Talk about being late to a party. During the Cute-Ute revolution of the late ‘90s, Volkswagen stood back and laughed. “Why would anyone spend money on a tall station wagon when you could just buy a regular station wagon instead?” it asked. Over a decade and millions of sales later, it seems Vee-Dub has a case of corporate amnesia, finally introducing its Tiguan compact SUV last fall.
|1. Introduced just last year the Tiguan is a Cute-Ute aimed at taking on Japanese models like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
2. One engine is offered, VW’s well-used 2.0-liter turbocharged powerplant with 200hp and 206 ft-lbs of torque.
3. Fuel economy is 19/26 mpg city/highway with the manual, and 18/24 mpg with the automatic.
4. Cargo room is rated at 23.8 cu.-ft., or 56.1 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded flat.
Its competitors from Honda and Toyota have gone through three or four generations apiece by now, so you’d hope that with that much time to plan, the Tiguan would be the outright champion in the class, right? Hmm. Not quite.
I’VE SEEN YOU BEFORE
The Tiguan is based on the same Volkswagen platform that underpins the Golf, Jetta, Eos and Passat, and shares just about everything mechanically with one of those rides. The 2.0-litre turbocharged direct-injection, “TSI” engine and transmissions are ubiquitous amongst the Vee-Dub family, as is the optional Haldex-based 4Motion all-wheel drive hardware normally found in the Audi TT and Golf R32.
While the Tiguan’s engine produces a pretty sedate 200hp, it’s the torque that makes it sprightly: 206 ft-lbs from 1700 to 5000 rpm. That makes for a very flexible delivery, although there is some initial turbo lag followed by a big surge of power, which can make stop and go driving interesting. Only the base model comes with a six-speed manual transmission; all others get the familiar six-speed automatic.
The benefit to using the turbocharged engine is its reasonable fuel economy – 19/26 mpg city/highway with the manual, and 18/24 for the more popular automatic versions.
The Tiguan uses MacPherson struts up front with a four-link independent setup in the rear, and even the base suspension is tuned for more sporting tastes. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and ESP are standard, meaning even the front-wheel drive versions are easy of control. The turning circle is small for this class, which helps around town.
Customers in Europe and elsewhere can order a Tiguan prepped for serious off-roading, including skid plates and hill-hold systems. For North America, though, Volkswagen’s focus is completely on-road.
A TALL GOLF?
From the outside, the Tiguan apes many of VW’s styling themes, and the front shares more with the sleek Passat CC than its bigger Touareg SUV brother. The rear would be familiar to a Golf/Rabbit owner, if only a little taller. Standard dual exhaust, roof rails and heated side-mirrors lend an upscale touch.
Once you climb in the cabin, the Tiguan moves beyond the expected conservative German vibe, but not by much. Switches and gauges all come from the (admittedly very nice) VW parts bin. However, the radio, HVAC controls and center console are all different enough to be satisfying.
The rear seats are intimate, although they do recline and adjust for either more legroom or increased cargo space. And the front-passenger seat folds flat to help when hauling long loads.
Cargo room is rated at 23.8 cubic feet, or 56.1 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded flat.
LITTLE VALUE HERE
Unfortunately, like most Volkswagens, value isn’t really part of the equation. The range starts with the Tiguan S at $23,200 and moves through the $26,925 SE to the $30,990 SEL. That’s without even considering selecting the optional all-wheel drive, which adds nearly $2,000 to the SE or SEL.
Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD playing with aux-in, air conditioning, eight-way adjustable front seats, and head-curtain airbags.
The SE adds 17-inch wheels, fog lights, privacy glass, upgraded “partial power” front heated seats, and some leather and chrome bits strewn about to liven the place up.
Finally, the SEL tries to justify its sky-high price tag by bringing all the luxury car touches to the masses, including 18-inch wheels, xenon lights, a rockin’ DynAudio sound system, 12-way power seats, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers and ambient lighting.
Popular options include a quite excellent HD-based navigation system with music server and rear-view camera for $1,950, while the power-sliding panoramic sunroof is $1,300. Also, rear passenger side thorax airbags are a reasonable $320.
What you’re left with is a premium SUV without a premium badge. The full-blown SEL 4Motion is $4,000-$5,000 more than either the Honda CR-V EX-L or RAV4 Limited V6 AWD. A new Subaru Forester XT tops out at $29,995, and it’s much more capable on and off-road than the Tiguan. Even an entry-level Audi Q5 based on the same mechanicals is only $5,000 in the other direction.
The Tiguan’s ace in the hole will be its materials and build quality, which trump the Japanese competitors. And reliability, previously a dirty word when considering Volkswagens, has also improved dramatically in recent years, meaning customers can’t immediately take it for granted that the Honda or Toyota will be out of the shop any less.
But that still doesn’t help answer the question of why not just buy a Jetta SportWagen and be done with it? Unless you desperately need all-wheel drive, the SportWagen offers the same engine, better handling, a lower-step-in height and more cargo room, all for thousands less than the Tiguan. You could even put the extra money towards a set of snow tires if needed, and still have enough left over for a trip somewhere warm.