As the overall SUV market continues its worldwide growth trend, there is one segment set to expand by an astonishing 200% over the next decade, particularly in the Chinese and European markets.
This is the entry-level sub-compact or A0 segment, and the T-Cross is the very first VW to ever contest this class. As such it has a lot of ground to make up against a plethora of existing competitors from European and Asian manufacturers. However, none of them carry the kudos of the VW badge, and as we will see later, none is a match for its mechanical sophistication.
That sophistication is founded in VW’s versatile MQB platform, specifically the version that underpins the Polo, an acknowledged paradigm of refinement and sophistication in the highly competitive super-mini class.
Because the T-Cross is shorter but of similar height to big brother T-Roc it lacks that cars confident stylishness, looking more functional and utilitarian in comparison. Thus, while everyone we asked admired the T-Roc’s balanced proportions many described the T-Cross as ‘stubby’ or ‘dumpy. However, this length to height ratio is something it has in common with its competitors, which all suffer from this issue.
Looks aside, the way VW has handled the T-Cross interior packaging is far superior to its peers. As it is 55mm longer and 138mm taller than the Polo, the T-Cross places its occupants more upright, something the designers have taken advantage of to turn the cabin into a much more versatile and roomy habitat with a larger luggage area.
All the way from its enhanced rear head and legroom to easier ingress and egress, the T-Cross scores points over its hatchback sister. The rear seat passengers have the advantage of sitting 652mm above the road compared to 597mm for the front seat occupants, so benefit from a higher viewpoint.
When it comes to boot volume, VW has managed to up the 355-litre capacity of the Polo to 385 litres on the slightly longer T-Cross.
The designers have thought things through above and beyond the class average, and pulling a stout lever bar under the front of the rear seat bench allows the whole rear seat to slide forwards, increasing potential boot volume to 455 litres. Folding the 40/60 rear seat backs flat makes for a 1,281-litre cargo bay.
However, the load carrying versatility does not stop there. For its final party trick the T-Cross is the only car in its class featuring a front passenger seat back that folds forwards, ending up parallel to the squab. This allows you to carry a long object that requires the full interior length from tailgate to dashboard.
While the T-Cross cabin architecture owes much to current VW interior design, it also comes with its own playbook. Thus it has nothing in common with the current Polo interior, the HVAC controls in the centre console are unique to the model, and the new generation infotainment screen is shared with the T-Roc.
Aimed at the needs of a younger tech savvy audience, the interior features an inductive wireless phone charger in the centre console, two USB ports in the front centre console and another two for the rear compartment. Thus you can have up to four mobile devices on charge, or alternatively two phones, a music USB stick, and a mobile data stick all plugged in at the same time.
While it is doubtful that many customers would specify the full driver assistance suit like Lane Departure Warning and Parking Assist fitted to our generously equipped test cars, the T-Cross can have most of the driver assistance options available on larger VW models, barring high-end items like LED matrix lights, night vision, and a head-up display.
One option worth ticking the box for if you are a music fan is the Beats audio system with its under the boot floor mounted sub-woofer. We always carry a USB stick loaded with test music from jazz to classical in high-res format, and were able to verify that the Beats system produces tuneful and dynamic sounds.
With front-wheel-drive only and a torsion beam rear axle, the fundamental layout of the smallest MQB variant harks back to the original formula introduced on the Golf Mk 1 of 1974. But that also means VW has had nearly four and a half decades to refine this proven layout, and this shows in the mature way the T-Cross goes down the road.
To adapt the Polo underpinnings to T-Cross duties you first need to increase its ground clearance from hatchback to crossover levels. The extra 60mm in question starts with larger diameter tyres - 665mm compared to 630mm for the Polo - mounted on 16, 17 or 18-inch wheels.
The suspension hardware is modified using spacers to raise the front MacPherson strut suspension, which now features lowered steering knuckles. The rear torsion beam axle is also given spacers, and the set-up receives taller springs all round matched to suitably longer stroke dampers. The actual spring and damper rates are not far off the Polos, only adjusted for the 80kg greater kerb weight and potential carrying capacity of the T-Cross.
Maintaining a similar level of roll stiffness to the Polo is down to a larger front anti-roll bar in conjunction with reinforcing the torsion beam rear axle in salient areas. Polo variants come with three possible anti-roll bars of 12, 15 and 19 N/mm resistances. The T-Cross uses the middle setting, and the rear torsion tube axle is uprated to suit.
Set off down the road and the first thing that strikes you is just how composed and sophisticated the ride is for such a small vehicle. The spring and damper rates have been perfectly judged to provide good secondary ride absorption at low speeds, and confer good body control in long fast bends on country roads or highways. Given that taller vehicles generally have to be given stiffer suspension to contain roll and maintain overall stability, we were pleasantly surprised by this fine balancing act.
While the handling is competent and confidence building the taller chassis and different suspension geometry see the front-end running into understeer and a little bit of torque steer in the lower gears at a lower threshold than the equivalent Polo. A keen driver will learn to compensate for this by adopting a later apex through the bends.
The turbocharged 999cc three-cylinder motor shared with the Polo comes in two states of tune, with the choice of 95hp or 115hp, the former matched to a five-speed manual gearbox, and the latter to a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG.
Weighing 1,245kg, the 95hp version has 175Nm of torque from 2,000 to 3,500rpm and broaches 100km/h in 11.5 sec. Its more powerful 1,250kg (1,270kg with DSG) sibling has 200Nm in the same rev range and takes 10.2 sec to reach 100km/h. Top speeds are 180km/h and 192km/h respectively.
Given that the manual and DSG equipped 115hp versions I drove one-up felt just adequate in terms of acceleration and overall pace, the lesser 95hp version would be slow per se, and painfully slow with four on board and a boot full of luggage.
Looking at the fuel consumption numbers, it is splitting hairs between the two engine variants, both of which average 5.0 to 4.9 L/100km. The less powerful car just does not make sense unless you are on a tight budget.
The six-speed manual gearbox has a nice positive quality to its shifting action, while the pedals are perfectly placed for heeling and toeing. So it was actually quite fun to use the full capability of the three-cylinder turbo motor whose offbeat soundtrack is more sporting than an in-line four.
While it revs cleanly to 6,000rpm, there is not much point in challenging the last 500rpm as the power has tailed off by then. Where this engine scores is in the mid-range torque, which is good for a mere 1.0 litre. However, it is best to keep things cooking between 2,000 and 5,500rpm, and use traffic planning and the fairly nimble handling to practice the art of going quickly by never going slowly.
The DSG option is of course potentially more efficient, the extra forward ratio making full use of the available power and torque whether you are driving for maximum performance or economy. As usual the DSG executes very rapid and totally smooth shifts in both directions, making the T-Cross quite fun to drive on the right road.
VW may be a first timer in the entry-level SUV/crossover segment, but they have done a masterful job with the T-Cross. Good build quality, packaging versatility, sophisticated ride, and a high level of general polish puts the T-Cross in a different league from its class competitors. A long test drive should seal the deal for most people.