BMW key fob and badge appeared to say “216”. However, this model is not available with an automatic transmission. More, it has a the 3 cylinder, 115hp motor from the Mini D – leading me to conclude that the test car was infact a 218d, with 150hp 4 cylinder. Most peculiar.