Road test: the VW T-Roc R is fast but let’s not call it a performance car
Using the engine from the T-Roc R is one of the more engaging SUVs on the market, but it’s still a family wagon first and foremost. - By Nick Francis
People who consider themselves true car fans tend to dislike intensely the idea of a ‘performance SUV’, in much the same way as music aficionados want to slap Justin Bieber in the face and wine connoisseurs dry heave when they hear the word ‘Lambrini’. The performance SUV is seen as a contradiction in terms: a cop-out purchase made by those who aren’t brave enough to bring home a hot hatch for fear of being made to sleep on the sofa. I say we should cut people who buy them some slack. While I wouldn’t buy one myself (fast estates drive and look a lot better) there’s room in this world for the performance Sports Utility Vehicle. And hey, it has the word ‘sport’ in the title, so, y’know, whatever.
The snobbery directed at performance SUVs seems almost entirely to centre around the fact that they’re a little bit rubbish in a corner. A high centre of gravity and long suspension travel means they can lean like a sapling in a hurricane when shown a bend. This is what earns them that reputation as oxymoronic contraptions: how can something be considered a performance vehicle if it gets all wobbly when the wheel is turned?
I would agree, but at the same time do these cars need to be able to corner like a hot hatch? Think about the SUV-buyer: they’ve almost always got a family in tow, and therefore spend a lot of their time hauling around - what is in their minds - the most precious of cargo. A sub-five seconds 0-62mph time allows them to indulge in a thrill which reminds them of when they still had a full head of hair and Saturday lie-ins, in the same way as a trip to the pub probably now ends at 8 pm with a takeaway bottle of Rioja, rather than midnight and a soggy box of cheesy chips.
To put it more succinctly: most people enjoy the thrill of a powerful engine, but only a certain breed of driver wants to attack corners like Lewis Hamilton. And they wouldn’t be shopping for a SUV in the first place.
This leads me onto the Volkswagen T-Roc R, the hot version of VW’s handsome smallish SUV. In terms of offering that blend of family-friendly practicality and straight-line performance, it doesn’t get much better, mainly because it uses VW’s ferocious 296bhp 2-litre turbo unit, first seen in the Golf R, and, again like the Golf R, matches it to an AWD system and seven-speed DSG gearbox. Inside it’s a Golf R too, complete with those colour-coded panels and slick infotainment system. It’s a Golf R guys, okay? Just higher and slightly heavier.
We recently pitted the T-Roc R against the Honda Civic Type R on a rainy runway in Northamptonshire, you can see the video here. The lap times on our cobbled-together-with-cones circuit were extremely close, despite the fact, the Honda was bred for performance and the VW is, well, a SUV. Why were they so close? The T-Roc R does the hard bits for you.
If you watch the video you will see that the (manual) Type R doesn’t exactly get the best take off. I confess it was me who made that pitiful start, but like all amateur track drivers I have my excuses ready: it was a wet surface, the painted section of the start/finish was especially slimy and, most importantly, I’m no Stig. Except when you watch me drive T-Roc off the line I look like I could be The Stig, thanks to the VW’s launch control. And AWD. And DSG gearbox. The Type R lost multiple seconds on the start, and the fact it was only a sliver behind the VW over the line is proof of how much more capable it is in corners, but the fact still remains: the T-Roc R is a monster in a straight line, and using all of that power is child’s play.
Of course, it’s the fact that the car does most of the work for you that means it’s not really a performance car at all. But it is still a performance SUV, and with a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds, the T-Roc R is certainly a giggle. It wasn’t nearly as woeful in the corners as I expected either, and as much as it couldn’t hold a flame to the stiffness of the Type R, hearing the tyres squeal beneath you in a car normally found idling outside a school at 3 pm offers its own flavour of fun. It even flirted with understeer in Race mode, which biases the power to the rear axle to keep the nose tidy in faster bends.
I would wager there aren’t many people as stupid as us though, in that they would take their T-Roc R to the track for a thorough rubbing down, so let’s talk about how it acquits itself on the road. That off-the-line wallop is every bit as infectious when taking off from traffic lights as it is a start/finish marker, and it certainly out-performs rivals like the Cupra Ateca and Audi SQ2 when it comes to handling. In Race mode it feels stiff and sure-footed in corners, coming close-ish to hot hatch handling, but it always feels a little heavy and cumbersome in comparison to the Golf R it’s based upon. The gearbox is a thing of beauty too, and with maximum power kicking in at 2,000rpm and pulling until 5,000rpm the T-Roc R always feels bristling and eager to move.
Coming on 19-inch wheels as standard I wasn’t surprised to find the cabin a little noisy at high speeds, but my test car also arrived with the Akrapovic exhaust system fitted - a £3,050 optional extra - which means a throaty soundtrack could always be heard, with the added bonus of some crackle and pop action on the downshift. If you’re willing to stump up the money for such an unnecessary yet joyous extra then a little road rumble isn’t going to bother you. The other option fitted to my test car was the £695 adaptive suspension system, which is well and truly worth the layout. While the steering never feels communicative in a meaningful way, as in a direct line between your inputs and the behaviour of the front of the car, it does a good job of dialling in some artificial feel, which helps make it feel sporty. A Comfort mode helps take the sting out of bumpy ground too but, again, you’re aware of the 19-inch wheels grumbling beneath you when the going gets notchy.
While the interior isn’t what you would ever describe as poor quality, there’s a certain starchiness to it which means it isn’t the most welcoming of environments. The odd ‘performance’ flourish here and there, such as the flat bottomed steering wheel, feel a little half-hearted. The colour-coded panels in the dash and doors are cold and hard to the touch, like the chalk boards you got at school, but everything is functionally sound. The 8-inch touchscreen is slick and responsive, and there’s the right number of tactile buttons to make on-the-go jobs like turning the aircon up easy. It just feels like more of an effort could be made, seeing as the R model is the range topper, and it costs just short of £40,000.
I understand why cars like the T-Roc R are derided by car fans, but if we accept them for what they are – simply SUVs with a bit more poke – then there’s nothing to get annoyed about. It’s still roomy, easy to drive and good looking enough to convince your neighbours' things are going well in your life: it’s a family car first and foremost. We raced it against a Civic Type R in entirely unscientific conditions out of interest and, really, to have a good day out. But it did raise an interesting point: just because you need a family car doesn’t mean you have to have a slow car. If you fancy yourself as being handy behind the wheel, then, of course, you won’t bother with a performance SUV. But people like that, I’m afraid, are in the minority.