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Test Drive: The VW T-Cross vs. the Australian desert

The VW T-Cross is one of the most successful launches in recent years: it was the outright best-selling launch in the world in 2019, and reached impressive heights in a variety of countries, notably ranking #1 in Brazil in July 2020 and #3 in Italy in September 2019. As an immediate success, it was therefore time at BSCB to give it a try. Due to a delayed launch in Australia, we are now able to share with you our Test Drive of this model there. At the time of travel, the borders between the different States of the country were closed so we weren’t able to get outside of New South Wales. Not to worry, at 809,952 km2 (312,724 sq mi), the state is almost as big as France and Italy put together, yet is only the 5th largest state in Australia. Departing from Sydney, We will aim to go as far as the capital of the State as possible while still staying in the State, to reach Tiboburra at the extreme north west of NSW, in an area called Corner Country in reference to the shape of the State borders at that point.

Itinerary and Narromine and Nygan.

Volkswagen has graciously loaned us a Makena Turquoise T-Cross 85TSI Life with the optional R-Line package. It is powered by a 1.0 litre TSI engine with 3 cylinder in line turbocharged, mated with a 7 speed DSG transmission. None of the T-Cross available in Australia is 4 or AWD, it is Front wheel drive only, but this won’t be an issue as we’ll see further down the article. Our first impressions on the T-Cross are as follows. We found the hard plastics on the side doors and dashboard quite cheap, but apart from them it is very well packaged with a nice patern running through the dash and the side doors. The speedo and dials are electronic and the touch screen is of good size. In terms of driving comfort, the stop start system has a lag between pushing the accelerator pedal and the car settling in motion, but this is only valid for city driving which we won’t do much of anyway. The car handles really well on fast roads with no change in the handling even at high speeds. As early as Narromine, 420 km / 260 mi north west of Sydney, the prevalence of Toyota Land Cruiser 70 pickup is very notable as portrayed in the pictures above.

Bourke and its roo-bar clad vehicles

After an overnight stop in Nyngan, a straight line of 137 km / 85 mi north west of Narromine, we head towards Bourke which is a further 204 km / 127 mi north west of Nyngan in another straight line of sealed road. We are now 758 km / 471 mi away from Sydney. In Bourke, most cars are equipped with surreal bull-bars, called roo-bars here, to protect against kangaroos leaping onto the road, as I experienced in my Test Drive of the Toyota RAV4. It’s worth noting that there are more kangaroos than humans in Australia by a rate of 1.7 to 1 at 42.8 million vs. a population of 25.7 million. One of the biggest cities in Outback New South Wales, Bourke has a population of just 1,824, of which 38% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Bourke is located on the traditional country of the Ngemba people. In Bourke today, there are 21 recognised indigenous language groups, including Ngemba, Barkindji, Wangkumara and Muruwari. The location was first discovered by Charles Sturt in 1828 and was then dismissed a uninhabitable. Despite this, it became a settlement in 1835 and was surveyed for a town in 1869. It hosted a Cobb & Co Coach Terminus in the 1880s but its influence in the region diminished once trade moved away from river routes (it is located at a bend of the Darling River). Bourke is considered to represent the edge of the settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the real outback, I’d rather called it the desert, that lies north and west of Bourke. As such, in Australian slang the expression “back o’ Bourke”, mostly used in Eastern New South Wales, describes an extremely remote area, or you could says the middle of nowhere. I’d agree with that!

The red track between Bourke and Wanaaring, road train and Wanaaring Store

Now it’s time to launch ourselves on unsealed roads through the desert towards Wanaaring, 190 km/ 118 mi west of BourkeAfter thoroughly checking reliable road conditions at the Bourke Information Centre we find that the road is easily passable for 2WD vehicles due to the lack of recent rain. Off we go then! And it proved true, with the track completely flat with no ruts at all, and almost half of it was even sealed which we weren’t expecting. The Bourke-Wanaaring track and even further to Tibooburra is indeed in the process of being completely sealed in order to increase tourism in the region. By the time you read these lines I expect the entire section to be bitumen. Our speed average for this section of the trip is 76 km/h which tells you how smooth the track was. The dirt is really red here, which enables splendid photos of the T-Cross with its turquoise colour matching perfectly as seen above and in the lead picture of this article (taken with a drone). We reach Wanaaring in the afternoon, population 140 and 980 km / 609 mi away from Sydney. This tiny town is half-way between Bourke and the desert town of Tibooburra which we’ll describe further down. The tin house accommodation has no insulating whatsoever and you can hear your neighbours as if they were in your own room. It is more suited to camper van and camping travel, but the burgers are excellent! Of course everybody knows each other here and there’s really a sense of community coming together.

