To continually feed the media monster every year, manufactures build cool concepts of street vehicles for SEMA. Rarely though do these cars actually go as fast as they oftentimes look. The Toyota C-HR R-Tuned is the exception to that rule. In fact, it smashes that rule with 600 horsepower of insane turbo clout. Toyota’s featured vehicle at SEMA in 2017 was the blue Dan Gardner Spec-built Toyota C-HR filled with all sorts of racecar wizardry and go-fast parts. To prove this car was legit and not just a show car, Toyota brought it out to Willow Springs International Raceway to run it head-to-head against a Nissan GT-R.
Not only was Toyota so confident in their C-HR R-Tuned that they would run it against the mighty Godzilla, they wanted automotive journalists to drive its SEMA car around the fastest road course in the west to get the “smash you against the seat” feeling the C-HR R-Tuned packed. I was happy to accept that challenge.
But before the green flag dropped, Toyota and the team from Dan Gardner Spec (DG Spec) gave journalists an opportunity to look at the goods up close. They had the R-Tuned parked directly next to a bone stock Toyota C-HR (which stands for Coupe-High Rider). What we found was an impeccably built machine which was carefully put together using numerous parts from Toyota. With the two cars side by side, it was obvious the body panels on the R-Tuned were completely stock minus the carbon fiber hood.
The C-HR R-Tuned is a mix of real racecar engineering, stock production vehicle, and show car craftsmanship. The roll cage was beautifully welded together and there were aluminum accents for the driver and passenger ergonomic needs. The car’s interior had the usual racecar bits: racing seats, 5-point harnesses, a Racepak data logger dash, fire suppression system, and Sampson Racing Communications radio system. With most of the interior removed, DG Spec got the C-HR down to 2,960 pounds, approximately 300 less than the stock curb weight.
The car’s front brakes were upgraded to Brembo four-piston, aluminum, monobloc racing calipers and massive 355 millimeter rotors. The suspension handled the bumps and turns with Motion Control Suspension (MCS) triple-adjustable remote-reservoir racing coilovers with Vogtland springs. The rear sway bar was a Progress Technology adjustable unit. This fully-adjustable racing setup allowed the team from DG Spec to fine tune the C-HR’s suspension to ensure it could get through the corners shiny side up.
The real difference maker between the stock Toyota C-HR and the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned is the powerplant. It started with a motor swap to a 2.4-liter 2AZ-FE engine from a Scion tC (a vehicle DG Spec is very familiar with from racing the car in the SCCA World Challenge series). Then, the boys from DG Spec dropped a Garrett GTX3076 Gen II turbo on the 2AZ-FE. The motor swap into the C-HR chassis was done using custom engine mounts from Hasport, which also moved the engine rearward a touch for balance. The final number for horsepower? How does an even 600 horsepower work for you?
The folks at Toyota hadn’t completely lost their minds. They weren’t just going to hand the key fob to a 600 horsepower beast over to some keyboard jockey automotive journalist and say, “Have a great time and by the way, please don’t wreck it!” Instead, Toyota had a number of stock C-HRs on hand for us to drive through some vehicle dynamic exercises first. These exercises began with a circle eight course at Willow Springs with a professional driving coach in the right front seat. I was lucky enough to have Craig Stanton, a two-time Rolex 24 Hour of Daytona winner, as my co-pilot. When Craig says, “Get closer to the apex,” you should probably listen to him.
After tackling the roadway position and throttle control exercises of the circle eight course, we moved on to the twisty and technical Streets of Willows course, where we got the chance to drive more C-HRs in stock form. The Toyota C-HR ($22,500 well equipped) proved to be a really balanced vehicle which accepted a lot of abuse from the students all day long around the track. It was easy to drive and didn’t have any underlying handling issues that you would expect from a cross-over vehicle. Toyota states this stable handling comes from the passionate Toyota engineers who tested the C-HR tirelessly around the Nürburgring Nordschleife. It was a great car to learn in as we accepted more and more criticism from the professional driving coaches. I had the chance to hear things like, “Your braking could be smoother.” I accept that. I tend to inappropriately use the brake pedal like a light switch.
