Hot hatches used to be the ideal blend of practicality and performance for a reasonable price, but the T-Roc R takes that recipe and manages to improve it for today's market.

Rewind the clock a decade or two and if you wanted a car that did it all, a hot hatch was your best bet. Blending performance, practicality, and sensible but sporty styling in an affordable package, it was the no-brainer choice for the car enthusiast who had responsibilities.

With the prevalence of SUVs in today’s market, there’s now the room for a new niche that builds upon the hot hatch’s recipe but with an extra dash of practicality added into the mix – the small performance SUV – and if ever you wanted a prime example of just how versatile a car this recipe can add up to, the 2023 Volkswagen T-Roc R is a prime example of it.

As with the original Golf GTI, the car which started the hot hatch revolution, the thought process behind this car is equally as simple. Take the sensible T-Roc, throw in the driveline from the insanely quick Golf R, firm up the suspension, add some bucket seats, and the job’s a good-un.

There are two versions of the T-Roc R on offer, the standard R model and then the Grid Edition variant tested here. Created to address the ongoing semiconductor shortage that’s plaguing the car industry, it ditches a couple of features you likely won’t miss in order to get the car built and shipped to you sooner, while saving you a whopping $7690 in the process, meaning this starts at $54,300 before on-road costs, with a $2000 sunroof the only extra option. That price tag also means it’s cheaper than the Golf R.

2023 ushers in a facelifted look for the T-Roc, with the exterior updates including redesigned headlights with a full-width lightbar, new lower air intakes and daytime running light designs, new taillights, and the use of Volkswagen’s new ‘VW’ and ‘R’ logos all across the outside of the car. The only telltale signs of a Grid Edition model are the special chequered-flag badge on the bootlid and the use of 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ alloy wheels, rather than the ‘Estoril’ rims used on the standard T-Roc R and Golf R – both are a good thing in my books.

Step inside and the T-Roc R’s tech has been given a boost with the use of a new 9.2-inch infotainment touchscreen running Volkswagen’s new MIB3 software which includes satellite navigation along with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – and yes, there’s a wireless charging pad to keep your phone topped up. The 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster carries over from before which is no bad thing as it includes a range of configurations including a full-screen map.

Other updates include a new soft-touch dashboard; steering wheel design with larger paddle shifters that remind of the paddle extenders many VW owners would fit, along with an ‘R’ mode button right on the steering wheel; and a touch-sensitive dual-zone climate control panel.

The new touch-sensitive controls across the dashboard are something that has rankled Volkswagen owners, with company CEO Thomas Schäfer even telling Car Magazine that he knew the controls needed to be improved for future models and that steps will be taken to prevent this sort of issue occurring again. Despite the negative response to them, I don’t actually mind these controls – yes, they’re a bit different, but once you get used to what a tap or a slide across them does, it can feel somewhat intuitive. Odds are, though, that most people will find a normal button better.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what the T-Roc R Grid Edition misses out on compared with the standard car, and the truth is that you’ll hardly notice what has been changed as Volkswagen has hidden it well. The most obvious change is losing the heated and power-adjustable leather seats in favour of manually-adjustable ones clad in funky blue cloth and grey microfleece trim which feels better and looks far more Volkswagen-ish to me. However, despite lacking heated seats, there’s still a heated steering wheel – correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, but I feel this is the first time I’ve seen such a combination.

A powered boot lid is another feature that has been omitted, but quite frankly it’s one instance where it’s quicker to do it yourself. Those with an eye for safety will be keen to note, though, that the Grid Edition misses out on blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, although it does still include adaptive cruise control with semi-autonomous driving capability, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, front and rear parking sensors, and a rear view camera.

While some may chasten this cabin for having some harder plastics in areas, all the key items you’ll touch on a daily basis feel solid and high quality, while the ergonomics are fairly good thanks to the heavily bolstered and supportive bucket seats, although they are on the tighter side. Do keep in mind that this is a small SUV, so rear seat room is acceptable but not cavernous, although the boot comes in at a fairly sizeable 392 litres with the rear seats in place.

But what the T-Roc R lacks in interior space compared with other SUVs it more than makes up for with performance. Thanks to the 2.0-litre ‘EA888’ turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, it packs a hefty 221kW from 5300-6600rpm and 400Nm from 2000-5300rpm. Backed by a seven-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch automatic transmission and Haldex-type ‘4motion’ all-wheel drive, it can get from 0-100km/h in just 4.9 seconds – that’s only 0.1 of a second off the Golf R despite the T-Roc having 14kW less on tap.

