Volkswagen has taken the ‘fashionably late’ approach to its SUVs. Its first, the Touareg, didn’t debut globally until 2002, and it was another five years before the more affordable (Golf-based) Tiguan arrived.
And now in 2020, we have the T-Cross trying to make up for lost time (and sales) in the compact-SUV segment.
There’s also the new T-Roc (another Golf-based SUV), but it’s the T-Cross – based on the Polo city car – that sits as VW’s smallest and most affordable sports utility vehicle.
'Affordable' is still a relative term here, however, as the T-Cross is positioned at the higher end of the ‘light SUV’ class priced from $27,990.
That’s barely any cheaper than the price of a base Tiguan sold between 2012 and 2016 (even if they were always manual variants, not autos), and light SUVs such as the Hyundai Venue and Mazda CX-3 start thousands lower.
The equally new Nissan Juke starts from an identical price, though, and the T-Cross is as much a rival for slightly larger ‘small SUVs’, such is the overlap of pricing between the two official VFACTS segments.
If you judge the value of a vehicle purely on standard features, the T-Cross looks slightly under-equipped in base 85TSI Life form compared with equivalent variants of the CX-3 and Juke, less so when looking at a model such as the Kia Seltos.
Extra active safety features are available for the Life via a $1200 for a Driver Assistance package, which includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, semi-automatic parking system, and proactive occupant protection system.
Those features are standard on the Volkswagen T-Cross 85TSI Style we’re testing here – and help make this $30,990 model seem better value overall despite its extra cost.
The Style further adds bigger wheels (17 inches rather than 16s), LED headlights, auto high beam, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, auto-folding side mirrors, paddle-shift levers, sportier fronts seats, and roof rails in chrome rather than black.
Our test car added two option packs. For $1900, Sound and Vision brings a digital driver display, integrated navigation and a (great-sounding) 300-watt Beats audio system. They’re features you’ll want, though it’s worth noting they are standard on a $25,390 Polo Style.
And exclusive to the Style is an R-Line styling package available for $2500. For the exterior, this adds bigger 18-inch alloy wheels with a different rim design, dark tinting for the rear window and rear-side windows, body-coloured lower bumpers front and rear, and R-Line badges on the grille and front guards.
Inside, you step across R-Line treadplates to find further items, including sportier steering wheel, R-patterned dash panel, and cloth/microfibre seats.
With a turquoise paint scheme that costs extra ($800) like most colours, our T-Cross 85TSI Style cost $36,190 all up – or around $38,300 to $38,700 on the road depending on your location.
VW Australia was wise to change its mind about introducing a four-cylinder 110TSI Style model that would have been yet more expensive again. (The company is instead importing a $33,990 version of the T-Roc.)
The T-Cross’s relationship to the Polo is most obvious in the cabin, where the dash design is virtually identical. That’s no bad thing, especially as it means the SUV also features VW’s expensive-looking 8.0-inch infotainment display prominently in the centre of the dash.
The optional digital driver display – with its clever, customisable views for information/dials – provides another technological boost.
Despite costing more than a Polo, however, the T-Cross uses even more hard plastics – most notably losing the soft upper dash found in the city car. Volkswagen at least continues to have a way of presenting cheaper plastics without them appearing overly cheap, and gloss-black surrounds for the gear lever and climate controls help visually.
The Style gains digital dual-zone climate controls over the plainer, manual air-conditioning of the Life. One-touch windows all round aren’t common to the segment, either.
The T-Cross’s tiny console bin isn’t great for storage, though the huge door pockets certainly are practical. There’s also a decent-sized glovebox, cupholders (centre console) and a wireless charging tray for smartphones.
Big door pockets feature up back, too, with seatback pouches providing additional places for kids to stash things. An armrest and vents are missing, though.
As with Hyundai’s Venue, the T-Cross offers surprisingly good leg room. Excellent, in fact, as taller occupants can be accommodated front and rear without prompting the kind of knee-room complaints that would occur in the likes of the CX-3 or Toyota C-HR.
It’s closer in comparison to the compact SUV interior-space benchmark, the Honda HR-V.
Head room is also good, if not overly generous considering the vehicle’s tall body, and the bench is very comfortable with the kind of under-thigh support that’s welcomed on longer journeys.
When there are no rear passengers, there’s the option to slide the (one-piece base) rear bench forward to maximise boot space. In this set-up, the T-Cross has a quoted luggage capacity of 455L – more than some mid-size SUVs.
The figure is still a very useful 385L with the rear bench in its rearmost position. A CX-3 – also based on a city car, the Mazda 2 – offers just 264L.
It’s a boot size that beats plenty of other, slightly bigger compact SUVs, if ultimately not a match for the Kia Seltos’s 433L luggage compartment (without moving that rear bench).