The track between Wanaaring and TIbooburra

We now head further west to the town of Tibooburra, some 230 km / 143 mi west of Wanaaring which we will reach after 4h21 and an average speed of 54 km/h including numerous photo stops. The landscape throughout this part of Australia is absolutely beautiful, alternating totally red full-on desert (pictured just above) to white clay, flowery prairies and small rivers and billabongs. This is what I love to see during these trips to remote Australia and it is always a very calming experience which gives you the time to go through your thoughts undisturbed. The T-Cross announces 700 km of range with a full tank (40 litres) departing Wanaaring, that’s a 5.7 l/100 km, and indeed the fuel consumption would be oscillating between 5.4 l/100km and 5.9 l/100 km which is in line with Volkswagen data announcing 5.4 l/100 km combined.

Tibooburra and emergency landing trip on the road to Milparinka and Broken Hill

We now reach Tibooburra, population 137 which seems strange as it is a much bigger town than Wanaaring. It’s Corner Country, named after the shape of the borders with Queensland and South Australia. The town has two pubs, three hotels, a service station and a police station. However all medical, dental, hospital, mechanical and commercial services are missing here and based in Broken Hill, 330 km / 205 mi south. Thankfully, just 6 km / 4 mi from town there’s an emergency airstrip where the Flying Doctors planes can land in case of emergency in town. We already visited Tibooburra for the gymkhana of December 31 during our Test Drive of the Haval H9 in late 2017/early 2018. At the time, the track from Tibooburra to Packsaddle was completely unsealed as this section was only sealed in July 2020.

Drone shots near Milparinka

We’re now headed south on the Silver City Highway. Before reaching Packsaddle we encounter a striking location near Milparinka where the red dirt extends on each side of the sealed road, before giving way to vegetation, and the result is a great contrast between the different colours of the landscape. It’s time to unpack the drone for some shots, of which a selection appears above. Milparinka is a tiny settlement with a population of 77 and was established in 1880. At the time, there was a gold rush in the area and the population peaked at 3,000 people. At its height, Milparinka had a newspaper, a police office, a chemist shop, two butchers, a courthouse, a school, a hospital and four hotels. One hotel survives to this day, having run without interruption since 1882. There is currently a revival of the old town, but mainly for touristic purposes and not as a functioning town.

Packsaddle

137 km/ 85 mi south of Tibooburra on the Silver City Highway is the settlement of Packsaddle, population 87. The “town” is basically composed of a single Roadhouse and a handful of buildings. It is located where the Silver City Highway crosses the Packsaddle Creek. The name of the settlement is supposed to come from the explorers Burke and Willis who lost a packsaddle crossing the creek. Quite appropriately, there’s indeed a fine collection of old packsaddles exposed in the Roadhouse. During the 1870s, a network of horse-changing stations and stage posts was needed so that the horses could be spelled. This is the way Packsaddle is believed to have been established, with the Packsaddle Hotel later built in 1887. At the time, it was on the travelling stock route between Queensland and South Australia and was ideally located to service stockmen, shearers and travellers to the goldfields further north. It burnt to the ground in 1898.

Between Packsaddle and Broken Hill

It’s a further 216 km / 134 mil to Broken Hill on an uneventful sealed road. Just before reaching the town, there’s a track leaving the Silver City Highway with the ominous name of Corona Road. We encounter a lot of stock grids (pictured above), built to prevent cattle from crossing the property boundaries on the road. Time for a quick update on the T-Cross: it’s a smooth drive, absorbing a lot of the road irregularities, and feels like it’s gliding on the road even when unsealed, which is something I wasn’t expecting in a Volkswagen, traditionally quite stiff, although the VW Tiguan we quickly tested was equally smooth. The storage box between the two front seats is tiny but well compensated with very large storage within each door panel that can fit one 1.5L bottle of water and 2 small ones, my benchmark for measuring storage space! Steering wheel commands are not very intuitive and a little useless: the right ones are about what type of menu you want to see with a “next” and “forward” music button below, while the left ones are for the cruise control but take a bit to get used to, as well as a “play” music button below.

