A lot of criticism has been thrown at Volkswagen Philippines since they made the big switch.

From offering internationally recognizable models offered in Europe and North America, Volkswagen now offers SAIC's line of Volkswagens. Instead of Polo, you get Santana. Gone was the Jetta, and in its place was the Lavida. There are a few Passats running around, but in showrooms you now find Lamando.

These are models that, quite frankly, do not have any name recall in the Philippines. Even the Tiguan which was already a new generation international model prior to the 2018 switch was swapped out for the older generation from the PRC, but they hoped the longer wheelbase would entice customers. 

The criticism was understandable; even we were critical of a move unheard of in our industry. Volkswagen's perception and marketing has been as a brand that was a cut above a Toyota or a Honda. It didn't matter if in Europe the Volkswagen is considered a direct competitor to those brands; here the perception is different. It wasn't just a European automobile, but a German automobile; that in itself carries a lot of aspirational weight and a lot of pride for the owners.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

But we knew they were making the sacrifice for something; there had to be a brighter future for the Volkswagen brand in the Philippines that they were investing long term in. And thankfully for Volkswagen, that starts now.

Say hello to the 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross, the brand's newest subcompact crossover in the Philippines. Aimed at the likes of the Kia Seltos, MG ZS, Geely Coolray, and Ford EcoSport, this stylish new crossover has a lot going for it, the first being the name: it's not a China domestic market model. This is the same (or similar) T-Cross offered in other markets worldwide. It just so happens to be made by SAIC. 

To give you an idea of how Volkswagen plans to start their resurgence, the Volkswagen Philippines lent us a unit of the top-spec SE model. But with only just a few days to test it, we check out if it has what it takes to take on the stalwarts of the segment.

One stylish Teuton

When I first saw photos of the T-Cross online, I wasn't so sure of its looks. Initially, I thought Volkswagen played it safe when they designed their new B-segment crossover. But when I finally saw the T-Cross in the metal, it looks more stylish than what the pictures lead you to believe.

Yes, the front fascia is typically Volkswagen, but that is to be expected. It gets huge headlights, a prominent grille accompanied by a large VW badge, a honeycomb-style lower air intake, and a faux skid plate. This being the SE version, the T-Cross also gets a nice set of 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 205/55/R17 tires.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

But perhaps my favorite part of the T-Cross is its rear. The distinct LED taillights, blacked-out centerpiece on the tailgate trim, the tailgate-mounted spoiler, and the faux skid plate at the back show that Volkswagen thought about looks from the start.

Some may dismiss that the T-Cross looks just like any normal crossover out on the road right now. Personally, I believe Volkswagen styled it just right. It's stylish enough without being too garish and that's okay in our book.

Funky and practical interior

If you find the exterior nice, then you'll love the interior of the T-Cross. Despite being a budget crossover, Volkswagen made sure the crossover's cabin is ergonomic, practical, and pleasing to the eyes.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Instead of draping the interior in just one singular color, the T-Cross comes with a mixture of tones and hues. Since this particular T-Cross is painted in Romance Red, Volkswagen also finished the interior trim panels in the familiar red color to match. Even the contrast stitching on the seats, door panels, and transmission gaiter are also finished in red for that sporty appeal.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

If you get a different-colored T-Cross, Volkswagen made sure it gets a different interior finish in order to give it a more pleasing aesthetic. Syringa Violet gets a Black and Storm Grey interior with Violet Trim; while Tribu Yellow comes with a Black and Storm Grey interior with Yellow trim. Unfortunately, models finished in Chinchilla Gray and Polar White only come with a simple Black interior.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Need to charge your mobile devices or smartphones? Volkswagen installed multiple charging ports on the T-Cross. The driver and front passenger benefit from a 12V power socket, USB-C, and USB-A ports. The automaker even made sure the rear passengers have their own charging ports at the back, located just below the aircon vents.

Packed to the brim

Being the top-spec SE model, this T-Cross has plenty of toys and amenities as standard. It gets a huge panoramic sunroof, LED ambient lighting, rear aircon vents, engine start/stop button, leather-fabric seats, LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, and even front foglights.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

The touchscreen infotainment system measures 9.2-inches and comes with Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, USB, Aux, SD card slot, and AM/FM radio. If you still prefer playing your music with CDs, the system has a CD player at the ready, too.

