Volkswagen’s new compact crossover, the Tiguan, is everything the midsize Touareg should have been but isn’t: relatively light, efficient, peppy, modern and roomy. I say “relatively” because a car-based SUV is never as light and efficient as an actual car, but the unibody construction usually makes it lighter, more efficient and roomier than a truck-based SUV in the same class. Though the Touareg, released in 2004, was technically unibody, VW made the error of building it to be fully offroad capable, resulting in a handsome, beautifully appointed model with outdated features, compromised interior space and dismal gas mileage. It is one of few models I strongly dislike. The Tiguan makes no such errors, providing a more manageable size without sacrificing too much passenger space. It offers less cargo room than the Touareg and many competitors, but still more than enough to justify buying this crossover instead of a sedan.
There’s one lesson VW clearly didn’t learn: how to choose a model name. As if it matters, Tiguan is a contraction of tiger and iguana. This definitely evokes images, raises questions and stimulates conversation, much as the name Touareg — derived from a North African nomadic tribe — did when it rolled out in 2004. With that established, I’ll point out that there has never, ever in automotive history been a back story compelling enough to justify a crappy name.
The Tiguan comes in S, SE and SEL trim levels, with a six-speed manual transmission available on the S only, and 4Motion all-wheel drive optional on all three trims, paired with an automatic transmission. My test vehicle was an SE 4Motion.
| 2009 Volkswagen SUVs Compared
| EPA-estimated mpg (city/highway)
|| 19/26 (front-drive manual)
18/24 (AWD automatic)
| 14/19 (V-6*)
| Overall length (in.)
| Width (in.)
| Height (in.)
| Turning circle (ft.)
| Minimum curb weight (lbs.)
| Passenger volume (cu. ft.)
| Cargo volume
(behind backseat/backseat folded, cu. ft.)
| 23.8 /
| 31.0 /
From the front, the Tiguan is unmistakably Volkswagen. From the rear, it’s mistakably anything you can imagine. VW didn’t go out of its way to make the Tiguan look like an SUV, and the result is a lower-slung, wagonlike affair that’s high enough to give a better view than you’d have in a car but not so high it’s a challenge to get into.
The only dramatic exterior differences among the three trim levels are between the entry Tiguan S and the higher two versions. The S lacks fog lights, roof rails and chrome treatment surrounding the side windows. Up the line, the standard alloy wheels are 16, 17 and 18 inches, with the S and SE both eligible for an optional one-size upgrade.
Technically a compact SUV, the Tiguan is comparable in length to the Ford Escape and several inches shorter than the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Saturn Vue, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4.
On the upside, the Tiguan’s handling is downright sporty, with appropriate levels of body roll and precise steering. As electric power steering goes, this one’s pretty well calibrated, making parking maneuvers effortless without overassisting once you’re in motion. The Tiguan begs to be driven quickly and tossed about, and thanks to its relatively low center of gravity, good roadholding and a standard electronic stability system, that’s not the irresponsible act it would be in many SUVs.
The crisp dynamics definitely benefit from the Tiguan’s firm ride. The occupants, sadly, do not. The one overwhelming gripe, from several drivers and passengers, is that the ride is unkind on less-than-perfect pavement. I filled the Tiguan to the brim, once with cargo and another time with Cars.com co-workers (who it turns out don’t appreciate being referred to as “ballast”), and the ride was, if anything, worse under load. Note that our car had the 17-inch wheels, which are probably softer than the 18-inch wheels and their lower-series tires. Attractive though this model may be to people looking to get out of thirstier SUVs, I imagine that its shorter wheelbase and firm suspension will be a shock to drivers of larger and/or truck-based models, which as a class have evolved into reasonably soft riders, especially when carrying a full load.
Another blunder is the Tiguan’s turning diameter, which at 39.4 feet is almost a foot and a half wider than the Touareg’s, and full feet wider than every other compact and midsize SUV I compared it to — except the Saturn Vue, which suitably rounds up to an astronomical 40 feet.
The Tiguan’s sole engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder also used in the VW GTI and some Audis. It’s as impressive here as it has been elsewhere, providing get-up-and-go that belies its mere 2.0 liters, and responsiveness that belies its turbo induction. Unfortunately, it prefers premium gas to hit its rated 200 horsepower and 207 pounds-feet of torque, but at least the mileage is reasonable for what you get: 19/26 mpg on the top end for the front-drive manual and 18/24 mpg for the AWD automatic. You’ll get better numbers from less-expensive competitors, but not from the luxury SUVs whose performance the Tiguan emulates. It can also run on regular gas. Though a diesel Tiguan is possible, it hasn’t been promised for import.