If practicality is a high priority, it’s also worth checking out another VW Group model if you don’t mind a slightly larger vehicle footprint. The Skoda Karoq takes an even more flexible approach to seats and cargo, and its starting price isn’t much higher at $35,990 drive-away.
The T-Cross’s seatbacks can be partly folded thanks to a 60-40 split. There’s a temporary spare wheel under the boot floor – along with the Beats system’s subwoofer (which prevents the use of a lower floor position available if the Sound and Vision package isn't chosen).
Under the bonnet is the same 85kW/200Nm 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine found in regular Polo models, again teamed with a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
As in the Polo, the gearbox can be a bit slow to get the vehicle underway from traffic lights or junctions. There’s a further delay if the stop-start system had the engine disengaged. (We preferred to use the T-Cross with the system switched off, via a dash button.)
The ‘DSG’ transmission is much better these days at dealing with throttle off/on situations – an improvement especially welcome for roundabout approaches. And on the move, it continues to be a fantastic auto for super-quick and super-smooth gear changes. Pop the auto into sportier S mode by flicking back the gear lever and the three-cylinder engine becomes especially enjoyable.
The engine also sounds good with its muffled thrum, and there’s still a good response to a press of the throttle pedal with the gear lever in drive.
Also making the T-Cross feel easy to drive are its compact dimensions (just 4.1m long), smooth brakes, light steering and good visibility. The latter area is aided by the elevated seating, which strongly differentiates the T-Cross driving experience from the Polo’s.
The T-Cross’s size also means owners should find a parking space quicker than the driver of a Tiguan, and makes the Style’s semi-autonomous ‘Park Assist’ system seem somewhat redundant – especially with the front/rear sensors and front/rear auto-braking (which we activated when trying a parallel park too fast for the system’s liking!).
Although the T-Cross is a city-focused (front-wheel drive) SUV, the little VW isn’t out of its depth when out of town. With some extra suspension travel over the Polo, there’s also more suppleness to appreciate from the T-Cross’s ride.
While the R-Line package's 18-inch wheels can make bigger bumps feel a bit more pronounced compared with the smaller-wheeled, chubbier-tyred T-Cross Life, the Style is generally a smoother drive around town and on country roads than either the Polo or entry-level Tiguan.
There’s plenty of body roll through corners, created by that tall ride height, though we’re not expecting any T-Cross owners to be driving it like a hot hatch.
And smooth, consistently (light) weighted and accurate steering makes piloting the VW along scenic roads relatively satisfying, all the more so if the auto is in S mode for the best throttle response.
Or choose to let the T-Cross control acceleration and deceleration with the standard adaptive cruise control, which does a fine job of maintaining a set speed even on undulating roads.
Coarser surfaces elicit more rumble from the tyres, and there’s some wind noise noticeable around the top of the windscreen during freeway driving, though neither is ever deafeningly intrusive. The engine also remains in the background at 110km/h, even when working relatively hard in top gear (2500rpm).
Lane-keep assist can be more intrusive. While the T-Cross is not alone in this respect, the ‘driver aid’ – which tugs at the steering wheel if it thinks you’re starting to wander out of your lane – can be turned off using just buttons on the steering wheel.
The Volkswagen T-Cross is rated as one of the most fuel-efficient small SUVs, with official consumption of 5.4 litres per 100km. After testing, the trip computer registered an average of 6.0L/100km – impressive for a real-world-driving number. Premium, 95RON unleaded is the minimum recommended fuel, whereas most rivals run on regular unleaded.
Budget-conscious buyers should also take into account servicing costs. Volkswagen’s are traditionally at the higher end of the mainstream segment, and the T-Cross's annual (or 15,000km) check-ups range between $301 and $805. It's a total of $1214 over three years/45,000km, or $2438 over five years/75,000km.
For comparison, a Toyota C-HR costs $200 per annual service (or every 15,000km), a Mazda CX-3 costs between $330 and $390 (though with 10,000km interval mileage limits), and a Venue between $259 and $459.
The Volkswagen T-Cross has much to offer, though, with one of the best engines in the realm of compact SUVs, and a relatively spacious cabin that’s all the more flexible for its clever sliding rear bench.
Few ‘light’ SUVs can serve a family of four with genuine practicality – most are better suited to single owners or couples after a vehicle that offers higher seating and/or exterior styling different to a city car.
Yet, the T-Cross is one of those exceptions – a model that is more comparable in terms of interior space to slightly larger ‘small’ SUVs such as the Kia Seltos or Honda HR-V.
Just bear in mind that, for its total cost, you could actually have a Tiguan, albeit in base-model form. Or, if there’s potential to reconsider the need for an SUV, a Polo GTI hot hatch.