Trieste, Italy, Sunday evening.
What a place to relish a panoramic sunset: with the old harbor acting as a sublime sandstone stage for two time travelers and their raven black chariot, this easternmost Italian seaport blends the perfectly preserved Austro-Hungarian grandezza with a slight layer of decadence that lingers wherever new capitalist and old communist Europe meet.
Behind us, lit brightly by the rapidly descending sun, the picture-postcard city center unfolds. It boasts such famous sights as the majestic former headquarters of Austrian Lloyd Trieste and old-money palaces that flank the opulent town hall on Piazza Grande. Over the time-honored skyline hover pockets of perfumed air that have escaped from the nearby Illy coffee and Stock Spirits factories, but down by the water, the cool air carries only the salty scent of the sea. We dive into a quayside pizza joint to fortify our bodies with pasta and Pellegrino for the 2250 miles that lie ahead of us.
The seems like the perfect four-wheeled horse for our trek to the not-so-wild East. It offers a commanding view, a chassis tough enough to laugh at the few remaining Cold War potholes, a comfy leather-clad cabin, four-wheel drive (just in case), and a turbocharged, 200-hp engine that would surely be more than adequate to beat the pan-continental 130-km (81-mph) speed limit.
By and large, the Rabbit-based crossover does a competent job. But there is still room for improvement. The 235/55HR-17 all-season tires, for instance, deliver grip, traction, and roadholding, but not a plush ride. The 2.0-liter four, in combination with the six-speed automatic and 4Motion four-wheel drive, is neither very refined nor particularly economical. And the standard equipment on our midrange SE version lacks automatic air-conditioning, rain-sensing wipers, and xenon headlamps. All these goodies, plus power-operated leather seats, a top-notch navigation system, and a better sound system, are standard on the Tiguan SEL 4Motion, which lists at $33,630 – $4065 more than our SE 4Motion model.
Opatija, Croatia, Monday morning.
The first border crossing of the trip is unexpectedly painless: flash passports, exchange smiles, wave good-bye, and off we go. Opatija, almost unchanged for decades, still presents itself as a Golden Twenties seaside resort. Most of the olde-worlde villas are painted in a kaleidoscope of pastel colors, the estimated median age of the omnipresent bus tourist is seventy-five years old, and the holidaymakers’ favorite pastime is plugging the emptiness between meals with tall iced coffees and even taller cream cakes.
But the true attraction of the Dalmatian coast is the softly rolling sea – translucent in all shades of blue, surprisingly unpolluted, and in many places quite challenging to access because of steep cliffs. Those with time on their hands likely would sail for the day to one of the beautiful nearby islands, like Krk or Rab, but we saddled our steed and exchanged money to pay the autoput tolls.
Ljubljana, Slovenia, Monday afternoon.
Until 1991, Slovenia, like Croatia, formed part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After the cruel civil war, however, the country was subdivided into seven independent nations. Of the seven, western-oriented Slovenia is the most prosperous. Yugoslavia was once home to the widely ridiculed Yugo, but these days, the former comrades are proudly assembling such up-to-date products as the new Renault Twingo, and Fiat has just signed a cooperation deal with the city of Kragujevac, Serbia, home of Zastava Automobili. With a bit of luck, Europe’s answer to the Tata Nano soon will be sourced from a country that used to be famous primarily for slivovitz plum brandy, smuggled tax-free cigarettes, and generations of ace soccer players.
We would have loved to take the long route north via Klagenfurt, Austria, and follow the Sava River to the Triglavski Narodni National Park, but the timepiece dangling from the rearview mirror prompted us to take a shortcut via Maribor, followed by a direct route on the nationalstrasse to Hungary. Although the wooded, rolling hills that are so typical of the Slovenian countryside attract plenty of hikers and bikers, it’s worth remembering that a handful of Carpathian bears still roam the thinly populated higher elevations, where the navigation system drew a big, monochromatic blank.
Lake Balaton, Hungary, Monday evening.
We know that sör is Hungarian for beer, and pörkölt means goulash, so there’s definitely no danger of going to bed hungry. The storks, too, can expect a hearty welcome when they arrive to nest on tall, onion-shaped church towers. Dubbed the Budapest Riviera, Lake Balaton looks vaguely like a small ocean, but its average depth is only 10.5 feet, which makes it popular with swimmers, sailors, and surfers.
