When the T-Roc arrives in South Africa in March 2020, it will slot in between the T-Cross and Tiguan in Volkswagen's line-up. In flagship R guise, the T-Roc is essentially "a high-riding Golf R" and – arguably – the world's best performance crossover. Our correspondent Simon Davis gave the newcomer a close look at its international launch in the South of France.
What is it?
It’s not often that the Volkswagen Golf R has company, but it’s a fairly apt sign of the times that the newest member of the Wolfsburg-based brand’s high-performance family is SUV-shaped. This is the T-Roc R, and it joins the likes of the BMW X2 M35i in the growing performance-crossover niche.
Based on the SQ2, which is not coming to SA, the T-Roc R is quite a different prospect altogether.
Like its T-Cross and Q3 relatives (not to mention the aforementioned Golf R), the T-Roc R is based on Volkswagen’s MQB architecture and makes use of the now exceptionally ubiquitous EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder motor. It develops the same peak outputs (221 kW and 400 Nm) as its cousins, all of which is deployed via a 7-speed dual-clutch ‘box and Haldex clutch-based all-wheel-drive system.
A new aluminium subframe helps facilitate a far sportier suspension calibration, while the uprated 17-inch performance brakes (which are optional on the Golf R) are fitted as standard in the T-Roc R. Adaptive dampers and an Akrapovic sports exhaust can also be specified at extra cost. Our evaluation unit had both, as well as the 19-inch "Pretoria" (that's right, Pretoria!) alloys and an 8-inch Discover Media infotainment system.
What's it like to drive?
Performance SUVs are beginning to find their way into smaller products; the T-Roc R is arguably ahead of the curve.
On Nice’s congested inner-city roads the T-Roc R’s sporting pretentions are reasonably well masked, but still a long way from inconspicuous. With the dampers in their midway setting, vertical body movements are kept well in check over lumps and bumps, but not to the extent that compressions force the wind from your lungs. The T-Roc R breathes a little easier in Comfort mode, although it seems there’s no escaping the often violently loud thumps from the suspension as the wheels pass over smaller ruts and expansion joints. It’s certainly more liveable than an X2 M35i, however...
Breaking out of Nice and the surge of midday traffic, we begin a hard charge up the technical mountain roads that lead to Col de Vence. With everything set to Race, the T-Roc R proves brutally effective. The DSG ‘box’s tendency to be caught out is minimised, and the EA888 motor is as heavy-hitting as ever. More than anything, however, it’s the levels of lateral grip that the T-Roc R is capable of generating that impresses most.
The interior could do with a few more R touches. Specific performance screens have been added to the infotainment system.
Performance enthusiasts will be delighted to learn that the T-Roc R corners incredibly neutrally; in fact, its 4Motion all-wheel-drive seems capable of effectively eliminating understeer. Turn the wonderfully weighted, precise steering wheel and the front end bites in towards the apex hard, before the rear-end digs in to slingshot you out the other end.
Any meaningful "hip wriggling" is clinically choreographed out of the Volkswagen's cornering routine, but the tenacity with which it clings to the tarmac is very addictive. And, while you’re always aware of a heightened level of body roll through fast sweeping bends, it’s not so prevalent so as to detract from the otherwise highly enjoyable process of driving this car fast on a fantastic road.
That said, the driving environment itself is a bit of a letdown. The hard interior plastics that were acceptable in lower-grade versions of the T-Roc feel drab and out of place in this performance derivative. An X2 M35i feels far classier in this regard. Practicality is good, though. There’s enough room for taller passengers to sit in reasonable comfort in the 2nd row, while its 392-litre load bay is a fair whack smaller than the BMW’s (470 litres).
Should I buy one?
It certainly looks the performance part with quad pipes. Akrapovic pipes are an optional extra too.
Based on our brief test drive in France it seems fair to conclude that as an overall package, the T-Roc R trumps both the flagship X2 and its cousin, the SQ2. It seems to ride considerably better on its adaptive dampers and absolutely doesn’t give anything away for sheer cross-country pace or engagement. Dare I say it, this might even be the first time where the old adage of ‘just buy a Golf R instead’ doesn’t apply.
Volkswagen South Africa has informed Cars.co.za that the T-Roc R is under consideration for South Africa, but currently not destined for our market. Should exchange rates become more favourable the situation may be revisited, though...