GEORGE, Western Cape – It’s taken quite some time but Volkswagen has finally plugged that gaping crossover-shaped hole towards the base of its passenger vehicle line-up. Yes, the T-Cross has officially made landfall in South Africa, spoiling for a fight with the likes of Ford’s EcoSport, the Renault Captur, Hyundai’s facelifted Creta and the Mazda CX-3. And, rather significantly, it shares much with the sixth-generation Polo.

I say significant because the locally built Polo hatchback is second in passenger vehicle sales only to its Vivo cousin, with consistently more than 2 000 units registered each month across the land. While the T-Cross line-up is unlikely to hit such heights right off the bat (the final members of the range are due in SA only in 2020), it should quite quickly become the Wolfsburg-based firm’s third most popular offering locally, outselling the Tiguan, Golf and Polo Sedan – and surely also the slightly larger T-Roc due next year.

Plus-size Polo?

So, is the T-Cross more than merely a well-dressed Polo on stilts? The short answer is yes. While the MQB-based newcomer’s wheelbase is virtually identical to that of the hatchback, its body is longer, wider and taller. The upshot of those increased exterior dimensions is more space inside, with rear legroom proving particularly impressive for a vehicle in this segment.

The Spanish-built crossover is furthermore a touch more practical than the Polo, thanks largely to a sliding rear bench – with a useful 140 mm of adjustment – that allows rear legroom or luggage space to be optimised according to needs. Handily, this feature is standard across range, although it’s worth noting that shoving the split-folding bench into the foremost position opens up a something of a trench (into which smaller items could potentially disappear) at the far end of the boot.

While the temptation to simply slap some black plastic cladding onto a Polo and jack up its ride height might have been strong – the Cross Polo certainly has a following in the local market, after all – it’s refreshing to see VW has instead opted to hand the T-Cross styling distinct from that of the hatchback. Specified with the optional R-Line exterior package (a box many a South African buyer will surely tick) and painted in one of the bolder hues from the nine-strong palette, the T-Cross certainly has presence in the metal.

The local range

Just two variants are available at launch: a 1,0 TSI Comfortline DSG (at R334 500, likely the volume-seller in the range) and the subject of this driving impression, the 1,0 TSI Highline DSG (R365 000). Both employ the German firm’s familiar turbocharged 1,0-litre three-cylinder petrol mill, directing 85 kW and 200 N.m (yes, the same outputs offered in the Polo) to the front axle via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

An entry-level Trendline variant detuned to 70 kW and making do with a five-speed manual gearbox is scheduled to arrive in the second quarter of 2020 sporting a price tag below R300 000 (a mid-tier Comfortline version with this powertrain is also on the cards), while the flagship 110 kW 1,5 TSI R-Line DSG is expected in March next year, priced at R403 500. No all-wheel-drive derivatives have been developed, while VW does not plan to offer a diesel variant in SA.

So, back to this 1,0 TSI Highline model. Despite the T-Cross weighing a mite more than the Polo, the three-pot offers sufficiently perky performance, with its peak torque figure available between 2 000 and 3 500 r/min. At times, the DSG transmission feels reluctant to downshift, although the tiny paddles (standard on this trim level) sited behind the leather-clad steering wheel allow the driver to assume cog-swapping duties should they deem necessary.

Refinement levels, meanwhile, are impressive, with very little engine sound – and only a smidgen of road noise – entering the cabin at cruising speeds. The ride, too, is well judged, although the 18-inch “Nevada” alloy wheels (wrapped in 215/45 R18 rubber) fitted to our test unit as part of the R17 850 R-Line package do make their presence felt over poorly finished surfaces.

Step inside...

Inside, it’s somewhat surprisingly a bit of a mixed bag. While build quality in general appears quite solid, we did detect a creak emanating from the gloss trim surrounding the centre console. And it’s difficult to ignore the fairly liberal use of low-rent plastics in some areas of the cabin, leaving the T-Cross feeling a little less premium inside than the Polo despite being positioned slightly above its hatchback cousin.

Still, should you wish to add some visual spark to the cabin, two optional interior trim packages (as well as the broader “Energetic Orange” kit) are available for this Highline model, each bringing unique finishes for the seats, instrument panel, carpets and headliner. And it’s worth pointing out there are plenty of handy hidey holes dotted around the interior to store smaller items (the door pockets up front are particularly roomy), while as many as four USB ports were fitted to our launch unit.

Of course, this Highline variant’s standard specification level is quite, er, high, with its lengthy list of features including big-ticket items such as LED headlamps, parking sensors (front and rear), wireless smartphone charging, supportive sports seats and VW’s “Composition” media system with an eight-inch touchscreen. In addition, Volkswagen offers a range of optional extras, such as an upgraded infotainment arrangement, a Beats sound system, the fully digital “active info display” and even adaptive cruise control.

So, Polo or T-Cross?

Model to model, the self-shifting Highline variants in the Polo and T-Cross ranges are separated by some R42 100, although on balance the new crossover boasts a little extra standard kit than the hatch. But just how successful will the newcomer be in South Africa? And how much of that success will come at the expense of the Polo? Well, the firm fairly conservatively predicts around 7 000 units will be sold in 2020, which translates to almost 600 examples a month. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see monthly figures push past that once the full range is here, although it’ll be interesting see to what sort of impact that has on Polo sales.

Few small crossovers are as good as their donor hatchbacks, but the T-Cross is at least that. While it loses a few points for the hard plastics applied atop its facia and on the inside of its doors, it scores plenty more for its capacious cabin, fuss-free powertrain and sophisticated road manners, not forgetting its high levels of practicality. There's no doubt SA streets will soon be awash with VW's smallest crossover yet. Consider that gap well and truly plugged.



FAST FACTS

Model: Volkswagen T-Cross 1,0 TSI Highline DSG
Price: R365 000
Engine:  1,0-litre, 3-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 85 kW at 2 000 r/min
Torque: 200 N.m from 2 000 to 3 500 r/min
0-100 km/h:  10,2 seconds
Top Speed: 193 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 5,3 L/100 km
CO2: 126 g/km
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch
Service Plan: Three-year/45 000 km