By Jonathan Crouch
Think of a Volkswagen Polo with a more adventurous image, a slightly larger cabin and a more flexible interior. You're picturing this car, Volkswagen's smallest SUV, the T-Cross, launched back in 2019. It's trendy, quite sophisticated and very acceptably efficient, thanks to its 1.0-litre TSI petrol and 1.6 TDI diesel engine options. And you can make it very much your own. What's not to like?
It may seem as if Volkswagen has a considerable number of family SUVs in its model line-up but the surprising truth is that until the introduction of this T-Cross model, the Wolfsburg brand had been completely absent from one of this crucial segment's fastest-growing sectors; that for supermini-based SUVs.
Nissan launched the Juke in 2011. Renault announced the Captur in 2014. It wasn't though, until late 2018 that we first saw this T-Cross, Volkswagen belatedly responding to the fact that the small SUV segment had by then doubled in size over the previous five years and was set to double again over the next five. This contender sloted into the company's range just below the Golf-based T-Roc. Which in turn sat below the Tiguan and Touareg SUVs in the company's line-up. The T-Cross was Polo-based and sat on the same MQB-A0 platform as its VW Group close cousins, the Skoda Kamiq and the SEAT Arona.
The motor industry likes to think that customer preference for small tall models like this one is a recent phenomenon. Actually, it isn't; cars like the Renault 4 were offering this kind of packaging back in the Seventies, though admittedly not with the kind of 'urban crossover' vibe that characterises the T-Cross and its ilk. This doesn't translate into any actual extra rough road capability of course; supermini-SUV buyers don't want that. But it may well sugar the pill if you've decided the time has come to downsize from something slightly larger.
As will the surprising amount of space in this car's cabin. Given the whole 'short-tall' theme, you might expect this car to offer more headroom than a supposedly larger Golf. But you might well be surprised to find that this T-Cross can also offer considerably more boot space than that car, courtesy of its sliding rear bench, a key differentiating feature over this model's SEAT and Skoda counterparts. Other surprises for original buyers included the kind of brightly coloured optional trimming packs that once would have been at odds with Volkswagen's traditionally conservative image. And ride quality equally contrary to the normal notion that because of extra height, an SUV must always ride more firmly than the ordinary hatch it's based upon. The T-Cross was originally offered with a 1.6 TDI diesel option, as well as the more familiar 1.0 TSI and 1.5 TSI petrol units, but the diesel was dropped in 2020. The T-Cross sold in its original form until mid-2023, when it was extensively facelifted. It's the pre-facelift 2019-2023-era models we look at here.
What You Get
If you want a compact affordable Volkswagen SUV but find the brand's Golf-based T-Roc model a bit too fashion-conscious, then this Polo-based T-Cross will probably be just up your street. Despite the fact that it sits on an MQB-A0 platform supposedly designated for superminis, it's actually not much smaller than a T-Roc in overall size and has a boxier, more conventional shape that ought to make it a touch more practical inside.
Inside, you sit quite commandingly by the standards of this class of car and it's easy to find a comfortable driving position thanks to loads of wheel and seat adjustment. You might wish that Volkswagen had taken a slightly more extrovert approach to cabin design here - it's well built and ergonomically almost faultless, but all a bit grey and dour. All models get an 8-inch centre-dash Composition Media' infotainment screen which delivers all the usual informational, telephone and entertainment options with assured cleverness. Avoid entry-level trim and you also get the Volkswagen 'Car-Net' 'App-Connect' set-up you'll need for 'Apple CarPlay' and 'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring. As an option on mainstream models, Volkswagen also offered a larger 10.25-inch 'Active Info Display' instrument screen, which replaced the usual conventional dials that you otherwise get in the instrument cluster. There's plenty of storage space too, including big door bins, under-seat stowage and a deep forward compartment ahead of the gearstick.