While we could have sold our Tiguan ten times over during this drive, Hungarians in particular were interested in the new VW runabout, which commands a thirteen-month waiting list in Europe. Although the vast majority of customers opt for the turbo-diesel, the turbocharged gasoline engine is fast catching up, since diesel fuel and gasoline in Europe now cost almost the same – a whopping $8.50 per U.S. gallon. Pussyfooted drivers can get up to 30 mpg on the highway out of a barely challenged turbocharged engine, but when you’re in a hurry – like we were – 18 mpg is a more realistic average.
An automatic transmission and four-wheel drive are options for most U.S.-spec Tiguans, and both are worth taking. Even though the six-speed auto is not of the dual-clutch variety, it maintains the fluidity of motion that is so relaxing when you hit rush hour. 4Motion is a must, too, because the Tiguan’s generous ground clearance, impressive approach and departure angles, and yawning wheel travel are wasted if you never venture off-road.
We gave the Tiguan an off-road test in an abandoned quarry near the Austrian border, where the car’s relatively tall stature was no impediment to carsickness-inducing descents, muddy fords, and climbs steep enough to spill the contents of all four cupholders. We got stuck only once – in a sand dune that slowly absorbed the front axle before the volk could return to the wagen. The all-season tires may be noisy and rather stiff, but their coarse tread pattern is an asset when the going gets tough.
Bratislava, Slovakia, Tuesday mid-morning.
Five bridges span the Danube within the city limits of Bratislava, which consists of five boroughs labeled, somewhat anonymously, by the Roman numerals I to V. Classic landmarks include three castles and a number of historic buildings, but the true charm of the capital city is its amazing topography, which combines such extremes as urban parks and wetlands with an old town that lines the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. One of the area’s biggest employers is VW, which has set up a plant here to build the Touareg, the , and the .
The Tiguan is assembled in Wolfsburg, Germany, alongside the Rabbit. In Germany, the base model costs the equivalent of $34,000 plus tax, so the notably better-equipped U.S. version, which starts at $23,890, can’t possibly generate much profit.
Vienna, Austria, Tuesday lunchtime.
Schnitzel and potato salad, anyone? Yes, please. Followed perhaps by a scenic tour in a horse-drawn carriage, an afternoon at the museum quarter, a coffee break on the Ringstrasse, an evening at the opera. Dream on. It’s time to hit the road again. But not before telling those who have visited all the traditional points of interest that an alternative Vienna exists, one that will seduce you with such little-known attractions as the miniature railway through the Prater amusement park, the spooky graveyard of the nameless down by the Danube, the Spittelberg art festival, or a tour of Otto Wagner’s fascinating art-deco facades.
Instead, we add another toll sticker to our collection and head for Prague. On the busy E59 trunk road that heads toward the Czech border, the engine’s tall torque wave effortlessly flushes us past kamikaze vans and ravening trucks. From 1700 rpm to 5000 rpm, the turbocharged sixteen-valve dishes up a constant 207 lb-ft. According to VW, that’s enough oomph to zoom from 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 129 mph. Hindered by a ho-hum drag coefficient of 0.37, the final 15 mph takes a while to materialize, and there’s also a fair bit of hunting going on inside the transmission, which keeps the engine far from its 6500-rpm redline in sixth.
Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday night.
In an ideal world, we would dress up in baroque clothes and wander down to have dinner by the Vltava River, which offers a breathtaking view of Prague Castle, T’yn church, and the old town, with its rugged skyline of meticulously preserved patrician houses. Instead, we start the evening with a pint of dark beer at the famous U Flekú Brewery and Pub. Roast duck with dumplings needs to be walked off by a detour across the Charles Bridge; a visit to Wenzel Square, where the Soviets squashed the Czech revolution in 1968; and a climb up White Mountain (Bilá Hora), which puts Prague at our feet.
No longer the sleepy rundown home of retired revolutionaries, stranded hippies, and wannabe artists, Prague is now a thriving metropolis. Fully restored to its former glory thanks to EU grants, it is infectious and cosmopolitan, a thrilling mix of traditional backdrop and modern mind-set. Traffic, however, is a nightmare. Auto theft remains a popular alternative to purchase, and hooliganism at the wheel can assume grotesque proportions.
Zinnwald-Georgenfeld, Germany, late Wednesday morning.
