Volkswagen CrossFox

On looks alone, VW's new CrossFox should be a hit. Launched in Brazil this week, its big tyres and chunky front and rear bumpers give the tough little supermini the menace of a big off-roader.

The mini-SUV market is becoming competitive, and the CrossFox's arrival next year will add to the battle for sales. The car blends basic off-road ability with decent road manners and chunky looks. While the 1.6-litre engine is nothing special, it offers reasonable performance compared to rivals such as the Panda 4x4.

On looks alone, VW's new CrossFox should be a hit. Launched in Brazil this week, its big tyres and chunky front and rear bumpers give the tough little supermini the menace of a big off-roader.

Add in a bull bar, driving lights and aluminium running boards, and this is a supermini with a ready-for-anything appearance. And Auto Express is the first magazine in the world to drive it.Compared with the production Fox, it's a whole lot more car, but Brazilian buyers pay only £8,000 - that's £1,2000 more than they do for the model it's based on. Don't be fooled by the rugged looks, though - the CrossFox aims to attract attention on city roads as well as forest tracks.

Billed as a rival to the Fiat Panda 4x4 and Suzuki Jimny, VW says the front-wheel-drive machine blends all that's good about off-roaders with the practicality of a city car. And we were keen to put those claims to the test.

On our demanding route, it quickly became clear that venturing off the beaten track will leave the newcomer floundering for grip. The tyres don't have enough bite, the engine lacks torque, and there's not enough ground clearance. However, as the road smooths out, the CrossFox's appeal starts to shine.

The chassis engineers at VW deserve credit, as the ride is firm yet still smooth and compliant. The higher centre of gravity - a result of the off-road look - has little influence on the car's stability, beyond the expected body roll, and the CrossFox lets you know that it's losing grip by understeering gently. Gear ratios are short, and the 100bhp 1.6-litre engine is coarse, which means cruising is not as comfortable as it could be.

Changes to the gear ratios have been made to improve acceleration and to compensate for the extra kerbweight over the standard Fox. Ironically, part of this additional bulk comes from the steel bars which reinforce the spare tyre hanger on the boot, an add-on we would rather live without.

Not only does it increase weight, but it also reduces practicality, as it needs to be swung out of the way to open the rear hatch. This operation is inconvenient and requires quite a bit of clear space behind the car - don't try it with your hands full of shopping! At least the modification hasn't affected rearward visibility.

VW Brazil has confirmed that the CrossFox will be sold in Europe next year, but won't say if UK evolutions will have three or five doors. The factory has already developed a new front bull bar to meet European standards for pedestrian safety, and is also testing a three-door variant with structural reinforcement for the boot-mounted spare.

Whichever version we get, it's clear the new VW will be a capable contender in this class. Despite the flaws, the CrossFox is a real all-rounder.

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