Toyota isn't often late to the party. In fact, it's usually the first to arrive.
The Japanese powerhouse essentially invented the small SUV (RAV4), coined the term "people-mover" (Tarago), and led the charge, along with Subaru, to introduce a modern take on the affordable rear-drive sports car to world (86).
And yet as the micro-SUV tsunami was washing over the globe, bringing with it an entire generation of new and cashed-up customers, Toyota was eerily quiet. Japanese competitor Mazda conquered with its CX-3, while Honda celebrated a return to form with its pint-sized HR-V. Mitsubishi, Subaru, Citroen, Peugeot, Jeep, Fiat; all rushed to roll out models into one of the world's fastest-growing segments.
Meanwhile, the market was booming: Australians bought more than 440,000 SUVs in 2016 - more than the double the number sold in 2009. And more than 110,000 of those sales were in the C-HR's segment. And that's just in Australia, with global numbers singing a similar (only even bigger) tune. People the world over were embracing these micro-machines in never-before-seen numbers, and Toyota had exactly nothing to offer them.
But be wary the sleeping giant: Toyota's first-ever city-sized SUV - the C-HR - finally arrived in February 2017, and it was unlike any Toyota to have gone before it. An aggressive, exciting design, ride and handling tuned at the infamous Nurburgring and an interior that focuses on premium all point to a very different Toyota experience to the one we have all grown accustomed to.
In Australia, that means a two-tier model lineup in which a price-led budget model was noticeably absent. Instead, we are asked to part with $26,990 for the cheapest C-HR (about $6k more than the cheapest CX-3). But Toyota makes no bones about the fact they are targeting a more premium customer than they might normally, with the brand's international design and engineering teams benchmarking the car against the best from Germany.
Toyota's Australian executives told CarsGuide about 80 per cent of small SUV shoppers jump into the market at a medium trim level or higher, and assure us the C-HR's customers are willing to pay for the “niceties of life", hence the hefty entry point to the range.
At the time of publication, that base price would buy you a front-wheel drive, manual-equipped C-HR, with satellite navigation, cloth seats and active cruise control. Your alloy wheels are 17 inches, and there's LED fog lights and DRLs up front, along with a far-from-impressive (it's actually a bespoke, Australian-delivered unit) 6.1-inch screen that's missing Apple Car Play and Android Auto. Want to upgrade to a CVT? That's $2k. Want all-wheel drive? Another $2k, meaning the base-model C-HR can wear a $30,990 sticker price before options.
Clearly there's been a seismic shift in the way Toyota views the C-HR.
The well-heeled and deep-pocketed can then spring for the top-spec (and CVT, AWD-only) Koba model, for which your $35,290 investment will earn you heated leather seats, push-button start, LED headlights and taillights, bigger 18-inch alloys and a new ‘Nanoe E' air-con system that both blocks nasties entering the cabin and adds moisture to the ambient air to stop your hair and skin drying out.
"When our sales and marketing teams decided how to bring the C-HR to market, one word kept cropping up, and that was ‘disrupt'. Disrupt the market, disrupt the segment, disrupt at every turn," says Toyota Australia's executive director of sales and marketing, Tony Cramb.
“The prime buying motivation for this vehicle is style. No matter their age, these people are early adopters and they want what is new and exciting, and they want it to look great. And almost all of them will be new to Toyota."
People buying a Toyota because of its style? Or because they're early adopters? Clearly there's been a seismic shift in the way Toyota views the C-HR.
The only real question now is also the most obvious; will it also shift the way we view Toyota?