If you're a car brand, the small SUV segment is the place to be. It seems to be growing, up 4.4 per cent year to date as of March, despite a wider regressing market. This proves that people are happy to either step up from a hatchback or step down from something larger, possibly compromising on some space, to jump on the small-SUV bandwagon.
This craze doesn’t seem like it will let up. A brand that’s no doubt feeling the pinch from rationalising niche models, and is now in search of new opportunities, is Volkswagen.
Given an unprecedented demand globally, it has taken the local subsidiary a couple of years to convince Germany to send a few small SUVs over to wee-old Australia. This does happen quite a bit, as European manufacturers often allocate hot product to the most profitable markets, which is usually not Australia. Either way, they’re late to the party.
Fashionably late? You could say that. The Volkswagen T-Cross and T-Roc pair are finally here, much to Volkswagen's delight. Just to remove any confusion: T-Cross is the smaller, Polo-esque SUV that’s cheaper and front-wheel drive. The 2020 Volkswagen T-Roc is the premium, slightly larger flagship offering, similar in size to a Golf, with more power and all-wheel drive. This is what we’re testing here today.
It’s surprisingly 21mm shorter bumper to bumper than a Golf 7, at a touch over 4.2m overall, and only 20mm wider at 1.82m wide. As expected, it’s much taller than a Golf, as to lend to its SUV credentials.
The T-Roc has only one mainstay variant in the range – the 140TSI Sport. There is a special-edition T-Roc X model, with some of the Sport's option boxes ticked, but that is limited to 200 units only, so once it’s done, it's done.
This single-version range kicks off from $40,490 for a base car with standard paint before on-roads. That places it smack-bang in the middle of the Mazda CX-30 all-wheel-drive pair, with the Touring AWD starting from $38,490, and the Astina AWD from $43,490.
It seems like fair value on the surface given the grunt and space, but once you begin to spec up the T-Roc, it gets a little expensive. More on that later.
An exceptional part of the T-Roc’s appeal is its mechanical package, in both the engine and chassis domains. It’s powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder from the legendary ‘EA888’ engine family. Volkswagen claims it has the “heart of a GTI”, and it does technically, but so does a Passat. And that isn’t very GTI at all.
However, in the T-Roc, taking into account the way it feels, they’re not far off the mark to be frank. It makes a brawny 140kW, but what’s more appealing is the 320Nm available from 1500rpm.
I can’t recall driving any other SUV around the $40K mark with as much performance as this, let alone the feeling it offers. It’s quick off the mark, offers butch hot-hatch prowess on the roll, and most importantly it keeps your smile firmly dialled in.
If you like a bit of kick with your commute, or just like the idea of having it under the pedal, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick an alternative to the T-Roc. It’s a drawcard for this car, a point of difference, as it gets better the deeper you get.
Underneath the rest of the chassis you’ll find a seven-speed wet-clutch DSG automatic, Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive, and in this example’s case, adaptive dampers.
I experienced a couple of niggly hesitations and delays to action with the DSG, but nothing overly new. It’s mostly a smart-operating unit that is quick and smooth. Another factor that surprised me was the new-found ability this engine has when it lays power down on the blacktop via four wheels. You can now harness all of its performance, even in slightly damp conditions. When in a Golf GTI, you find yourself asking for more traction at more times than you’d probably prefer.
The T-Roc has a real sense of sure-footedness and ability, where its reaction to throttle in poor conditions seems a little irregular. It has traction, and plenty of it. I find myself comparing its grip to that offered in the Volkswagen Golf R, which is a huge compliment for the T-Roc.
Speaking of giving it gas, so to speak, it used 8.7 litres per 100km on test compared to an official combined claim of 7.2L/100km.
Our test car was equipped with the sound and style package, which is a $2000 option. It includes adaptive dampers, 19-inch ‘Suzuka’ design wheels, and Beats premium audio. We’re unable to comment on how a regular-suspension version performs, but Volkswagen did mention that it’s also calibrated in a sporty manner.
So, due to that, our assessment is based on a vehicle with the adaptive suspension.
Once again, its calibration reminds me of the Golf R. The difference between each mode is clearly discernible and not gimmicky. On comfort, it’s smooth. However, when examined with a microscope, I found it a little fidgety on the rippled stuff, as well as on ever-so-slight road imperfections that are hard to see with your eye.
I think the large 19-inch wheels contribute to this, so I’d love to see how a fixed-damper car with standard 18-inch wheels performs.