When it comes to safety, the T-Cross is brimming with it. All variants come with dual front airbags, electronic stability with electronic traction control, anti-lock brakes with EBD, brake assist, hill-hold control (aka hill-start assist), parking sensors, tire pressure monitoring, and an emergency data recorder.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Extra safety features that are only available on the SE are the dual side airbags at the front, head curtain airbags, reverse camera, and autonomous emergency braking.

If you need to haul cargo, the T-Cross can carry 329 liters worth of luggage with the rear seats up. But if you need more, the rear seats can be folded and cargo space is increased to 1,319 liters. This was made possible due to its 2,651mm wheelbase. Not only does it ensure there's ample space for 5 people, but this also means it can carry more cargo than its rivals.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Did I mention that it also comes with a false floor to store small items? A neat touch by Volkswagen if I do say so myself.

A decent engine

Unlike most automakers that now offer turbocharged mills, Volkswagen decided to use a naturally-aspirated engine. Under the hood of the T-Cross is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. It makes 113 PS with 145 Nm of torque and is coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. If those figures (and setup) sound familiar, that's because it's the same powertrain found in the Santana, Volkswagen's B-segment sedan.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

So what's the T-Cross like on the road? While some might be put off that it doesn't come with a turbo, the engine is actually a decent performer. Sure, it doesn't have the pull of a turbocharged engine, but the inline-four does deliver substantial power and is also fuel-efficient. In light city traffic, it was able to average around 9.0 – 9.5 km/L. Out on the highway and it was able to return about 15.0 km/L.

The six-speed automatic went through each gear smoothly and actually works well with the 1.5-liter MPI engine. If you need to go through the gears yourself, it has manual select, allowing for a more spirited driving experience.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Overall, the engine provides the necessary power one would need in the city or in the highway. It's actually frugal, and the transmission does a nice job of going about its business. Still, maybe a slightly more powerful engine could help it move better which I'll get to later.

Points to improve on

It's not all perfumes and roses with the T-Cross, however. For starters, the air-conditioning could use a stronger fan. On a hot summer's day, I had to set the fan to '3' or '4' which is the system's max settings. If you prefer driving a vehicle with no tint, then the T-Cross air-conditioning system could become a hurdle.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

While I do love the bucket-style sport seats, the lack of headrests means I couldn't adjust it to my personal preference. Sure, the seats do hug you and provide plenty of support, but the non-adjustable headrest leaves something to be desired.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Then there's the brake pedal which could use some better pedal modulation. The brakes are powerful don't get me wrong, it's just that the pedal feel is inconsistent – not exactly confidence-inspiring when one is driving on a highway.

Power from the engine is adequate, though I suspect having a turbocharged engine could give it more pep. There were times that when I needed to overtake other cars, I had to mash the throttle just to pass them. The transmission does come with Sport Mode along with manual select, but I think Volkswagen should bring the 1.4-liter TFSI engine for the T-Cross in a future update.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

As for its ride quality, the T-Cross could do with slightly softer dampers, particularly at the rear. However, I believe Volkswagen made the rear suspension stiff in order to compensate for load-carrying since they claim it can lug over 1,300 liters with the rear seats folded.

Speaking of load-carrying, the rear seats do fold for extra cargo space. However, they don't fully fold flat which is a bit of a downer. Most of its competitors come with fully-folding rear seats which aid in providing a flatter floor to store cargo.

First Impressions: 2021 Volkswagen T-Cross 180 MPI AT SE image

Is the T-Cross a winner?

In top-spec trim, the T-Cross SE retails for PHP 1,198,000. While it seems pricey, you do get plenty of standard amenities in a small crossover. But if you prefer a more affordable version (with slightly less equipment), there's the base model S which starts at just PHP 1,098,000.

The T-Cross looks good without being too overly styled, and the interior is sleek, spacious, and practical. The naturally-aspirated engine delivers respectable power and is easy on the fuel bills, too. The generous cabin/cargo space means the T-Cross won't have trouble carrying people or luggage.

Despite getting to drive the T-Cross for just a short amount of time, I have to say that Volkswagen has something with a lot of potential. Don't get me wrong: I'm sure the Santana, Lavida, and Lamando are good vehicles, but our market really needed something from Volkswagen that's recognizable. The many pre-pandemic travels of their customers and something like the T-Cross can definitely do that.

The vehicle isn't perfect, but it has a lot of good attributes to attract customers and bring back some excitement to Volkswagen showrooms all around the country.