I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of small SUVs. It's the classic story of why not just buy a wagon. Wagons get better mileage and usually have more space. Plus, they don't look dorky like many small SUVs. Well, after a long delay, VW enters the mini SUV market with the Tiguan. This basic-spec, automatic, front-wheel drive Tiguan S costs $24,990. Not bad but quite a bit more than a similarly equipped Jetta wagon. At least you get the torquey, 2.0-liter turbo engine as standard in the Tiguan.
I was surprised to grip a plastic steering wheel in the VW sport-ute. You need to bump up to the Tiguan SE for a leather-wrapped wheel, as well as for other features like heated seats, nicer cloth fabric, satellite radio, a trip computer, et cetera. At least the base VW gets you height and lumbar adjustment on the front seats, adjustable rear seats, and stability control. It's a shame you need to spend almost $30,000 if you want all-wheel drive as, to me, this is one of the only selling points of the Tiguan over a Jetta wagon.
On the road, the Tiguan feels quite good, like a taller Rabbit or Jetta. I think the ride is a tiny bit brittle, but would undoubtedly only get worse with the 17- and 18-inch wheels that come on the SE and SEL model.
The interior is quite nice but very basic. There are a ton of cubbies, and it's cool that you can slide the rear seats so you can play with cargo versus people room depending on the size of your passengers. Still, it isn't huge inside.
Overall, buy the Jetta wagon, unless you need all-wheel drive. That said, I wish the Jetta wagon were better-looking - not that the Tiguan is that impressive to look at, either.
Marc Noordeloos, Road Test Editor
I can't help but think the number of people looking for a small SUV that sucks down premium unleaded to the tune of 18/24 mpg with an automatic is roughly equivalent to the number of people looking for a tiger crossbred with an iguana. Sure, they might exist, but not in huge numbers. For those Americans who can tolerate a wagon, the Jetta Sportwagen will return 22/29 mpg with a 2.0-liter turbo that burns premium gas or 29/40 mpg with the 2.0-liter turbo-diesel. With fuel economy on the brain, the Tiguan seems like the answer to a question nobody asked.
If you are a fan of the compact SUV class, however, this Tiguan is a contender for class leader. You can get a proper six-speed automatic or manual transmission instead of the CVT Nissan forces on Rogue buyers. The ride is very comfortable and handling doesn't seem too much worse than a Rabbit. You notice the higher center of gravity, but it's not terribly limiting.
I was surprised by how much room passengers in the back seat had. With four actual adults in the Tiguan, nobody had complaints about crushed knees and entry/exit wasn't an issue. The 2.0T did a great job hauling a full load of people and luggage for an airport run, which surprised me. So many of these compact SUVs seem to lose responsiveness when you actually load them up, but Tiguan soldiered on.
I agree with Marc, the compact SUV makes virtually no sense unless you need AWD. But if you must have a smaller SUV for some reason, the Tiguan is about as good as it gets. Hopefully we'll get a TDI Tiguan soon.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
Because there aren't all that many small wagons currently on the market, I actually like mini-SUVs/tall-wagons such as the Ford Escape and the Honda CR-V, and after my brief drive of the Tiguan, I think that it's one of the best in this class. It's a bit strange, though, as others have noted, that Volkswagen is marketing a vehicle like this alongside the more desirable (to me) Jetta wagon, but at least the Tiguan offers a higher-but-not-too-high driving position - a feature that Marc and Phil failed to recognize as a strong selling point for some buyers - and all-wheel drive.
The 2.0-liter turbo four is an engine that we love in the GTI and other VW models, but the Tiguan is similarly keen to squeal its front tires, which can draw unwanted attention from the law.
Vehicles like this probably will gain popularity in light of the Fuel Price Crisis, but Phil is right: 18/24 mpg on premium fuel won't help the Tiguan's case (although the stick-shift version is EPA rated at 19/26 mpg).
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
A couple of months ago I had dinner with an old friend of mine, Mark Abramovich, Automobile Magazine reader, keen car enthusiast, and all-around bon vivant. Somehow the dinner-table conversation turned to station wagons. While twirling his second or third glass of Bordeaux, Mark turned to me and said, "Would you people at the car magazines PLEASE stop whining at us Americans to embrace wagons?!? We don't LIKE wagons. That's why NOBODY BUYS THEM!! I'm so sick of hearing automotive journalists bitch and moan that we don't have enough choices in wagons, and if only this or that car company would deign to import this or that wagon from Germany, American enthusiasts would be in nirvana. Not true. Americans don't buy wagons because Americans don't like them. End of story."
