New Volkswagen T-Roc R 2020 review

The 296bhp VW T-Roc R uses its Golf R underpinnings to full effect, but is it worth £38k?

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

If you want a fast, practical, comfortable Volkswagen then the Golf R - soon to be departing with the Mk8 version of the evergreen hatchback’s arrival - still probably represents the best buy. If you want a little extra practicality, the Estate beats out the new T-Roc R too, and for less money. However, this is a style-driven choice and one delivered with little compromise, driving much the same as its Golf counterparts and packing just as much punch, with a little added ride quality.

Ten years ago when Volkswagen launched the R performance line-up, perhaps we all thought the next car to arrive wearing the marque’s top ‘R’ performance badge, following the Scirocco and Golf, would be the Golf’s smaller sibling, the Polo.

But the market has changed significantly in the decade R has been around. Small SUVs - highly profitable for their makers - dominate the new car scene. That’s why rather than drip-feeding the prestige and performance the R badge brings down to the brand’s smaller cars, it instead goes up a size to create this: the T-Roc R.

• Best hot hatchbacks to buy now

Perhaps that’s not the most popular move with fast car enthusiasts, but VW believes this could be a more versatile, more popular option than the Golf R thanks to a potentially larger customer base.

The T-Roc R is based heavily on its Golf R sibling, sharing the same platform, drivetrain and all-wheel-drive system; so a lot of what is under the metal is a known quantity. That’s something that becomes mighty apparent when you get behind the wheel, as the T-Roc R delivers a notably similar driving experience despite its obvious external differences. 

The Golf R has established itself as a stalwart of easily accessible performance, and the T-Roc R is no different to get to grips with. Fire up the engine - which is a little flat in note without optional Akrapovic exhausts - and get on the move in the car’s Comfort drive-mode and it barely feels any different to drive than any other member of the T-Roc line-up. 

It’s quiet, easy to pilot around town with direct, light-steering, and even comfortable over potholes and other ruts in the road despite the 20mm lower sports suspension setup found beneath. It rides marginally better than the Golf R and, as such, certainly fulfills its brief of offering a more supple and spacious experience when you aren’t interested in pushing on.

With all-wheel-drive standard the T-Roc boasts a handful of off-road and slippery condition driving modes, but most buyers will be far more interested in what happens when you toggle Race mode on the standard, sharp and slick-to-use eight-inch central touchscreen. 

Doing so results in the seven-speed DSG gearbox immediately becoming a little more interested in the engine it’s linked too, the motor itself defaulting to a far more aggressive throttle map. It’s a relentless engine when you consider how easily the 296bhp and 400Nm transmits itself to the all-wheel-drive setup and subsequently onto the road, unlocking a turn of pace that confirms the T-Roc R as a properly fast car, and an easy to drive and handle one at that.

However, it’s not overtly thrilling to pin the throttle, as performance is delivered with minimal sparkle, irrespective of the volume of the exhaust system turning up a notch. It’s not assisted by the DSG gearbox either, which hesitates to venture out of its comfort zone. It shifts smoothly but isn’t the most alert, and the small plastic paddles mounted behind the steering wheel do little to convince you that you should get more involved and click through the gears yourself.

Cars like ours with optional Dynamic Chassis Control include adaptive suspension and progressive steering, but on flowing roads the additional stiffness doesn’t leap out, and the extra weight on the steering rack induced by tapping into race mode doesn’t add any extra substance to the direct but unspectacular steering. 

The Haldex all-wheel-drive setup has been tweaked to deal with the T-Roc’s extra weight and taller profile with a little more rear bias, the result being that there’s probably just as much grip available here as in the Golf, but a shade less agility. Again, it all feeds back into the T-Roc R’s simple performance ethos. Lots of power, lots of grip, so lots of straightforward, cross-country pace.

Away from the driving experience, the T-Roc R fields plenty in the way of familiarity. The cabin is tweaked subtly with the addition of sports seats, aluminium pedals and a flat-bottomed, R-branded steering wheel, but some of the quality gripes that we’ve found in the regular T-Roc - mainly the abundance of hard plastics top to bottom on the dashboard - are still present in the hot version. If you want a little more quality inside, perhaps the similarly priced and powerful Audi SQ2 is one to consider, but it’s not quite as practical as the VW, being a fair few litres down on the T-Roc’s 392-litre boot, and not boasting as much space inside.

If the interior is a little languid standard technology is good, with the inclusion of VW’s 10.3-inch Active Info Display digital instrument panel lifting the mood. A good selection of driver convenience and assistance features is equipped by default too. You’ll get adaptive cruise control, automatic wipers and lights, lane keep assist, front and rear parking sensors, sat nav, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto preparation, ten years’ of emergency assistance, and LED headlights and taillights all as standard. Some creature comforts, such as heated seats, a rear-view camera and high-beam assist are only optional, though. 

The T-Roc R doesn’t align directly with the Golf R in terms of equipment; some of what you get with one hand is taken away with the other. So while the T-Roc R has the brakes from the Golf R’s Performance Pack as standard, the smaller, cheaper hatchback gets a reversing camera and a larger 12.3-inch digital dashboard too. Also, Dynamic Chassis Control suspension is almost £200 cheaper to option on the T-Roc than its Golf counterpart.

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