Broken Hill

Broken Hill is by far the largest town in the region with 18,500 inhabitants. It’s the typical desert frontier town with fine facilities despite its isolation, especially good restaurants and cafés. Broken Hill’s historic value was recognised in 2015 as the first Australian city to be part of the National Heritage List. Indeed Broken Hill is the town that took Australia from an agricultural country to an industrial nation. It is the country’s longest-living mining city. But a bit of history first and an explanation for its name. In 1844, the explorer Charles Sturt referred to a broken hill in his diary, in fact consisting of a number of hills that appeared to have a break in them. This broken hill that gave its name to the city no longer exists, having been mined away. In 1883, Charles Rasp discover a silver lode and created the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (now known as BHP Billiton) which became Australia’s biggest company and an international giant. Broken Hill is also the home of the Flying Doctor Service of Australia, a vital lifeline for remote areas with the local base serving a huge area of 640,000 km2, more than the entire country of France.

Silverton

25 km / 16 mi west of Broken Hill is Silverton, an almost ghost town of 50 inhabitants (and four donkeys, two of which are pictured above), split into 12 families in 39 private dwellings. In 1875, a lode of silver (hence the name of the town) was discovered and Silverton was recognised as a town in 1880. At its peak it housed 3,000 inhabitants but when an even bigger lode of silver was discovered in nearby Broken Hill, the mine closed and many of the inhabitants left, some even taking their homes with them. By 1901, the population had already plummeted to just 300. Today, it’s a collection of self-standing stone houses located far away from each other really giving off the feel of an abandoned town. The town’s heart and soul is the Silverton Hotel pictured above, featuring tons of film memorabilia (Mad Max II was shot here). The town also has a few abandoned VW Beetle and our T-Cross was all too happy to pose next to one of them. Note the T-Cross is bigger than a Beetle. 

White Cliffs and on the way back to Sydney near Wilcannia.

On the way back to Sydney from Broken Hill, we make a detour to mysterious White Cliffs, population 147 and 260 km / 162 mi north east of Broken Hill. Faced with hostile weather and temperatures often well above 40°C (104°F) with a record of 46.8°C (119.5°F), many inhabitants live underground, making White Cliffs the Coober Pedy of New South Wales. Here we mine opal since the late 19th century. The primary school opened in 1895, and has operated continuously since then. There are two motels in town, the White Cliffs Underground and PJ’s B & B. I would not have the chance to stay in either of them as we are to give back the T-Cross to Volkswagen in a couple of days and I need to be quick coming back to Sydney. Not before taking a symbolic picture of the T-Cross next to a kangaroo sign, the one above, just as a massive road train was passing.

This marks the end of our adventure in a VW T-Cross vs. the Australian Desert, after roughly 3,000 km / 1,865 mi on the road. Time for a quick review.

– Silent engine

– The car feels much bigger inside than expected given the segment, lots of overhead space

– Driving position dominates the road

– Well packaged dashboard with digital dials and good-sized touch screen

– Great safety equipment including line assist, emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitor, rear traffic alert, rear view camera (protected from dust) and fatigue detection among others

– Massive storage within the side doors (1.5L bottle of water can easily fit with two small ones as well) compensates tiny storage between the two front seats

– Smooth ride absorbing road irregularities, the car stays close to the road, kind of sporty feel

– And therefore great handling on unsealed tracks, which aren’t its terrain of predilection

– Great acceleration, doesn’t bat an eyelid at 150 kph

– Automatic high beams works perfectly

– Hard plastics on dashboard and side door look cheap

– Steering wheel commands not ergonomic, confusing and not well chosen

– Inappropriate “Take over the wheel” alert when on long straight roads (and there were a few of them)

– Driver’s seat only manually adjusted

– Overzealous line assist, which stays on even on unsealed tracks

– Stop start system lags

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. I took 10 minutes off in the office [or rather 20;)] and instead of going to the coffee machine I went to a place named Tibooburra in a maybe Spanish VW T-Cross (do the Australian units arrive from Pamplona-Spain, from Brazil or from China?), learnt new expressions, and new villages, saw fantastic pictures of red dust roads… all this with Men at Work soundtrack which is how I like reading Matt’s trips in AU. Who needs Metaverse, when we have bscb?? Now it’s time to get back to work. Btw, no nick-name for the T-Cross?

    1. Glad you enjoyed Javier! Perhaps the T-Cross could be named Zanzibar, I’m running out of letters!

  2. Hi Matt, thank you for the nice travelogue. With this typical urban micro SUV must have been funny. It would be great, if readers could attach a car photo related to the current ranking to their comments in each country.

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