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First Drive: Volkswagen T-Cross prototype drive

From:Greg Kable 2018-08-01 11:59:06

Volkswagen is renowned for the conservative approach it takes to entering new market segments – its usual excuse being that it likes to take its time to fully understand new customers and their purchasing decisions before committing to the expensive undertaking of conceiving, developing, testing and producing a brand new model.

But even by its own standards, the German car maker has taken an extraordinarily long time to acknowledge the sales potential of the compact SUV. While many of its key rivals already offer such a model – some of them for years now, Volkswagen remains stalled in the starting blocks of what is one of the world’s fast-growing market segments.

However, the unhappy situation for Volkswagen is set to be resolved later this year when it introduces the T-Cross – a new Polo based SUV to rival to the likes of the Citroen C3 AirCross, Hyundai Creta and Jeep Renegade among others. First previewed by the T-Cross Breeze concept in 2016, the compact five-seater is set to slot into the Volkswagen line-up beneath the recently unveiled T-Roc in both fixed roof and, eventually, convertible bodystyles.

Based on Volkswagen’s new MQB-AO platform, Volkswagen hopes the T-Cross will bring it similar success as the larger Tiguan – another Volkswagen model which, after years of dithering on the part of  Wolfsburg officials, arrived late on the scene but, through the appeal of its quality and engineering, has managed to rise above much of the mid-size SUV competition for outright desirability.

Like the Tiguan, the T-Cross boasts a rather restrained look that aims to provide it with broad appeal to as wide a group of customers as possible. In Europe, the new model is planned to be sold in five different models lines: Trendline, Comfortline, Highline, Designline and R-Line, together with the choice of a two-tone exterior paint scheme and either 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels. But while it is perhaps not as flashy at as some rivals, Volkswagen is convinced its latest SUV model is the most rounded cars in its class, suggesting it sets new standards for safety, technology, comfort, connectivity and functionality.

“We are convinced no other compact SUV offers as much everyday convenience as the T-Cross,” says Andreas Krueger, head of Volkswagen’s small car line-up.

It is with this thought that we find ourselves climbing aboard the new entry-level Volkswagen SUV for the first time ready to put it through its paces on roads outside the German city of Munich.  

With much of its front end covered in plastic foil to disguise some of the finer elements of the new T-Cross’s exterior styling, the Volkswagen engineers on hand have pointed out that the 1.6 TDI we’re in is an early hand built example – one of over 100 such mules used by Volkswagen in a durability test program underway for over 18 months – and thus not exactly representative of the upcoming production version, which will initially be produced alongside the seventh-generation Polo at a factory in Pamploma, Spain but is also set to join a growing number of Volkswagen’s models produced by FAW (First Automobile Works) in Changchun, China. To understand the T-Cross, it’s important to know that, at 4107mm in length, 1750mm in width and 1558mm in height, it is a considerable 383mm shorter, 90mm narrower and 92mm lower than the Tiguan. It also rides on a wheelbase that, at 2563mm, is some 9mm longer than that of the Polo, with which it shares much of its mechanical package.

Despite its compact dimensions, the new Volkswagen model offers all of the driver assistant systems of its larger sibling, including Lane Assist, Multi-Collision Braking System, Side Assist, Front Assist, Pedestrian Recognition, Fatigue Detection, Rear Traffic Alert and Park Assist. Not all are standard, but in combination with a full complement of airbags, the T-Cross is potentially one of the safest cars in the compact SUV class yet.

As we get underway, it’s hard to fault the sheer simplicity of operation. With light but direct steering traits, an easily modulated throttle and a relatively tight turning circle, the T-Cross can be easily manoeuvred in and out of tight parking spaces and through traffic. Volkswagen says a lot of the focus during development has been on urban driving, and in this respect, it feels a lot like a smaller version of the Tiguan.

Low-speed ride on optional 17-inch wheels is nicely compliant, with small bumps absorbed without too much fuss around town. Larger road imperfections do make their presence felt within the cabin at speed, suggesting some fine tuning of the spring and damping is likely to be carried out before the T-Cross is signed off for production later this year, but in overall terms its comfort is commendable. As with the latest Polo, the new Volkswagen can be optioned with ACC (adaptive chassis control) allowing the driver to choose between four different driving models: eco, norm, sport and individual.

The T-Cross is initially planned to be offered exclusively in front-wheel drive guise, so unlike some compact SUV rivals offering four-wheel drive true off-road running is out of the question. Gearbox choices include a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual clutch gearbox depending on the engine that is chosen.

Apart from a consistent rattle from an isolated interior prototype component, the prototype we drove felt exceptionally well built. And quite eager, too! With 70kWhp and 250Nm of torque, the turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel engine combines well with the optional seven-speed dual clutch gearbox to offer strong off-the-line and decent in-gear acceleration out on the open road.

The sole diesel in the new T-Cross line-up feels particularly well judged in terms of gearing both around town and out on the open road. It also proves to be well mannered with a flexible delivery and hushed mechanical  refinement, at least until you begin to force the revs beyond about 4000rpm, at which point it becomes quite vocal with lots of old-fashioned mechanical clatter.

Other engines will be available from the start of European sales. They include a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol unit with either 70kW and 175Nm or, in a slightly higher state of tune, 85kW and 200Nm as well as a turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder powerplant delivering 110kW and 250Nm.

Inside, the T-Cross boasts similar interior styling to the latest Polo. Its quality levels are also on par with its mechanical identical hatchback sibling, too. Despite the similarities, though, you sit quite a bit higher in the T-Cross, whose front seat hip-point is put at 597mm, than in the Polo.

The raised driving position is part and parcelled of the T-Cross’s appeal, providing the driver with a commanding view of the road and good overall visibility to each corner. 

Although the prototype we drove retained the standard instruments, buyers will be able to option the price leading Volkswagen SUV with a digital instrument display in combination with an 8.0 inch touch-screen display for the infotainment functions.

It comes in combination with a range of useful options, including twin USB ports front and rear, a wireless Smartphone charging pad, keyless access, LED headlamps, ambient interior lighting and a 300 watt Beats sound system. Accommodation both up front and in the rear is excellent, given the new Volkswagen’s compact dimensions. As an option, the rear seat offers 150mm of fore/aft adjustment, enabling you to vary the amount of rear legroom and luggage space – the latter of which is put at 385 litres with the rear seat set in its most rearward position and 455 litres when it is adjusted to its most forward position. With the 60:40 rear seat folded down, luggage space extends to 1281 litres.

It has taken Volkswagen a long time to enter the compact SUV ranks. However, the early signs are the T-Cross has the potential to become a leader in its class in many areas. While wholesomely conservative in appearance, it delivers exactly the sort of driving characteristics, comfort, quality, versatility and features many compact SUV buyers are seeking.

Editor:Greg Kable