MALLORCA – Isn't it curious Volkswagen’s taken this long to enter the small SUV/crossover segment? Ford’s been playing this game for years with the EcoSport; Renault does a roaring global trade in Capturs; and every second suburban street corner sports a Mazda CX-3. The European market for such vehicles has doubled in the last half decade, a trend mirrored locally as our tastes carefully align with those of the Northern Hemisphere.

“We wanted to get it right,” answered a Volkswagen representative somewhat sheepishly at the global launch in Mallorca when I prodded him about the carmaker’s tardiness. I doubt that’s the sole reason. My suspicion is Volkswagen was taken aback by the popularity of this type of vehicle, initially expecting the larger T-Roc (which launches here in 2020) to successfully plug the demand gap formed as the Tiguan moved upmarket before realising there was another niche it could exploit. Or it was waiting for the current Polo to mature before spinning another vehicle off the MQB-A0 platform.

As much as we may speculate on the reasons for its delay, the Spanish-built T-Cross finally exists and, despite its lengthy gestation period allowing other manufacturers to establish their product offerings and reap the financial rewards, I predict the Volkswagen will be a sales leader.

Some crossovers offers very little practical advantage over their hatchback brethren, but not so the T-Cross. Measuring 55 mm longer than the Polo and a whopping 140 mm higher, the small crossover places its rear occupants a whole 100 mm higher from the ground. That means a less pinched, more natural seating position despite a barely longer wheelbase. Coupled with a rear bench that can slide by 140 mm, the T-Cross offers either generous helpings of rear legroom – I found it plentiful even at 1,85 metres tall – and a moderately sized load bay of 385 litres, or less knee clearance but space for more odds and ends in a boot spanning 455 litres. Fold the 60:40-split rear bench forward and that expands to 1 281 litres, supposedly the largest figure in the segment. We’ll verify these claims when we formally test a T-Cross on local soil after it launches in the third quarter of this year, but certainly the cabin creates a sense of airy spaciousness.

That’s mirrored in front, where the supportive seats are widely adjustable, there’s acres of headroom and the controls are within easy reach without crowding the driver.

The chief contact point is Volkswagen’s familiar eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone mirroring and pin-sharp camera resolution when reversing. Physical controls for audio volume and the climate control system remain and they’re a breeze to use, as are the ones on the steering wheel which can optionally control Active Info Display digital instrumentation.  

All this up-to-date tech does sit somewhat incongruously in a cabin lacking the material richness often distinguishing Volkswagens from their nearest rivals. Certainly, the T-Cross feels solidly constructed but, aside from some padding on the armrests, the plastic surfaces are uniformly unyielding. Strange when a cheaper Polo sports a deeply padded dashboard to create a sense of superior quality. It’s great to see Volkswagen having some fun with the cabin’s surfaces, though; a variety of textured finishes are available for the facia, door and seat inserts.

Locally, the T-Cross range will mirror that of the Polo (except there won’t be a T-Cross GTI … now there’s a thought). That means 1,0 TSI engines in 70 and 85 kW states of tune with five-/six-speed manual or seven-ratio dual-clutch transmissions. The 110 kW 1,5-litre engine will join the range in 2020 and Volkswagen SA is currently considering adding the 70 kW 1,6 TDI.

We spent time mainly in the 85 kW 1,0 TSI DSG and I was impressed with the drivetrain’s overall polish. Absent is the Polo 1,0 TSI’s tendency to change to a higher gear too early, the engine labouring until the revs pass 2 000 r/min. In the crossover, the changeover point appears slightly higher while pootling, perhaps in an effort to overcome the larger car’s increased mass (1 270 kg). The TSI also seems more refined in this application, although the coarse grade of Mallorca’s roads may have drowned out some of the din with road roar (our R-Line launch car was shod with large 18-inch wheels). Refinement is generally as you’d expect from a small car; raised voices are necessary at faster speeds.

In terms of ride and handling, the T-Cross has few vices. The rare pockmarked sections we encountered elicited some noticeable thudding from the rear suspension, but the cabin is generally cushioned from the worst blows. Pick smaller wheels for your T-Cross and it should ride no worse than the Polo, which is one of the class-leaders in this field.

It certainly feels like it leans more than a Polo, but not unduly so, and steers cleanly. It’s unquestionably the most balanced drive in the class and the compromise struck by Volkswagen’s engineers is well judged for daily use.

So, the result is exactly as we’d expect from Volkswagen. The T-Cross is gifted across the board. Its interior is spacious, comfortable and modern; it offers a fuss-free driving experience; and its engines are smooth, punchy and frugal. I wish it looked more interesting – the design is modern and VW-family familiar but, save for that reflective band spanning the width of the hatchback, entirely non-descript – but that’s a subjective assessment and you may think it looks the business.

Even if you don’t, however, you might be persuaded by a starting price of less than R300 000 when the T-Cross hits local dealer floors in August.

FAST FACTS:

Model: VW T-Cross 1,0 TSI 85 kW DSG R-Line
Price: TBA
Engine: 1,0-litre, 3-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Power: 85 kW @ 5 000 r/min
Torque: 170 N.m @ 2 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,2 seconds
Top speed: 193 km/h
Fuel consumption:
CO2: 112 g/km
Service plan: TBA