The Schengen Agreement has eliminated almost all Eastern European border-crossing points – but the mothballed buildings have not yet been torn down, and you can still sense the intense animosity, fear, and mistrust that once prevailed under the piercing overhead floodlights. Progress, in the guise of the new A17 motorway bypass, has also put most of the villages that lined the old Czech country road to sleep. Dead and gone are almost all the street markets that used to peddle cheap counterfeit goods; the shady sex clubs and their scantily dressed, long-legged billboards; and the discount roadside restaurants with enough parking space for a dozen buses.
Meandering through the nearby Saxon-Swiss mountains, the Tiguan found enough freshly surfaced twisties to demonstrate its handling and roadholding talents. With 2.8 turns from lock to lock, the steering is quick enough to help you sail through switchbacks. The chassis provides ample grip, and it produces only mild understeer when pushed, although the ride is mediocre most of the time. Deceleration is strong, prompt, and linear.
Berlin, Germany, Wednesday afternoon.
This is the navel of contemporary Germany, the one big meeting point for the established in-crowd and the younger generation. Berlin rocks, swings, and clicks with just about every visitor. Eighteen years after reunification, the fusion between East and West is still an ongoing process – but you better be quick to catch a piece of the crumbling Wall or a glimpse of the doomed Palace of the Republic. Monumental new buildings are mushrooming left and right, and with the help of famous architects like Daniel Libeskind, the long-divided city is changing its face almost as rapidly as that other magnetic melting pot, Shanghai.
Berlin’s multicultural vibes are best sampled at night in hot spots such as Prenzlau or Charlottenburg. To recover, insiders recom-mend a trip to the green lungs (Grunewald, Spandauer Forest), the downtown lakes (Wannsee, Mggelsee), and the rivers (Spree and Havel), which are crowded with pleasure boats, water taxis, and container ships.
Over the last 2000 miles, the Tiguan has become a much-appreciated mobile living room. We enjoyed the powerful Dynaudio sound system, the well-contoured heated leather seats, the roomy cabin with its lofty driving position, and the easily accessible cargo area that holds a generous 23.8 cubic feet. Just about the only missing convenience item was the optional sunroof. We also would have welcomed a bigger fuel tank – when pushed hard, the 16.8-gallon reservoir runs dry after less than 300 miles.
We arrive at the Polish border near Szczecin before sunset. Although the old trade port is only a stone’s throw from Germany’s comparatively clinical civilization, this is exactly how, as a youngster, I pictured the bad, black East of yore. The pockmarked streets look like forgotten set pieces from a play by Bertholt Brecht, the tired high-rises haven’t seen fresh paint since Ignacy Daszynski became the Republic of Poland’s first prime minister in 1918, and the spring air is pregnant with the smell of coal and diesel. Streetcars and buses are the true kings of the road; fuming trucks rank a close second. To confirm that this really is 2008, you better check the front page of the Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.
Swinoujscie, Poland, Wednesday evening.
The end of our journey is only a ten-minute ferry ride away. The farewell photograph shows the bug-covered Volkswagen, a rundown Polish border-patrol building, the estuary of the badly polluted River Swina, and, in the distance, the Bay of Pomerania, which is part of the Baltic Sea. To the west beckons the sleepy island of Usedom, and to the east is the full length of mighty Poland.
Foul, low-octane, so-called “super-plus” fuel that we filled up with in Wolin, Poland, was rough on the poor Tiguan, but this minor hiccup was the only incident that troubled us between Trieste and the Droga Nadmorska nature preserve. Come to think of it, this was a remarkably uneventful journey.
How come? Because Europe is fast becoming a united and thus more uniform continent. The new Iron Curtain has been reestablished much further east, near the borders of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. In a determined move toward globalization and enhanced competitiveness, the old terrain is undergoing serious modernization, which typically starts with a brand-new road network. Until this is complete, competent all-around vehicles like the Tiguan are ideally suited for both worlds – the jam-packed, hyped-up West and the fast-growing, ever-changeable East.
- Base Price $29,565 (SE 4Motion)
- Engine 16-valve DOHC turbocharged I-4
- Displacement 2.0 liters (121 cu in)
- Horsepower 200 hp @ 5100 rpm
- Torque 207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm
- Transmission type 6-speed automatic
- Drive 4-wheel
- Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
- Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
- Brakes f/R Vented discs/discs, ABS
- Tires Continental ContiProContact
- Tire size 235/55HR-17
- Measurements L x W x H 174.3 x 71.2 x 66.4 in
- Wheelbase 102.5 in
- Track f/r 61.8/61.9 in
- Weight 3631 lb (per manufacturer)
- EPA mileage 18/24 mpg