As the growth of the sharing and on-demand economies lure us away from ownership and into a future where someone else's car arrives with the prod of a smartphone app, it may seem counterintuitive for car makers to place a growing focus on personalisation and individuality. Yet Citroen gave us the DS3, which you can order with a pink roof, and Vauxhall offers the Adam, a car with a staggering 100,000 exterior and interior combinations. Clearly, then, before we all hop into the same grey Toyota Prius or white robo-car, buying something unique is where it's at.
In 2017 it's also all about the SUV, the world's most popular type of car. Volkswagen already has the mid-size Tiguan and larger Touareg, and now for those who want a Golf-sized SUV there is this: the all-new VW T-Roc. Yes, it's a silly name. But let us quickly explain: the T is shared with the first letter of VW's other SUVs; the "Roc" - and we're quoting Volkswagen here - "has been derived from the English word 'rock', which stands for the positioning of the T-Roc as a crossover… and this car really rocks the segment".
Marketing nonsense aside, the T-Roc is basically what happens when VW decides to take on the Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke, Vauxhall Mokka and the Audi Q2, the last of which shares the same MQB platform as the T-Roc and other members of the VW Group. The T-Roc is also what happens when the notoriously sensible Volkswagen lets its hair down. It's the Friday night drinks equivalent of the VW stable, complete with a massive new wardrobe and the unenviable task of distracting from the hangover of the diesel emissions scandal.
On that note, the T-Roc will be available in the UK from December 2017 with no fewer than six turbo-charged engines to choose from, plus front- or all-wheel-drive and the choice of a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox. VW predicts 80 per cent of UK sales will be petrol rather than diesel.
The best looking SUV in its class?
The T-Roc exhibits the same family traits as its VW siblings, like the wide and deep grille, but brings plenty of new flare to the table. Sharp creases along the bonnet, doors and wheel arches that give the car a stylish, standout "look-at-me" stance, which is further exaggerated if you opt for one of the more interesting colours and a contrast roof.
It's a shame that VW predicts most punters will paint their T-Rocs fifty shades of grey, because we think the braver buyer will be rewarded for ticking the orange, blue, red or yellow box on the options list. In fact, the colour combination favoured by VW's own design team is Energetic Orange with a black roof. We have a soft spot for Ravenna Blue, but aren't quite sold on the white roof VW has paired it with.
We also struggle to get onboard with the colourful interior. The matching metallic blue inserts are certainly striking and just about work without feeling too overdone, but the familiar VW feel of quality is sadly lacking from the T-Roc's repertoire as a result. A quick touch of the blue dash immediately reminded us of the rattle-can paint we used on a model Subaru Impreza in the late-90s, while the rest of the cabin felt like it hovered dangerously close to the wrong side of cheap.
The touch points of steering wheel, gear selector, climate, infotainment and indicator/wiper stalks are all good, but grab a door handle or open the glovebox and the T-Roc's stylish facade takes a hit.
These shortfalls aside, the T-Roc's interior is a comfortable place to sit. Visibility is good, sitting 50mm higher than in the VW Golf gives that commanding driving position that SUV buyers flock towards.
Photographed out of context, it's hard to work out how big the T-Roc is due to the SUV styling and optional 19in alloys. Stepping into the back seats reminds you of the car's compact nature, however. Passengers over 6ft will find it cosy, and if you ask three to sit back there you'll want them to know each other first (they certainly will after). Remove the middle passenger and there's a useful fold-down arm rest with drinks holders.
Is it a true off-roader?
As with so many compact SUV offerings, however, the T-Roc is more "soft-roader" than true off-roader.
The chunky looks might suggest it can ford streams, conquer hills and, indeed, scrabble over "Rocs". But in reality this car is unlikely to face anything more challenging than the occasional visit to a farmer's market.
That being said, the T-Roc can be specced with VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, which includes a dial between the front seats for switching between regular, sport, snow and off-road driving modes.
Sport mode does the usual trick of giving more weight to the steering, sharpening throttle response and telling the DSG autobox to hold onto gears for a little longer. None of this is strictly necessary in a car like the T-Roc, but if you really must then an individual mode can be tinkered with to pick and choose the responsiveness and drive sensation you want (weight up the steering but keep the gearbox in normal, for example).
Is it the Golf GTi of compact SUVs?
Despite VW making the slightly bizarre claim that the T-Roc is the Golf GTi of compact SUV during the pre-drive presentation, it isn't really. "The Golf of SUVs", sure, but the G, T and i are three letters the car doesn't need to worry itself about.
That isn't to say the T-Roc is a wallowing sponge to drive. It's engaging and exudes a quality sure-footedness common across the VW group. It feels more like a hatchback than an SUV, which was a relief when the Portuguese test route we drove took us through the smallest of hillside villages. Dodging buses full of tourists on narrow roads was easier than the car's chunky styling would have you think.
