BOULDER, Colorado - Volkswagen issued a surprise in 2004 by joining the SUV ranks, releasing its midsize Touareg. In addition to wondering whether the German automaker had exercised wisdom by developing a sport-utility vehicle, some analysts questioned the very name of the new model. Strange names, they suggested - coined specifically for use with a vehicle model - would turn off prospective buyers.
Well, the Touareg is still around, doing rather well for the company. So, why not take the next step, issuing a compact SUV - again with an unfamiliar name. Thus, the Tiguan wagon, which is reaching dealerships as an early 2009 model. Tiguan is meant to signify tiger + iguana.
Compact in size, the Tiguan looks a bit like a scaled-down Touareg, but the driving experience is markedly different. Despite its clearly carlike qualities, Volkswagen calls it a sport-utility vehicle rather than a "crossover" or "crossover SUV," the terms generally used to describe quasi-SUVs that use unibody construction and other passenger-car elements. Tiguans are built on a combination of two passenger-car platforms: Golf/Jetta and Passat.
Volkswagen faces considerable competiton in this category, starting with the popular Honda CR-V. Toscan Bennett vice-president, product marketing and strategy calls Tiguan "the GTI of SUVs." In many ways, Volkswagen draws comparisons between the new model and the performance-focused GTI hatchback coupe. For one thing, Tiguans get the same 2.0-liter TSi turbocharged engine as the GTI, producing 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Tiguans may have a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual gearchange selection, or a six-speed manual gearbox. Premium fuel is needed.
Like all '09 Volkswagen models, the Tiguan has standard Electronic Stability Control (preceding the federal government mandate by 3 years). Starting with the 2009 model year, too, buyers get 3 years of no-charge maintenance. Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive is available, but Tiguans have standard front-wheel drive.
Second-row seats slide fore/aft and recline, allowing surprising space and versatility for rear occupants. Side airbags are standard. Rear side airbags are optional. Antilock braking incorporates Brake Assist for help in emergency stops.
Tiguans come in three trim levels: base S, midrange SE, and top-of-the-line SEL. Volkswagen names a long list of possible competitors, including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Mazda CX-7, Saturn Vue, and Land Rover LR2. Marketers even consider the more costly Acura RDX and BMW X3 as possible rivals, along with the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz GLK.
Exhibiting a generally light feeling, the Tiguan delivers a highly enjoyable ride, whether around town or through twisting mountain curves. Acceleration is eager and impressive, with no turbo lag at all noiced. This compact SUV performs just about as well as 8000+ feet as it does at more modest altitudes, and never loses its breath.
Like most crossover SUVs, the Tiguan reveals some body roll in curves; but it's only occasionally discomfiting, and only for a moment. Enjoyable nimble and easy to drive, the Tiguan is exceptionally quiet, even when pushed fairly hard. Ride quality is surprisingly smooth and easygoing on all but the harshest surfaces. Occupants can feel the imperfections, but few annoy much.
In a base (S) manual-transmission model, the quick-shifting gearbox generally worked neatly, but at times it was difficult to say which gear was active. Clutch action is satisfying, matching the transmission well.
As demonstrated in a well-equipped 4Motion model, VW's automatic transmission works masterfully on twisty roads and up/downgrades. Manual mode also performs well, but it's only really needed on downgrades. Uphill, more engine snarl is evident than with manual shift, but that may be because the engine is turning faster.
Great seats are highly supportive, with substantial bolstering. Seat bottoms aren't long, but they're sufficient. Occupants enjoy all-day comfort. Second-row riders get loads of legroom, enhanced by adjustment of the sliding seat. Visibility is good all around. Cargo space at the rear isn't bad at all.
Large gauges are familiar in appearance, and the screen of the available navigation system is mounted high. Sunroof fans will likely love the available panoramic unit. Those who don't care for all-the-time sun will probably skip that option.
Overall, the Tiguan delivers a feeling of refinement and solidity. It's the kind of vehicle that just might make the driver reluctant to give up the wheel.
Placed on sale in May, Tiguans start at $23,200. Volkswagen's current ad theme is "Das Auto" (the car), which Tim Ellis translates as "what the people want." More than its competitors, Ellis added, Volkswagen is "focusing a bit more on the male target" audience. Commercials will have "that GTI power." Volkswagen expects to sell about 25,000 Tiguans per year.
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