The efficiency and performance are due in part to the six-speed transmissions. This engine is in other cases teamed with the Direct Shift Gearbox automated manual, but the Tiguan’s automatic is a conventional Tiptronic design. This is of no consequence to the average driver. I was pleased to find that it responds more quickly than previous generations, which have had a chronic lag problem for as long as I can remember. As automatics go, this gearbox isn’t top of the heap, but it’s definitely an improvement.
The drivetrain is an area where the Tiguan is well ahead of the curve. As automakers scramble to improve mileage without losing their shirts on hybrid hardware, you’ll be seeing more and more direct-injection engines, turbochargers and six-speed-plus transmissions. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive technology, likewise, is plenty modern, based on decades of refinement in the form of Audi’s Quattro system.
To continue the comparison, the current Touareg 2 V-6, with its recent upgrades, is quicker than the first generation, but once you get into the whole acceleration/mileage equation, the Touareg comes out a loser, even in its class.
The one aspect of the Touareg that I won’t rag on is its interior quality, which was always exceptional. OK, back to it: For its external bulk, the Touareg’s interior wasn’t overwhelmingly roomy. Despite its smaller exterior dimensions, the Tiguan’s passenger volume is only 4 cubic feet less, at 95 cu. ft. It gives up only about an inch of front legroom — for a respectable 40.1 inches — and adds slightly more front headroom and backseat headroom and legroom. Shoulder room is down about 2 inches.
Our test SE’s interior quality was a big hit. For the record, the upholstery is different in each trim level. Ours had upgraded “Urban” cloth, where the Tiguan S has “Metro” cloth. VW calls the SEL’s leather “Stadt,” which means city in German. (It also means they ran out of city synonyms in English.) Interiors have been critical to VW’s success in charging premium prices for its models, and the Tiguan SE delivers. On top of the materials and build quality, the cabin is admirably quiet even at high speeds, and the layout is ergonomic.
Typical of VWs, front-seat height adjustment and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel are standard. The Tiguan S is all manual. The SE keeps the jack-style ratcheting height-adjustment lever and adds a powered backrest, manual lumbar adjustment and heaters to both front seats. The SEL trim level brings you full power seats and driver’s position memory.
Though it’s an option, the new touch-screen navigation and entertainment system deserves high praise for its design and usability. At a time when the rest of the market had delved into touch-screens, the Touareg came along with a “soft key” interface, a row of buttons on either side of the navigation display with corresponding onscreen legends that were the pictographic equivalent of a foreign language.
The new system is better in every way, from the graphics to the menus, and VW gets bonus points for not following the other German brands (including Audi) into the maddening world of multifunction controller knobs. Success at last. The maps are higher resolution and offer real-time traffic information courtesy of Sirius Satellite Radio, which is standard on all Tiguans with a teaser subscription. Though I’d like to have more street labels, the situation has improved, and you can choose two- or three-dimensional views. I’m a fan of the rocket button, which prompts the map to zoom out gradually and then back down to where it started. It gives you a quick view of the overall traffic situation so you don’t have to zoom out and in manually.
An analog aux-in jack is standard for the CD stereo, and the nav/entertainment option adds an SD memory card slot — something Infiniti has been doing with Compact Flash. These formats seem random and trendy, but a multimedia socket makes that whole issue moot, allowing you to control an MP3 player onscreen or connect a USB flash drive. There’s also an onboard hard drive for storing up to 20GB of music, and you can watch a DVD when the transmission’s in Park. A backup camera is included, complete with marker lines on the display that curve as you turn the steering wheel to show your trajectory, and a selectable pattern to aid parallel parking.
If I’m going ape over the navigation feature, it’s because I know that automakers get few chances to establish or update their products’ viability, and a car that’s introduced with outdated technology stands only to become more outdated over time. (Touareg.) To that end, any new SUV with a backseat that doesn’t slide forward and back is behind the times. The Tiguan’s does, and as a result there’s plenty of legroom but also the ability to devote some of that space to the cargo area when needed. Manufacturers used to arbitrate the compromise between backseat and cargo space; now that’s up to you. The backrests recline, and there’s a flip-down center armrest.
