Between a roc and a poor exchange rate
Stunningly good Golf-based crossover could be one of the great surprise packages of the year, says Michael Taylor
In a world of booming SUV growth, having a Tiguan, a Touareg and an upcoming Polo-based T-Cross on the books isn’t enough for Volkswagen. It needed one of the Golf as well.
Sitting just under the Tiguan in size and a world away in philosophy, the T-Roc might just turn out to be a masterstroke of positioning, feeling sharp, agile, practical and a lot of fun.
Before you get too excited though, Volkswagen SA has put its plans to bring the T-Roc to the country on the shelf as it is likely to be too expensive. After driving it in Portugal, we hope they change their minds.
Built off the Golf’s core architecture, the T-Roc is sharp where the more family-oriented Tiguan is dully competent, agile where its big brother is stolid and it pays almost nothing in terms of ride quality. Its interior is feisty and fun, though the eggshell-hard dashboard plastic is both unbecoming and not very VW in the way it sounds and feels.
There’s plenty of interior tech, including a new digital instrument cluster that swaps jobs back and forth with the eight-inch infotainment touchscreen in the dash.
But the biggest surprise is the way it drives. A Tiguan lets you know in the first metres of a drive that it’s solid and stable and it will see you right in comfort. Even the Golf goes down that road a bit. A T-Roc isn’t like that at all. It’s an SUV with almost warm-hatch like levels of grip and sportiness on the road and it feeds back to you that it wants you to have fun in it.
One key has been the use of the VW Group’s MQB modular architecture to lower development cost and time; the second has been the company has taken drastic steps to give it clear separation from an otherwise vulnerable, similar-sized Golf.
That’s where the sporty nature comes in and it comes in right down to its 17-inch boots. It feels alive, vibrant and agile. It changes direction with an enthusiasm that is frankly stunning from this sort of machine and it carries about 50% more speed through corners than is ever likely to be necessary.
It even whips through quick direction changes with rock-solid body control and none of that up-across-over feel from the rear-end bodywork on most SUVs or crossovers. It just hunkers down and transfers its weight while keeping the body flat and punches through. Mid-corner bumps don’t threaten the composure, either, and it rides them ridiculously well when you’re hustling through bends.
There are three damping modes and, as usual, you’ll only need Comfort for exceedingly gnarly road surfaces, you’ll only need Sport to briefly impress somebody (though it doesn’t ride poorly) and you’ll spend most of your T-Roc’s life in the Auto setting. Because it’s that clever.
Its rock-solid body construction helps with the handling, too, and the all-wheel drive feels like it effortlessly gets the power to the road. The cheaper, front-drive version doesn’t struggle much, either, though it’s dealing with less power. It’s almost a GTi for the crossover category. It’s that good.
There’s a small price to pay for that in its firmness over bumps at low speed, but it’s not significantly firmer than a Golf, and that’s damned near the best thing in the compact class.
Its three engines (one of them a diesel) all run turbochargers, beginning with the cheerful little 1.0l, three-cylinder unit, complete with direct injection, that inhabits the front-wheel drive poverty pack.
The new 1.5l, four-cylinder petrol motor is also available, but of more interest to the scorecards will be the 1,968cc turbodiesel, with 110kW of power and, from 1,750r/min, 340Nm of torque.
But it’s the 140kW, 2.0l four-cylinder petrol engine that stands out as the one that most suits the T-Roc’s chassis character. The detuned Golf GTi engine is lighter over the front end than the diesel and it’s also a bit tastier, spins a lot sweeter and is free with its punchy fun.
It’s a strong engine, mated to a strong seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that flicks through shifts with unimpeachable smoothness (except when it brings the artificial jolts in the Sport mode).
It’s a great small engine, full of torque (its 320Nm hits at 1,500rpm), free of tremors and quick to respond to the throttle. There are some hints to old-style driving here, with the Sport mode speeding up the throttle response and the paddle shifts giving the driver the feeling of control, but the car is now smart enough to do both jobs at least as well, and as timely, as you can.
There’s also a round controller to select different all-wheel drive modes for different surfaces, which seemed to work well for our limited off-road attacks, and it combines with an electric parking brake.
The driving package runs the now-normal suite of Volkswagen safety tech, from the cross-parking warning to pedestrian detection to active cruise control to a self-parking system.
That all gives the T-Roc a dose of inherent character that makes its two-tone paint scheme, flashier colours and bright interior trims feel authentic, rather than a tack-on attempt at individualism. The white-on-blue, which looks naff in pictures, actually works extremely well in natural light.
Its design is a fresh start for VW and the wide grille and crisply curved wheel arches are a clear departure from the conservative norms of cars like the Passat and the Tiguan.
Through it all, it delivers a clear crossover look, while shying away from looking or feeling overtly tall, and it neatly combines straight lines, sharp edges and softer curves in a concert of design precision. It’s the same inside, where the T-Roc delivers on every VW brand promise except the use of top-end materials in the dashboard.
To keep the Golf in its position of pre-eminence inside Volkswagen, it will only build 200,000 of them a year in Europe and another 250,000 a year in China. And they’ll shift every single one. Hopefully the company will decide to share some of them with SA.