2008 Volkswagen Tiguan

Twelve years after the Toyota RAV4 rolled onto our shores, VW is finally introducing a small, car-based SUV, the Tiguan. A lot is riding on its sculpted shoulders. The small-crossover segment is growing exponentially, and VW has to grab its share of that pie if it is ever to rival Honda and Toyota as a true mainstream automaker.

When it arrives in America next spring, the Tiguan will be powered by VW's familiar 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, mated either to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox. Tiguans thus equipped were not available at the international press launch, so we spent most of our time in one with a 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo-diesel (TDI) with a manual gearbox. This was not a senseless exercise, since this is the same TDI that will be offered in the Jetta sedan and wagon this April. It's a gem of an engine, one that should not only enchant VW's core group of oil-burner fanatics but also draw many diesel skeptics into the fold. Aside from a subdued clatter at start-up, you can barely tell that it's a diesel, and there is plenty of torque for squirting through gaps in rush-hour traffic, merging onto freeways, and passing on two-lane roads. More to the point, this engine will most likely be offered in U.S.-bound Tiguans by late 2008 or early 2009. Diesel Tiguans could push past the 30-mpg mark, perhaps even achieving close to 40 mpg on the highway, which would really be something worth writing a postcard from Budapest about.

When you ask the Tiguan to dance its own Hungarian Rhapsody, it's evident that, dynamically, it falls somewhere between the sporty BMW X3 and the everyman's Honda CR-V, which is exactly where it should be. Blasting along roads that snake through heavily forested, hilly terrain just outside Budapest, our all-wheel-drive Tiguan gripped very well, thanks partially to its Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. If you toss the Tiguan into a tight corner, though, the understeer, body roll, and loss of steering precision remind you that this is a crossover, not a GTI. The manual shifter is a little soggy, too, but the clutch action is clean. Ride quality is certainly far better than that of the stiffly sprung X3, and the Tiguan is very good at smoothing out large road impacts.

The Tiguan also looks good, with a substantial profile and a well-executed cabin boasting a handsome new navigation screen cluster, comfortable seats front and rear, and an optional, full-length sunroof. Cheaper than the X3 and with more of an upmarket air about it than its Asian competitors, the Tiguan ought to be able to hold its shoulders high in this segment.

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