As you flick through the modes, it becomes much firmer. Again, like the Golf R, it does so in a way that isn’t bone-shattering or back-breaking. It creates a stiffer edge to things, which makes it feel flat under yaw, aiding it to not wallow when pressed.
This breadth of ability does further push it away from others in the segment. Capping off the experience is VW’s progressive-ratio steering rack, which is great to use, and will feel homely to those who may be upgrading from their current Golf or Passat.
All glory aside, stepping inside and dissecting the package does reveal some demons. Our test car will set you back $46,590 before on-roads thanks to some healthy options. Call it near $50K on the road. That price includes the previously mentioned Sound and Style package, which despite the Beats premium audio can still sound a little trebly. Be sure to have a listen if you care about audio.
On top of that, it also includes the luxury package. This means you get Vienna leather seats, a panoramic glass sunroof that opens, as well as an automatic tailgate.
Despite all of that jewellery, it’s unable to hide its age. As this is marketed as a brand-new car in Australia, you’d fairly assume it has the latest and greatest Volkswagen traits – which it doesn’t. Its 2017 origins mean it does not feature the new Mark 8 Golf interior, which some may be expecting. It’s all Golf 7 fare inside, which is not a bad thing. It’s just not fresh.
The centre screen measures 8.0 inches, sports all the connectivity you need, and is easy to use. That's great and all, but what's more irritating is the lack of a 9.2-inch screen as found in the current Golf range, which is a better unit. Even that is about to be superseded with the arrival of the Golf 8, which in turn makes the T-Roc two generations old from an infotainment perspective. Bit of a miss, that one.
The dual climate control is as you’d expect, as is the standard digital instrument cluster. There’s no wireless charging, however. Safety is comprehensively covered with active lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise, AEB, rear cross-traffic alert, the whole shebang. Gone are the days of paying for safety, it seems. Good riddance.
Redemption is earned through its overall finish and presentation, as it’s built well, with ambient lighting on the doors, a nice 4Motion badge near the gear shifter, and pleasant materials where it matters. I’m a little unsure of the metallic grey trims on the dash and lower centre console, but that’s subjective.
The front seats are comfortable and visibility is good looking forward, and to the sides. However, rearward vision is a little tricky. The side mirrors are a little small, as is the rear window. That’s part of the price paid for its visual appeal, though.
There’s standard fitment of blind-spot monitoring to assist with sideward obstacles, which is complemented by a regular reverse camera. Sadly, there's no 360-degree alternative anywhere in sight. Front and rear sensors plus a self-parking system also feature as standard gear.
In the second row, it’s a little cramped for the larger human, but younger adults will find it satisfactory. It’ll happily accept a large convertible baby seat with ease. Loading infants via the tall door aperture is a breeze, so young families will have no dramas there. The second-row seat squab is quite high thanks to its ride height, which saves your back some strain when accessing the seat or buckling up kids.
The boot is decent at 392L compared to other all-wheel-drive competitors, but it isn’t the largest in the segment. I found fitting a stroller and some groceries pretty easy, and that its overall measurements didn’t pose a problem when undertaking daily errands.
The boot floor is not adjustable, however, and there’s a space-saving spare underneath it. If you need more space, you can always open the large ski flap for skinnier items or fold the seats down in a 60:40 arrangement.
Once you close the tailgate, and step back, there’s a lot to admire. Volkswagen has fast become the kerb-appeal master, creating packages that are not shouty but exude expensiveness. I’m sure if you decide to put one on your driveway, nosey onlookers will instantly assume a level of well-to-do about your household.
The T-Roc’s sharp, almost-pinched bonnet lines remind me of an Audi A5. Along the side, the A-pillar has strong definition, faceted in a way to create shadowing across the roof line. Out back, there’s a small lip inbuilt into the tailgate and tail-lights, which subtly gestures to premium European.
Alongside its strong performance, style is what it also delivers in spades. If your initial gravitation towards the T-Roc is due to styling, then the way it drives may just encourage you to go ahead with the purchase. It is expensive, and even more so when fully equipped, but I keep coming back to the feel behind the wheel and how fun it can be.
There aren’t many in the segment that come close with regard to looks and performance. Some are cheaper, more affordable and with more tech, but the T-Roc represents a slice of attainable excitement. Plus, if you’re not after those things, there’s the T-Cross, among others, that will happily provide you with good motoring.