The T-Roc is comfortable to drive, even on the awful rural roads we encountered, and both the petrol and diesel engines produce acceptable performance for this kind of vehicle. We drove two models: the 2.0-litre TSI with 4Motion all-wheel-drive and 190ps (187bhp), and the 2.0-litre 4Motion TDI with 150ps. The extra performance of the former - 0-100km/h in 7.2 seconds compared to 8.4s in the diesel - was welcome right across the test route, backing up VW's prediction of petrol outselling diesel by four to one.
We found the petrol engine to be far-and-away the better option, with extra power across the rev range, more eagerness at low speeds and a quieter soundtrack. In contrast, the diesel didn't feel particularly refined, with too much noise creeping into the cabin for our liking. Fine in an under-powered city car with tin-can build quality, but less palatable in a compact off-roader with premium aspirations.
Press on a little and, while that GTi badge remains a long way away, the T-Roc isn't afraid of entertaining. The car felt composed and capable, with an eagerness to impress, and only a little extra body roll due to its increased ride height over the Golf.
The T-Roc is estimated by VW to start at £19,000 when it goes on sale in the UK. Pre-orders for select versions are open now, starting at £20,425. Once the whole fleet arrives in UK showrooms, you will be able to pick from S, SE, Design, SEL and R-Line trim options. Standard features on all models include two-zone electric climate control, radar cruise control, Bluetooth, DAB radio, USB ports and a six-speaker stereo system.
If VW's £19,000 claim is accurate then the T-Roc will start some £3,000 below the Mini Countryman, £1,500 below the Audi Q2, and around £3,000 above the Vauxhall Mokka.
Infotainment and technology
The T-Roc's optional 8-inch infotainment display is bright, crisp and responsive. There's a proximity sensor which helps the system react slightly before you touch it, hence such speedy response. The satellite navigation system did a fine job of directing us across a five-stage route over two days, too, reacting and rerouting quickly when we made a wrong turn.
Ditching physical buttons in favour of an almost all-touch affair - there are two knobs used for volume and scrolling - won't be to everyone's taste, but it's where VW, Audi and the whole group is headed. Personally we prefer a few more physical controls to help us feel our way around the interface, rather than taking our eyes off the road for an extended period of time.
The system includes MirrorLink, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for hooking up your smartphone, and an optional extra sees the stereo upgraded to an eight-speaker, 200W system by Beats. Another optional extra is inductive smartphone charging, which is accessed via a rubberised shelf ahead of the gear selector.
Also extra is VW's Active Info Display, which replaces all analogue dials behind the wheel with a single 11.7in display. This can be adjusted with a button on the wheel, giving you the choice of seeing digitised rev and speed dials, or a huge sat nav display which almost completely removes the need to look at the main infotainment screen. We'd definitely tick this option box.
A huge range of driver safety systems are standard in the T-Roc, including active lane assist (keeps you in lane on the motorway), pedestrian monitoring (to alert you when someone might step out), and emergency braking at low speeds (such as when that pedestrian does indeed step out). Further optional tech extras include adaptive cruise control, parking assist, traffic jam assist and blind spot detection.
VW will undoubtedly sell a shed-load of T-Rocs over the coming years. The public's desire for SUVs is only going to get stronger, and the T-Roc shows VW is willing to bet on that.
It's hard not to see the T-Roc as a replacement to the Scirocco, in that customer taste has shifted away from the Golf with a sportier body to the Golf with personalisation and a raised driving position.
The T-Roc won't be much cop on a muddy track, nor will it make you feel like a member of the Chelsea tractor brigade. The emphasis on personalisation and bright colours with contrast roof options is something of a sea change for Volkswagen, a company usually regarded as subtle, sensible and perhaps a little too reserved for its own good.
Funky colours, Tonka toy-styling, all the smartphone connections you could ever ask for, a stereo made by Beats and lots of (optional) tech assure this VW's success.
As a "My First SUV", the T-Roc represents a sensible option for those wanting to graduate from their hatchback and into something more practical, but without scaring themselves into a mid-life crisis.
The alternatives to consider
Audi's smallest SUV, the Q2, feels like a design statement piece for those who aren't fussed about pushing passengers in the back. Being an Audi, there's a huge range of options, from £20k 1.0-litre through to £31K 2.0-litre Quattro (four-wheel drive), plus a range of options that make the interior decidely more exciting overall.
Read the full article: Audi Q2 review
We call the Ateca "a genuine Nissan Qashqai alternative" because, well, it's simply that good. Given Nissan's strength in the category, that's quite a statement. Compared to the VW T-Roc, however, it's a very unassuming and understated car - it's not trying to be design chic and standout in that way. But if you're looking for objectively the best vehicle in its class based on price and drive then you'll be wanting at a Seat.
Read the full article: Seat Ateca review