Volkswagen has been slow to the small SUV party, but it has arrived in style with the T-Roc. How will it fare against two keenly priced rivals?
*** Note : £1 = $1.38 (correct at time of post)
- List price £21,195
- Target Price £20,532
Hyundai’s smallest SUV has the gutsiest engine and by far the most standard luxuries.
Seat Arona 1.0 TSI 115 FR Sport
- List price £20,665
- Target Price £19,665
Cheaper Aronas make plenty of sense, but what about this FR Sport model?
Volkswagen T-Roc 1.0 TSI 115 Design
- List price £21,125
- Target Price £20,008
More powerful T-Rocs are pricey, but this entry-level petrol model looks good value.
You’ve probably seen the TV ad by now. A black sheep is born on a stormy night and then proceeds to wreak havoc on its farm, fronting up to dogs and cows and then smashing through a barn before finally being cowed when it comes face to face with the new Volkswagen T-Roc.
The irony is the notion that buying a small SUV is somehow a left-fi eld or rebellious choice is at least five years out of date. There isn’t a more de rigueur type of car on the planet right now – and it’s not hard to understand why. After all, we’ve had decades of small hatchbacks that all followed the mould of the original Mini, whereas small SUVs offer similarly low running costs while being somewhat more attention-grabbing.
The T-Roc may be the newest of these 4×4 lookalikes, but so many have flooded the market in recent months that we were spoilt for choice when it came to lining up rivals. It’s the cheaper end of the T-Roc range that has the most appeal, so we had to include the Seat Arona – a car that’s already seen off the Citroën C3 Aircross and Kia Stonic in a previous test.
More of an unknown quantity is the Hyundai Kona because this is the first time we’ve put it through our rigorous group test treatment. However, since it’s built on the same underpinnings as the Stonic, it should be reasonably tidy to drive and you certainly get lots of creature comforts for your money.
Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement
You might imagine a small 1.0-litre petrol engine would struggle to haul around an SUV, but remember these cars all have a smaller footprint than a VW Golf. Besides, all three engines are turbocharged so actually pump out a respectable amount of power.
The Arona is nippiest when you put your foot down hard and allow its engine to rev before changing up through the gears. However, the others aren’t far behind and the Kona actually builds speed most swiftly from low revs in the higher gears. Even with four passengers on board and a boot full of bags, you won’t find any of our trio frustratingly sluggish.
That said, if you were hoping for a bit more performance, engines of up to 148bhp are available in the Arona and T-Roc, while the Kona is offered with an even punchier 175bhp turbocharged petrol.
When accelerating in any of our trio, you do hear an offbeat thrum and feel a bit of vibration through the soles of your shoes. However, the T-Roc does the best job of isolating you from this and, thanks to its low levels of wind and road noise, is easily the most peaceful companion at a steady cruise. The Kona has the least refi ned engine, although the Arona’s greater road roar makes it the rowdiest on the motorway.
Changing gear in the Arona and T-Roc is a largely pleasant experience; both cars have gearshifts that are precise and free from any irksome notches. The Kona’s isn’t bad, but there isn’t the same positive snick as you shift from one cog to another. You might also find the brake pedal a bit spongy and slow to respond, whereas the middle pedal in the others is that bit sharper – maybe even a little too sharp in the T-Roc.
There’s no cheating physics here; none of our protagonists handle corners as well as a conventional small hatchback, such as a Seat Ibiza. Their taller bodies inevitably lean more through faster corners and that makes them feel a little less agile. In the case of the Arona and Kona, we really do mean ‘a little’, though; both cars change direction remarkably smartly by SUV standards, but particularly the Kona.
That said, you’ll enjoy the experience of threading your way along a country road more in the Arona because its steering is more precise and tells you more about the relationship between tyre and road. The T-Roc actually has the most feelsome steering of the bunch, but it behaves the most like you’d expect an SUV to, with the least grip and the most body sway through tight twists.
All things considered, the T-Roc rides bumps in the most comfortable fashion, though. It breezes over speed humps with the least drama and deals best with the sort of long-wave undulations you regularly encounter along country roads. However, in FR Sport trim, the Arona has a clever suspension set-up that allows you to stiffen and soften the dampers at your whim, and in the more comfortable of two settings it actually stays more settled than the T-Roc along pockmarked roads – no matter what speed you’re doing.