After half a day flogging the stock C-HRs around different tracks at Willow Springs International Raceway and learning from professional drivers, it was finally time to drive the competition. My first laps of the day around the 2.5-mile Big Willow course would be in the Nissan GT-R, a chassis which has won numerous races including the One Lap of America. This is the car that Toyota said its R-Tuned Coupe-High Rider would be able to defeat.
You can say what you want about comparing a stock production vehicle against a built race car, but the GT-R isn’t just any stock production vehicle. It is an all-wheel drive, technologically-advanced, twin-turbocharged 565 horsepower supercar. This thing will launch out of a corner like it’s twisting asphalt out of the ground. The car is insanely quick.
Driving the GT-R was everything you would expect it to be, only faster. The car is exceptionally capable in hugging the curves and blasting out of them. When I finished my session behind the wheel I thought, “It will be tough for a front-wheel drive Toyota crossover to beat that.”
Now, it was time to pilot the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned around Big Willow, the fastest road course on the west coast. I strapped into the driver seat and made sure my seat was adjusted so I could press all the way down on the happy pedal. I confirmed I understood the gear shift pattern and knew where the gates were. I tightened the 5-point harness and then dumped the clutch. I exited pit lane like a reasonable person, and then as I approached the track entrance near Turn 1, I smashed the gas pedal down like I was trying to kill a cockroach.
The Garrett turbo kicked in like a shot to the gut. I could literally feel my internal organs moving backward in my body as I moved forward. The Toyo tires stuck like glue and the OS Gilken Super Lock LSD kept both front wheels pushing power to the pavement. The acceleration was phenomenal. As I headed into Turn 2, I could feel the big front splitter and rear wing doing their thing with down force. I was able to plant my foot to the floor and row through some gears between turns 2 and 3. Turn 3 required a lot of slowing and the Brembo brakes worked great to get the car down to reasonable speeds to safely get through the horse shoe corner at Willow Springs. Coming out of Turn 6, I got to turn up the wick again and feel the awesome power of the Toyota engine shoot the car down the track like a rocket. Turn 8 is a flat right hand corner with speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour. The R-Tuned zipped through the corner like it was nothing. I slowed down for Turn 9 (because I like my life and I want to continue living) and then jumped back on the power for the finish line.
I was convinced. This was no SEMA “show and no-go” car. This was an incredibly capable machine put together by guys who understand race cars. The car had power for days. It was balanced and it was fast. When you jumped on the power, it felt like you were being transported into the future. I knew it was quicker than the GT-R after back-to-back tests, but nobody cared what my opinion was. I don’t have a win at Daytona. The pro show was about to begin: Dan Gardner driving the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned versus Craig Stanton in the Nissan GT-R head-to-head on track.
Finally, it was time. Both pro drivers jumped into the cars. Cameras were set, stop watches were ready. In just a few moments we would find out if what Toyota said was true, was actually true. Before the cars left pit lane, I jumped into the right front seat of the GT-R to get a front-row seat to the show.
I wanted to make sure Craig Stanton was driving the GT-R as hard as I was to ensure this wasn’t some sort of media stunt. What I found was that Mr. Stanton was driving the Nissan MUCH HARDER than I was and he was STILL losing. Craig did everything he could to keep the GT-R out in front of the C-HR, but it was futile. Dan Garner picked up the throttle and drove the Toyota by and simply left us behind. It was official, the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned was faster around Willow Springs International Raceway than a Nissan GT-R. Amazing.
To understand just how fast the Toyota C-HR R-Tuned is, it cranked out a lap at WSIR in 1:25:22. Randy Pobst, who is no slouch behind the wheel of a car, could only do 1:25:42 at WSIR in a McLaren 650S Spider. Randy Pobst at the controls of a Nissan GT-R Nismo only turned out 1:25:70, shy of the C-HR R-Tuned time, just like the DG-Spec track test showed.
After driving both cars, I certainly walked away from the experience shaking my head. The team at DG Spec took a front-wheel drive crossover, used the parts bin at Toyota to build something good looking enough for SEMA, and tuned the engine and suspension so well it was able to beat an all-wheel drive GT-R around the fastest track in the west. That is simply fantastic. Thank you Toyota and DG Spec for a wonderful experience. It is a day I won’t soon forget.