As I drove the new Volkswagen T-Cross on the roads outside Stratford-upon-Avon, England, I informed my wife that the small SUV carries a 1.0-liter (999-cc) engine under the hood. She then reminded me that her first car—a 1983 Ford Fiesta 1.1 Popular Plus—had a bigger engine. The current Ford Fiesta is Britain’s best-selling car. But the SUV craze is making strides in Europe, where tastes are shifting to align more closely to Americans’.
The Nissan Qashqai (Rogue Sport in the U.S.), Nissan Juke, and short-wheelbase VW Tiguan have each cracked into the sales top 10 in the U.K. VW’s direct competitor to the Fiesta is the Polo, and it’s that car on which the T-Cross is based. So, if I’m allowed a bit of logical leeway, Volkswagen’s fresh offering to European buyers is a modern German SUV version of my wife’s little red Fiesta. I recently spent time in the T-Cross to see if a model like this might work in the States, as a way to broaden VW of America’s limited SUV lineup.
Our current choice of Volkswagen SUVs in the States is limited to just the Tiguan and Atlas. The smaller, previous-generation Tiguan was sold as the Tiguan Limited until recently, and that overdue departure left a sizeable gap in VW’s SUV portfolio, with nothing to battle the likes of the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, Buick Encore, and Ford EcoSport. VW’s European SUV lineup is much more extensive, with only one of the five models overlapping with what’s sold in the USA. From largest to smallest, there’s the third-gen Touareg, long-wheelbase Tiguan Allspace (the same as our model), shorter Tiguan, T-Roc (a small coupelike thing available with up to 296 hp), and the T-Cross. Do you think VW likes the letter T? I’m not sure where the Atlas name came from for the North American market. The Germans tend not to like inconsistency.
Engine options for the T-Cross are quite limited, especially for a Euro VW. The base engine is a three-cylinder with 94 horsepower, but my test car had the more powerful 113-hp version of that same powerplant, with a rather impressive 148 lb-ft of torque (versus 129 lb-ft for the entry-level version). VW recently added an available 1.6-liter, four-cylinder diesel to the T-Cross, and there’s also a 1.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder on tap. All engines come with either a five- or six-speed manual, or an optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG). My test vehicle came with the auto.
Interior space is quite good in the T-Cross, especially for a small SUV. Four adults fit with little trouble and a fifth can squeeze for short journeys. Cargo space looks good on paper, offering more than both the Polo and the larger Golf. But the quoted number must include the underfloor storage area (read: a spare tire well that carries a fix-a-flat kit), as the T-Cross couldn’t hold a load of bulky luggage that fit in the VW Golf GTI TCR I had just tested. Additionally, the optional Beats audio system adds a subwoofer that eats up the space normally available in the lower of the handy cargo floor’s two positions. Best to skip that option. And this is all a helpful reminder that numbers tend to only tell part of the story.
It’s the same case out on the road with the VW’s petite, 999-cc engine. While by no means a rocketship, the T-Cross rarely feels underpowered in normal driving and happily cruises down the motorway at 85 mph. Top speed is 120 mph and the zero-to-62-mph time is stated as 10.2 seconds. It’s all very unbefitting of an SUV carrying a motorcycle-size engine. Fuel economy is quite impressive too: I recorded a 35-mpg average during my stint, and I’m sure one could easily beat that consumption number given my heavy right foot. But I couldn’t live with the DSG gearbox, especially paired with this engine. The powertrain is inconsistent at low speeds, with an unfortunate combination of inadequate off-boost power, an aggressive stop-start system, and the calibration of the (dry) clutches that, as a package, causes the T-Cross to become at times, well, cross. That’s not a welcome feeling when attempting to pull out at a busy intersection. If you turn off stop-start and anticipate the frustrating DSG wobbles, you can drive around some of the issues, but it’s still perfectly clear why VW of America fits most of its nonperformance, lower-powered cars with a torque-converter automatic.
The chassis of the T-Cross is less of an issue but it’s not a good option for enthusiasts to consider. This isn’t a vehicle cut from the same cloth as a Golf GTI, or even a standard Golf. That said, on smooth roads and at normal speeds, the small SUV rides very well and feels like a more upscale vehicle than most of its direct competitors. It’s pretty quiet, too, and overall relaxing to drive when you simply go with the flow. But it’s clear that trying to control the taller ride height brings along certain compromises. At lower speeds, the ride can get rough and busy. Plus, the steering is far too light. Pick up the pace on country routes and the steering improves but there’s little feel. The bigger issue is with mid-corner bumps, which upset the suspension and send annoying kickback through the steering wheel. This surely isn’t helped by the 18-inch wheels on the top-spec T-Cross R-Line. Motorway trips are relatively effortless, but you get better direction stability and overall comfort in a Golf.
And that pesky Golf is the real thorn in the side of the T-Cross. Comparing spec-for-spec, one only needs to pay an extra £1270 (about $1600) for the larger VW Golf hatchback versus the smaller T-Cross. I’d take the former, without question. It ticks all the logical boxes as far as functionality, and it drives miles better than the T-Cross. It’s also better looking, with more appealing proportions. I know that much of the world seems to think they need to sit up high, but you’d have to be guzzling the SUV Kool-Aid to pick the T-Cross over the Golf.
Nonetheless, the T-Cross is a good offering in its class, and likely the best of the lot outside of the powertrain complaint. But would it work in America? I doubt it. If VW decided to send the T-Cross across the ocean, they’ll need to make sure it has that 1.5-liter engine and adapt a torque-converter automatic, which would only add cost. It would be better off selling an SUV that’s a bit larger, especially when it comes to cargo space. And that’s just what’s rumored to be happening. VW has the Tarek/Tharu (wow, more use of that letter T) in China and South America. It’s bigger than the T-Cross and T-Roc but smaller than the Tiguan lineup. We should be getting an adapted version with a new TBD name in the coming years. (Yes, it will start with T, but we’re sworn to secrecy.) Maybe that’s not soon enough, but the SUV craze doesn’t seem to be fading, no matter where you live.
2019 Volkswagen T-Cross Specifications
|ENGINE||1.0L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3, 94 or 113 hp, 129 or 148 lb-ft; 1.6L DOHC 16-valve turbo-diesel I-4, 94 hp, 184 lb-ft; 1.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, 148 hp, 184 lb-ft|
|TRANSMISSION||5- or 6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||28–30/30–32 mpg (city/hwy, est)|
|L x W x H||161.7–166.7 x 69.3–70.0 x 62.4 in|
|WEIGHT||2800 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||10.0–11.5 sec (est)|