The Kona, meanwhile, is always the least agreeable; it jolts the most violently over potholes and jostles you the most along scruffy town roads. There are less comfortable small SUVs (the C3 Aircross and Nissan Juke, for example) but the Kona is certainly no better than average for the class for ride comfort.
Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality
If you’re hoping for a towering Range Rover-esque driving position then we’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news. In truth, from behind the wheel of the Arona you really wouldn’t know you’re driving an SUV at all; its seat is barely any farther from the ground than a Ford Fiesta’s.
The Kona’s seat is mounted a few centimetres higher, but you still don’t really feel as though you’re driving an SUV. It’s only in the T-Roc that you get a semblance of looking down on the world; its driver’s seat isn’t actually mounted any higher than the Kona’s, but a higher window line and lower dashboard gives the impression that it is.
How high you like to sit is, of course, down to personal preference, but setting up your driving position is definitely easiest in the Kona, thanks to its electrically adjustable front seats and standard adjustable lumbar support. The latter feature is a hideously expensive option on the T-Roc and isn’t available at all on the Arona, although both cars have enough lower back support for all but the longest of journeys. What’s more, the Arona’s figure-hugging sports seats actually hold you in position most effectively of the trio through corners.
The T-Roc is easiest to see out of in all directions, but particularly when looking back over your shoulder. The chunkier rear pillars and smaller rear screens in the Arona and Kona make reversing that bit trickier, although all three cars come with rear parking sensors and the Kona even has a rear-view camera to help. The Arona is the only one of our protagonists without parking sensors at the front, although it does have the best headlights; powerful LED units rather than the weaker halogen bulbs in the Kona and T-Roc.
Chances are you’re expecting the T-Roc to look and feel the poshest inside. After all, VW has a history of building its dashboards out of upmarket, soft-touch plastics – even in the much cheaper Polo. Well, quality is actually the most disappointing thing about the new T-Roc; its interior feels surprisingly cheap, with hard and unforgiving plastics the order of the day throughout.
Granted, the Arona’s interior isn’t much plusher, but at least Seat has gone to some effort to hide the brittle plastic on the face of the dashboard by wrapping it in stitched leather. The standard part-leather, part-Alcantara seats also help lift the overall impression of quality just above the T-Roc’s – not a bad effort considering the Arona is the cheaper car.
And the Kona? Well, even in this company, it’s decidedly low-rent inside. Its dashboard feels the least robust and well-finished, while the leather on the steering wheel feels the most plasticky. The leather seats do at least lift the ambience a little, and with selected paint colours you get some matching highlights on the seats and dashboard.
In the Arona, there’s plenty of red stitching and subtle ambient lighting to brighten the mood, while in the T-Roc you can opt for orange, blue or yellow dashboard panels without paying a penny extra.
The 8.0in touchscreen looks a bit dim and low-res in this company, but that’s only really an issue in sunny conditions. Besides, there’s plenty to like, including the logical menu layout and how quickly the screen reacts to your commands. You get plenty of gadgets with Premium SE trim, too, such as sat-nav and wireless phone charging. You even get an eight-speaker Krell stereo, although sound quality is good rather than outstanding.
The best infotainment system here. The bright 8.0in touchscreen responds snappily when you press it and the chunky icons mean you don’t need more than a glance to work out which one to press. As with all of our trio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring is included in the price, but the Arona also comes with wireless phone charging as standard. Our only complaint is that you can’t upgrade the mediocre six-speaker sound system.
Much the same as the system in the Arona, but with a couple of notable omissions. First, you don’t get built-in sat-nav and it’ll cost you a hefty £1130 to add it. Second, though probably less significantly to many buyers, you have to pay (£380) extra if you want wireless phone charging. At least the touchscreen is just as easy to use as the Arona’s and helpfully you can upgrade the sound system to a more powerful Beats version for a reasonable £405.
Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot
When it comes to front leg and head room, the differences are so small they aren’t even worth pointing out. What’s important is that you won’t feel remotely cramped in any of our contenders, even if you (or your front passenger) are extremely lanky.