The best way of describing the T-Roc R’s performance is by calling it deceptive. The EA888 is such a refined and smooth engine with such linear power delivery (as you’ll note from the figures above, it’s almost always making peak power or torque) that it lacks the rawness you might expect from a hot hatch SUV – think of the Hyundai Kona N, the closest rival I can come up with for it, and you’ll know what I mean here. It’ll emit the odd pop and crackle from its quad exhaust tips, but it doesn’t exactly sound as exciting as it is.

However, the way the T-Roc R builds speed is simply unmistakeable. It rockets off the line with confidence while never seeming to lose steam at higher speeds where other four-pots would. Factor in the lightning-fast DSG which changes gears truly instantaneously, with the connection between the paddle shifters and the transmission feeling telepathic, and this driveline delivers its power more effectively than just about any other internal combustion car out there.

Equally impressive is how confidently it handles. The suspension is definitely on the firmer side – take note if the roads of your daily commute are pothole-laden and poorly maintained – but it pays dividends on a backroad, with the T-Roc feeling small and nimble just like a hot hatch, especially considering its still-small proportions. Part of its deceptive performance is how stable and confident it feels at higher speeds, which is of course indicative of most German performance cars which are Autobahn-ready.

Its steering feels quick and has a pleasant heft to it, and it holds its line confidently through sweeping bends while feeling responsive in tighter corners. You can occasionally catch it out and induce a touch of torque steer on the exit from the tightest of turns when pushing it to the limit, but I wonder whether higher-quality rubber than its Hankook treads would solve that. The T-Roc R lacking the Golf R’s more sophisticated rear differential could also contribute to the way the whole system handles the power delivery.

Beyond the stiffness of its ride, the only other thing which may grate on a daily basis is the volume of the road noise which creeps into the cabin. It spoils the otherwise pleasant ambiance on longer highway drives, although again, I wonder whether the right set of tyres may solve that issue as I’ve found it to make an improvement on other vehicles.

Real-world fuel consumption is acceptable when you consider the power this car has on tap, although it sat a lot higher than the 8.3L/100km claim, with my tester indicating 9.6L/100km after 451km of driving in a good mix of conditions. As with many European cars, you’ll need to run it on at least 95RON premium fuel.

Like all Volkswagen models, the T-Roc is covered by a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and one year of complimentary roadside assistance. Two pre-paid ‘Care Plan’ servicing packages are also on offer, priced at $1700 for three years (a $186 saving over that period compared with Assured Service Pricing) or $2950 for five years (a saving of $690). The savings are big, but the average cost per service is still quite high. Servicing is required every 12 months/15,000km.

So far this year, the T-Roc is Volkswagen’s best-selling model, and in May 2023 alone almost a quarter of all sold (229 of 949) were the high-performance R variants. When you consider just what strong value it offers, it’s easy to see why it would be so popular.

Golf R performance with some added practicality for a five-digit saving in the case of this Grid Edition model? That’s an offer that’s incredibly hard to pass up – especially when you can’t even get a Golf R at the moment due to the supply situation.

In a way, whether you like it or not, this is about the best blend of performance and practicality you can actually buy right now – a small SUV, not a hot hatch. But trust me, this is one small SUV I can assure that you’ll like. If you’re like me, you’ll like it a lot.

2023 Volkswagen T-Roc R Grid Edition List Price: $54,300 | As Tested: $56,300
  • 9/10
    Performance - 9/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Value for Money - 8.5/10

Pros: Rapid performance with ever-potent power delivery, new infotainment system is a worthwhile upgrade, Grid Edition offers major savings over a standard T-Roc R or Golf R, you won’t notice the missing equipment either
Cons: Fair amount of road noise, some key safety tech omitted, costly servicing

In a nutshell: A Golf R for ten-grand less… why wouldn’t you? The T-Roc R Grid Edition is a semiconductor special that doesn’t feel like it’s been cheaped-out on, but rather that it’s been frugally reconsidered for the sake of the end customer’s benefit. Sure, it might not have heated seats, but the extra change in your pocket will mean you won’t care. 

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Volkswagen Group Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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