There are few industries that suffer FOMO more than the automotive industry, but it takes on average about three years to develop a new model, meaning many manufacturers have to sit on the sidelines at some point, watching a rival enjoy the attention in an emerging lucrative segment.
Holden and Chrysler will still be seething about how the Ford Mustang was allowed to dominate the affordable muscle car segment for so long. The premium German brands were green with envy at BMW’s X6 until they could compete in the coupe SUV market. And it has been the same story for Volkswagen at the small end of the SUV segment, until now.
In about six months, VW will at last be able to offer something to compete with the incredible number of options in the small crossover and SUV arena. But in an effort to play catch up, the company will not be introducing one little model, there’ll be a pair.
Based on the Volkswagen Polo, a compact VW T-Cross will arrive early 2020, but its bigger sister – the T-Roc is expected to steal a majority of the attention with dimensions similar to the VW Golf.
We were given a chance to meet this intriguing new member of the Volkswagen family in the unusual surroundings of a snow-covered mountain on New Zealand’s South Island. A full road test will have to wait until we have, well, roads to test it on early in 2020, but this first encounter certainly has us excited about the T-Roc’s arrival.
On the outside, its styling is inviting and appealing, taking cues from the current VW genealogy for a sense of familiarity, whilst bringing touches all of its own. But its proportions are perhaps the best part. Many small SUV’s tall and narrow stance appear awkward and unstable but not the T-Roc. It’s handsome with a planted posture.
Hop in and, while the interior is typically well built, it doesn’t have the same unique design as the exterior. Board the T-Roc blindfolded and you mightn’t have any idea which VW you were in. But that’s definitely not a bad thing. In its efforts to worry premium brands, Volkswagen’s attention to interior detail, quality and ergonomics is excellent and worthy of repetition across the various model lines.
The steering wheel is upholstered in fine leather, the central touch screen is not excessively proportioned and presented with sharp graphics, and the cabin has a light but cosy ambience – perhaps enhanced by the enveloping snow glow.
Up front, the driver’s seat is easily adjusted for a tall (leggy) driver and the view from the helm is very good. The T-Roc certainly shares the similarly approachable feel of the Golf hatchback with which it shares some engineering.
It’s also great to see the fully digital instrument cluster finally finding its way into the smaller and more affordable end of Volkswagen's range after it was introduced in sibling brand Audi's TT coupe, although this is likely to be an optional feature in all but the top-spec T-Roc.
Measuring 4234mm long and 1819mm wide, the T-Roc is large enough to feel substantial and spacious while still feeling easy to live with.
Our car was equipped with what appears to be a range-topping Sport specification and a few options, including cool machine-finished 19-inch Suzuka alloy wheels, eye-catching LED daytime running lights and a lovely Turmeric Yellow paint job that looked stunning with a white backdrop.
Specification details for Australia are still a ways off but don’t expect a bargain basement version as found in Europe. More likely are the Sport and Style variants which share similar levels of equipment packaged with a different styling theme.
Also yet to be finalised are the choice of engines; our test car was fitted with the 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol which produces 140kW and 320Nm, and sends power through VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive system and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
With such low grip under-tyre, we didn’t get a chance to see if the T-Roc feels as quick as its claimed zero-to-100km/h acceleration of 7.2 seconds, but the combination of free-revving four-cylinder engine and an eager transmission has given the T-Roc a delightfully playful nature.
Especially when you switch off the various driver assistance systems and let the T-Roc play. Special snow tyres had been fitted for the alpine drive experience we took part in, imparting much more grip than you may expect, and the clever all-wheel-drive system combined for surprisingly good progress.
Brash acceleration of the mark results in inevitable wheelspin, but beyond that, the little SUV is a real hoot even in low-traction conditions. Excellent steering precision allows the T-Roc to be positioned with confidence. There’s also a decent but not intrusive engine note when you’re working the drivetrain hard.
Top marks must go to cabin space where you’ll find ample room in the second row, comfortably accommodating adults (although five might get a little too cosy on longer trips), and headroom is surprisingly good considering the coupe-like exterior profile and a 1573mm height.
The good news continues at the back where there’s a 445-litre boot which is a good shape as well as volume, and can be expended out to a massive 1290 litres when the 60/40-split rear seats are folded.
On a relatively smooth surface, evaluating the T-Roc’s ride will have to wait until a full review, as will the grip and handling qualities when fitted with road tyres rolling on more orthodox roadway, but this first meeting with VW’s newest SUV is highly encouraging.
The T-Roc is packed with appealing styling touches, offers the ease of use that you might find in the Golf small hatchback, but with the added advantage of SUV ride-height and a clever four-wheel drive system should you decide to tackle a sprawling winter wonderland. And we wholeheartedly encourage you to.