If you had to sit in the back of one of these cars on a long journey, you wouldn’t pick the Kona. It’s the tightest for both rear leg and head room, to the point that six-footers will find their knees wedged against the seat in front. The Arona provides the most room for your knees and head, but the T-Roc hits back with the most space for your feet.
With the rear seats in place, the T-Roc has by far the longest boot and managed to swallow six carry-on suitcases – one more than the Arona and two more than the Kona. The Kona’s boot is the shortest and shallowest; there’s enough room for a few bags of shopping but even a weekend family break would be a struggle.
Folding down the 60/40 split-folding rear seats in any of our contenders involves pushing a button next to the headrest and hauling the seatback down. Fortunately, this doesn’t leave an annoying step in the boot floor of any of these cars – assuming you’ve set the adjustable boot floors in the Arona and T-Roc to their highest settings.
Rear seats folded down and it’s the same running order: the T-Roc’s boot is biggest and the Kona’s smallest. The T-Roc is also the only one of our trio with a ski hatch and the option of an electric tailgate.
Premium SE models come with a space saver spare wheel, which eats up luggage space. The Kona does have the broadest boot aperture, though. Plenty of room in the front but by far the tightest in the back. If you’re more than six feet tall, expect your knees to be wedged against the back of the front seat – which happens to be covered in hard and unforgiving plastic
- Boot 334-1116 litres
- Suitcases 4
Arona has the narrowest boot, but you’ll fit lots more in it than you will the Kona’s. A height-adjustable boot floor comes as standard. Best for rear knee room, although foot space could be better. It’s also rather annoying that the rear door pillar is right beside your head, because it means you have to crane your neck forward to get a good view out of the window.
- Boot 400-1280 litres
- Suitcases 5
T-Roc has the longest and tallest boot, so unsurprisingly can swallow the most luggage. A powered tailgate is available for £320. Enough room in the back for a couple of tall adults and the most accommodating of our trio for three sitting side by side. Still, if you regularly need to carry three in the back you’d be better off looking at an altogether bigger car.
- Boot 445-1290 litres
- Suitcases 6
Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security
So far, the T-Roc has edged out a slender lead over the Arona, leaving the Kona with lots of catching up to do. But how much these cars cost to buy and run, and how much equipment you get for your money, are huge considerations that could easily turn the tide.
The vast majority of buyers will choose to sign up to a PCP finance agreement and it’s here the Arona really starts to make sense. Put down a £2000 deposit and, over the next 36 months, you’ll pay £289 a month – a whopping £51 less than you’ll need to stump up for the T-Roc under the same terms. The Kona, meanwhile, will cost you a middling £321 a month.
That said, if you are planning to pay the whole lot upfront, the T-Roc will actually cost you the least in the long run. That’s mainly because it’s predicted to be worth the most when you come to sell, but also because it’s the cheapest to service. The Kona is a relative money pit; it’s the most expensive to buy, service and fuel, and will be worth by far the least when you decide to sell.
You do get an awful lot of standard luxuries for your money, though. All of these cars come with alloys, climate control, automatic lights and wipers and cruise control, but the Kona is the only one with heated (and ventilated) front seats, full leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel and keyless entry and start.
Then again, if you want a contrasting roof colour on your Kona you’ll need to cough up almost £1000. That seems decidedly steep considering the T-Roc offers the same thing for £280-£575 (depending on your colour choice) and Seat charges nothing at all – even if you want metallic paint.
We’re also baffled as to why Hyundai has decided to charge (£235) extra for automatic emergency braking. This vital safety aid is standard on the other two, as it is on the vast majority of new cars – especially in this price bracket. The fact that Hyundai has opted to fit other important but less critical safety aids, such as lane-keep assist and blindspot monitoring, makes the decision even harder to understand.
If you are unlucky enough to be involved in a shunt, the T-Roc is likely to protect you best; like all of our trio, it has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, but it scored the highest marks for adult and child occupancy protection and also pedestrian protection. The Kona scored lowest for adult and pedestrian safety, while the Arona was least impressive at protecting children on board.