As in the front seats, the firm support is welcome, but it doesn’t do you any favors when the Tiguan does its hard-shoe routine over rough pavement. The optional panoramic moonroof, which is so large it’s practically a glass roof, really makes the backseat bright and open. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s too bright, because the motorized sun shade is a mesh material that doesn’t block enough sunlight, not to mention noise. Why is this design proliferating? Today’s enormous moonroofs pretty much demand a soft, power-retracting shade, but I can’t fathom why they aren’t always opaque. My only other quibble is that the A/C vents on the dash — of which there seem to be a dozen — don’t angle away from you enough. If you don’t want them blowing on you, you have to close them entirely.
Cargo space is one area where the Tiguan falls proportionately behind the Touareg.
| Cargo Volume Compared (cu. ft.)
| VW Tiguan
| Acura RDX
| BMW X3
| Ford Escape
| Honda CR-V
| Nissan Rogue
| Saturn Vue
| Subaru Forester
| Toyota RAV4
| VW Touareg 2 SUV
| VW Passat wagon
| VW Jetta SportWagen
The Tiguan is also the peewee of the compact class, with a cargo volume just shy of the Saturn Vue’s. More surprising (alarming?) is that its volume — behind the seat and with the backseat folded — is lesser than those of both the midsize Passat Wagon and compact Jetta SportWagen. Now, it bears mentioning that the standard front passenger seat folds flat, which mitigates the Tiguan’s shorter overall length. This added space isn’t reflected in the measurement comparison above.
Even when not using this feature, I found the Tiguan’s cargo area extremely versatile and usable. For one thing, the backseat’s flip-down armrest gives a pass-thru between the outboard seats as well as fully folding 60/40-split sides. They fold nice and flat in a single, easy step, unlike the Touareg, which was outdated when it made its debut with head restraints that had to be removed and cushions that had to be flipped forward before lowering the backrests. Also, VW solves the problem of the gap that always results where a sliding second-row seat meets the cargo floor by means of a simple panel that flips forward on either side from its nearly invisible resting place. There’s some covered storage under the cargo floor, too, alongside the spare tire.
The large hatch opening and tall height really paid off when I moved some stuff across town. The height is what you don’t get in a wagon. Having consecutive loans of the Tiguan and Jetta SportWagen reminded me of the relationship between the Subaru Forester and Outback, which are similarly close in cargo volume but different in shape.
To give the devil its due again, the Touareg 2’s towing capacity is 7,716 pounds, even with the V-6 engine. The Tiguan’s limit is 2,200 pounds — higher than the RDX, CR-V, Rogue, Vue and base RAV4. The X3, Forester and V-6 versions of the RAV4 and Vue can tow more. The amount of trailering in the real world is a small percentage of drivers, and the incidence among compact SUVs is rarer still. In the quest for a viable mass-market vehicle, sacrificing towing and offroad capacity is a no-brainer.
The Tiguan has not yet been crash-tested. Its standard safety feature list includes antilock four-wheel-disc brakes, an electronic stability system with traction control, seat belt pretensioners for all four outboard seats and head restraints for all seating positions. In addition to the required front airbags, there are side-impact torso bags for the front seats and curtains that cover the front and rear door windows. Torso airbags for the rear seats are optional.
As I see it, the Tiguan’s main potential drawback for shoppers is its firm ride. If you can live with it, there’s a lot to like here. Though modest by the numbers, the cargo space and its versatility beat sedans handily. As is often true of VWs, the Tiguan occupies an in-between zone. Its interior is nicer overall than the most affordable compacts, and a loaded SEL easily competes with the luxury models whose prices it rivals. It’s clear that the best-sellers have a price advantage, but much of what’s appealing about VWs is hard to quantify, and beyond the suggested retail price, you don’t need a lot of options to round these models out; there are actually few offered. Even the state-of-the-art navigation/entertainment option, with all its inputs and formats and storage, is reasonably priced at $1,990.
The Tiguan’s main potential drawback for owners is its unknown reliability. Closing my love letter to the Touareg requires me to cite its reliability history, which is far below average. For whatever it’s worth, the Tiguan shares more with the Passat, Rabbit and Jetta than the Touareg, and these models have had better, if not always good, reliability.