Merc’s entry-level hot hatch has grown a boot to take on the Audi S3 Saloon
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£34,090 when new
The T-Roc is a VW money-printer, right? A cash-cow in waiting, oh yes. Not that the company needs it. Sales-wise, VW can consider itself well and truly forgiven for dieselgate. In June 2018, VW actually surpassed ailing Vauxhall and dominant Ford to reach the top of the UK car sales charts for the first time in 66 years. The Golf, Polo and Tiguan all feature in Britain’s top ten best-selling cars. And despite much car sales uncertainty because of Brexit and that diesel issue you may vaguely remember, VW is on course to top 2017’s target of six million units shifted. Sales are up 2.8 per cent, even though the market is down – thanks in part to a scandal of VW’s own making – a hefty 3.5 per cent. Two years is a long time in car-making, it seems.
In that time, VW’s been catching up on the crossover craze. It’s shifted the Tiguan upmarket, done a seven-seater version, there’s a tall Polo-sorta-thing called T-Cross imminent, and then there’s this: the T-Roc. A Golf-sized crossover with styling as wacky as the straight-edged VW corporate suits will allow, plugging the cool, open-buttoned shirt collar space in VW’s range vacated by the Scirocco coupe. And this R-line version will be big business in Blighty, I take it? Course it will. With assorted body kit hung from its chunky proportions, giant 19-inch wheels and completely pointless but somehow desirable garnish like footwell ambient lighting and a flat-bottomed Golf R steering wheel on board, how could it not be smack on the money for image-conscious Brits. And the money, by the way, is £26,450 for VW’s new 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual gearbox. TG’s been a bit more ambitious, and tested the schporty T-Roc with its schportiest powertrain. At £33,850, it’s Golf R money. It’s also edging into the lower reaches of Range Rover Evoque territory. Better be quite a powertrain, then. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged motor good for 187bhp and 236lb ft, and comes as standard with four-wheel drive and a seven-speed DSG transmission. Curiously, paddleshifters aren’t standard, but that doesn’t stop the T-Roc topping 62mph in a respectable 7.2 seconds and reaching 134mph. That’s…almost quick. Heaving along seven gears, two clutches and four driveshafts blunts the engine’s near hot-hatch poke. With a driver on board, this top-spec T-Roc weighs more than 1,500kg, which is an awful lot for a relatively small crossover that’s no more spacious inside than a cheaper, lighter alternative. Like, ooh, I dunno… a Golf? VW’s ranks also contain the quintessential everyday hot hatch. A Golf GTI five-door with a DSG gearbox costs under £30k and goes faster, consuming less fuel, emitting less CO2. I don’t care. I want a crossover, not a hot hatch. I want outdoorsy ruftiness, ride height, and space. And you’re not alone – this is the fastest growing car sales sector of them all. But like quite a few of the crossover set, the T-Roc’s hip point doesn’t feel dramatically higher than a modern hatchback’s (though the roofline’s a handy 81mm taller, so headroom rivals a cathedral’s), there’s no more rear seat space than a Golf, and areas of the cabin feel cynically cheapened, outfitted with hard, unappealing plastic. As usual for a VW, the layout and ergonomics are spot on – you never have to hunt for a light switch, wonder about the wipers or delve through a (fast, sharply-rendered) touchscreen to adjust the air-con. But it’s not inviting, however much colour-contrast paneling VW throws at the problem. At least the R-line seats are supportively bolstered. So which crossover camp does this fall into - oddly fun to drive, like a Hyundai Kona and Seat Ateca, or, er, everything else? The T-Roc R-design lands uncomfortably in the middle. Despite the 19-inch tyres actually being low-rolling resistance items designed to improve coasting economy, there’s a huge sensation of grip – so much in fact that four-wheel drive feels like overkill. VW’s seven-speed DSG only replaced its six-speeder a couple of years ago, but it’s still a flawed transmission, and as we found in the new Polo earlier this year, its hesitancy in town verges on negligent. The suspicion its grumpy, teenage reluctance to get out of bed and go to work is a result of test-focused eco tuning is reinforced by the other modern VW trait of killing the engine as the car rolls to a stop, in a desperate effort to get the most out of the stop-start system. Great idea, until it takes the steering assistance with it, making parallel parking and moving over in a lane to allow space for bikers to lane-split impossible. But all of this is small-fry first world problems compared to the ride. On its 19-inch shoes the T-Roc, already at a disadvantage to a hatch in needing stiffer anti-roll bars to tame its loftier dimensions, comes over all crashy, thuddy and generally out of sorts. Was that a cats-eye you ran over, or an errant traffic cone? Britain’s knackered roads haven’t put off folks from falling over themselves to buy M Sport BMWs and S-line Audis, complete with ferris wheel alloys, but small crossovers suffer for the ride quality hit more than most. The T-Roc is just unpleasant, really. Is it uncomfortable enough to put people off? If a car’s ride is crashy enough to interrupt conversation inside with winces and ‘ooffs’, I’d say so. However… This is a handsome crossover available in bright colours. And advising the world to buy something else is like a tech journalist pointing out an upstart Chinese smartphone company has developed an uncrackable screen, expandable memory, a million-megapixel camera and week-long battery life. “La-la-la, we can’t hear you”, says the rest of the world. “We want an iPhone, thanks.” The power of The Want is a seductive, irrational, unarguable draw. I suppose the T-Roc R-design is more of a wind-up merchant than other crossovers because it effectively replaces the Scirocco, which was a lower, lighter, possibly cooler Mk5 Golf GTI. A practicality compromise, in return for sharkier looks and pointier handling. Yes, the T-Roc is, on paper, what the market wants. But it’s always struggling to outrun the feeling this new VW millennial go-getter is a tad cynical. Now watch it obliterate the sales charts… And sure, it’ll be a little comfier, cheaper to buy and run with a 1.0-litre engine, a manual gearbox, and 16-inch wheels doing the driving. Wonder if anyone wants one of those? 5/10
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