And in the rear? Well six foot adults who might normally grumble at the prospect of long distance rear seat confinement in any supermini-based model need have no worries about the prospect of riding in this one. We should also mention this car's party piece - its sliding rear bench, which was standard-fit across the range. The seat base slides over a range of 14cms, though in its most forward position, legroom would be virtually non-existent unless the people in front were very short indeed. When it's pushed all the way back though, there's vastly more leg room than you'd ever expect a car of this size would be able to provide. Finally, let's talk about luggage space out back. You might hope that that the tall shape would free up considerably more boot capacity than you'd get in a Polo. Well that depends upon the position of that sliding rear bench. If it's pushed all the way back, there's 385-litres of space - just 34-litres more than a Polo, but easily enough for a buggy or a few large suitcases. If however, you were to push the bench right forward, capacity would rise to 455-litres - which is 10-litres more than you'd get in Volkswagen's T-Roc SUV from the next class up.
What to Look For
Most T-Cross owners we surveyed were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there have been those who have had problems you'll want to look out for. We came across a few issues with the starting system; apparently some cars don't start right away when they are fired up with the engine start button and have to have the button pushed multiple times before the engine will start. This fault is down to an electronic assembly inside the car, rather than the mechanical components. A number of owners have also reported that they have a difficult time stopping or starting their T-Cross urgently. The problem here may lie in the fact that the engine and key's interconnection sometimes experiences lag. We've come across a few reports of creaking and rattling of interior trim. And we've heard reports of a clockspring failure issue. A failed clockspring is a bit of a problem as this affects the working of steering-related system components like the horn, the airbags and the steering wheel controls. We also heard of airbag malfunctioning, due to a broken weld on the discharge airbag's nozzle, an issue which would have to be fixed by a dealership. Apart from that, check for the usual things - interior child damage, scratched alloys etc. And of course insist on a fully stamped-up service history.
[based on a 2019 model 1.0 TSI 115PS] An air filter will be priced in the £23 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £4 bracket and a pollen filter will cost in the £16 to £25 bracket. A starter motor will likely around £66, though a pricier brand could cost you up to £212. The front brake discs we came across sat in the £90 to £113 bracket, with rear discs costing between £25 and £40. Front brake pads are in the £22-£112 bracket. Rear pads are in the £16-£30 bracket. A wiper blade is £8-£19; a thermostat is around £19; a radiator is around £177.
On the Road
This is a little Crossover perfectly suited for driving in the real world. From the moment you start off down the road in a T-Cross, you instantly feel comfortable with the way it feels and responds. There's nothing particularly interesting about the drive dynamics being delivered here, but all the control weights are nicely matched, the clutch engages smoothly, the throttle response is linear, the brakes inspire confidence and the steering is light and precise, even if it offers relatively little in the way of actual feedback. During fast, tight cornering, having a slightly higher centre of gravity than you'd get in a Polo is noticeable but even then, the T-Cross doesn't lurch about and feels relatively agile. And for the rest of the time, you'll simply enjoy the fact that the slightly higher-set driving position gives you a useful improvement in all-round visibility. So it's good around town; and equally good out on the highway, helped by a class-leadingly supple quality of ride and standards of drive refinement that are difficult to better in this class. This car's better suited to longer trips than any other rival.
But the T-Cross is at heart, as Volkswagen keeps telling us, an 'urban crossover'; it certainly isn't intended for much use away from a paved surface, though light field tracks and muddy car parks will be slightly easier to tackle than they would be in a Polo. Engine-wise, almost all buyers will choose the 1.0-litre TSI turbo petrol unit, available with either 95PS and a 5-speed manual gearbox. Or with 115PS (later 110PS) and a choice of either 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed DSG automatic. With the stick shift, up to 47.9mpg is possible on the WLTP-rated combined cycle - and 112g/km of NEDC-rated CO2. Briefly, Volkswagen also offered a minority-interest 1.6-litre TDI diesel option with 95PS, this variant available with either 5-speed manual transmission or the 7-speed DSG auto.
You'll pay a little more for a T-Cross than you will for some obvious rivals, but what you get in return is a more considered product that restricts its frivolity to a few optional trim packages but is at its heart very much a traditional Volkswagen. There are some things we really like about it: the superb class-leading ride quality for example. And the sliding rear bench, a key selling point that would allow you to downsize from family hatch into one of these and feel quite happy: plenty of customers will. How appealing the T-Cross will be to drivers currently loyal to rival brands is another question.
There's no doubt though, that it has carved out a useful niche for itself. You'd certainly have to be a committed follower of fashion to choose a T-Roc over one of these. It is at heart a very complete small SUV. And very much a Volkswagen.