2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

Jurgen Skarwan

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 Audi Q7, and the Porsche Cayenne.

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.

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