I was reminded of this when reading my colleagues' bleatings that there's no reason to buy a Tiguan when a Jetta wagon will suffice. Hello? How many Jetta wagons do you think Volkswagen sells? Not many. And that's because Mark is right: Americans just aren't interested. It's true that VW is late to the compact-SUV market, but as Americans adjust to $4-per-gallon gasoline, I predict that the compact-SUV market will continue to grow, and VW is wise to be in the thick of it with a good entry like the Tiguan. After all, many of the Americans who are currently driving mid- or full-size SUVS that get 14 or 15 or 16 mpg will be happy to downsize to a smaller but still roomy and versatile SUV like the Tiguan that will take them well into the 20s in terms of fuel economy on the highway but will still give them the features that attracted them to SUVs in the first place: a high seating position, all-wheel-drive traction, and cargo versatility.
Now, as for the Tiguan itself, well, it doesn't feel quite as special as it did to me when I first drove it nine months ago, on the international press launch event in Budapest, Hungary. That's probably because the models I drove there were all lavishly equipped with sumptuous leather seats and trim, all-wheel drive, and other goodies. The test vehicle we had here in Ann Arbor, on the other hand, was a $25,000 base model with front-wheel drive, cloth seats, and, as my colleague Marc Noordeloos notes, a plastic steering wheel. I've also noticed now that there's a huge, ungainly front overhang that does little for the Tiguan's exterior proportions.
But the 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, mated to either the six-speed manual or our test car's six-speed automatic, is a gem. It delivers very strong, linear acceleration and smooth, prompt shifts. I cannot imagine anyone complaining about this powertrain.
And as my colleagues have noted, ride quality is pretty good, if not perfect, and the cabin is spacious and well laid out.
I think the Tiguan is well worth checking out for anyone who's considering a Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, or even BMW X3.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
I finally agree with an automaker's PR campaign. Volkswagen is touting the Tiguan as "the GTI of compact sport utility vehicles." I'll go one step further and call it the GTI compact SUV.
As everyone else has pointed out, the Tiguan shares its platform and engine (VW's 2.0-liter turbocharged four) with the GTI. It can be had either with a five-speed manual, or the six-speed auto that was in our test car. And that is not where the similarities end.
The five-door GTI has an interior passenger volume of 93.1 cubic feet. The Tiguan improves on that number, but only slightly, with a total of 95.3 cubic feet. So the difference here is obviously cargo capacity, where the GTI's 14.7 cubic feet are handily beaten by the 23.8 cubic feet in Tiguan. If you need that extra space and the added ground clearance and (optional) all-wheel drive, then the Tiguan is a good choice. If not, I'd stick with the unmolested fun-to-drive character of a GTI.
That said, the Tiguan is a very comfortable and sporty compact SUV. It looks just like a tall GTI, right down to the spoiler above the rear window. It practically begs for the optional all-wheel drive as the torquey turbo four on our front-wheel-drive test car was able to easily light up the tires.
And speaking of lighting up tires, I wonder how long it will take for someone to build a Tiguan with the engine and driveline components from an R32...
David Gluckman, Web Producer
It seems that Volkswagen is burning through a giant wad of cash to advertise this vehicle (the commercial with the VW Beetle, the drummer, and "Europe's SUV of the Year" tag is burned into my brain). VW's small SUV does look great from the front end. I particularly love the face and headlight treatment. The back, however, seems to end abruptly and without any style. I know it is influenced by the GTI, but proportions or something just seem a bit off.
The same goes for the Tiguan's interior. I love the simplicity, the soft dash, and overall material quality. But why are there eight circle vents, and vents stacked upon one another? Instead of shaping vents that match the rest of the dash layout, it seems like an interior designer just got lazy and bored out air holes. Maybe this was an attempt at advanced climate control? Either way, interior layouts in the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and even the Hyundai Tuscon look much more cohesive.
As others have noted, the sporty 2.0T works well here. But can buyers overcome the financial and psychological burden of filling a small SUV with premium fuel? This certainly isn't a given, considering regular fuel is now $4.09 per gallon here in Ann Arbor.
David Yochum, Assistant Editor