Image: 2009 Tiguan
Volkswagen
The new Tiguan compact SUV is Volkswagen's response to the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and the aged but popular Ford Escape. 
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/11/2008 12:43:25 PM ET 2008-12-11T17:43:25
REVIEW

It’s the time of the year when high school seniors across the country are frantically polishing their college applications, the outcome of which will confirm or repudiate their work of the last several years.

Volkswagen is seeking a similarly positive response to the fruit of its labors, a new compact SUV called the Tiguan. Trouble is, VW’s applicant is up against star students like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester and the aged but popular Ford Escape. 

After carefully reviewing the Tiguan’s credentials, I can say that it is a very strong applicant for purchase.

The Tiguan delivers an impressive combination of those typical attributes infused with the urban-Euro chic attitude that makes all VWs popular with young buyers. The Tiguan is superbly detailed inside and out, revealing careful attention to every aspect of its styling.

But almost anyone can put together a glossy application. The question to be answered is how much substance there is beneath that glossy veneer.

Another challenge is that the Tiguan isn’t entirely certain of its major yet. Its nameplate says it belongs in a mainstream business department like accounting along with its aforementioned classmates, but its steep $35,000 as-tested price tag and lavish interior appointments suggest it might belong in a more exotic specialty like sports management, with the likes of the Acura RDX, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLK. Or perhaps something with a touch of flash, like marketing, along with the Saturn Vue, Mazda CX-7 and upcoming Volvo XC60.

If this sounds like a plethora of categories, it is. Competition for admission gets tougher all the time. While full-size and midsized SUV sales have gone off the boil, consumers are still crazy for compact SUVs.

They are drawn by the same attributes of the high “command” driving position, image and the perception of safety and sure-footedness. Each of these factors driving the appeal of compact SUVs is more emotional than factual, but as long as consumers are paying, manufacturers are supplying.

Still, the Tiguan has some nice attributes. Its cabin is trimmed in extravagant leather, with most of the dashboard and door surfaces wrapped in a soft-touch material, while the few bits of hard plastic have a matte, grained finish that matches the soft parts. The $1,300 panoramic sunroof bathes the whole interior in light, which is especially appreciated in a vehicle with a dark charcoal interior.

The multiway power adjustable seats are more comfortable than the seats typically found in this class of vehicle, but with its $35,000 price tag, the Tiguan SEL I tested was not equipped like a mainstream product.

The rear seat is roomy, with ample leg and shoulder room and seats that actually provide thigh support rather than trimmed back seat cushions to create the appearance of legroom. Adults could realistically travel in this back seat, and there is plenty of space out back for luggage.

One critical aspect of the Tiguan is not in keeping with its suave, slick feel — its engine. The Tiguan is powered by a VW corporate 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a power plant which is excessively coarse and intrusive, especially at idle and under acceleration from a stop.

There’s a guttural growl from under the hood and a discernible buzz in the steering wheel. The engine’s demeanor is so agricultural that I expected to find hay baler listed among the dealer options.

The gasoline engine uses a diesel-like direct injection system that provides diesel-like sound and vibration, but only some of a diesel’s efficiency. I did manage 26 mpg on the highway, beating the EPA rating of 24 mpg, but despite its four-cylinder engine and smaller size, the Tiguan’s around-town EPA gas mileage rating of 18 mpg for the front-drive model is no better than that of midsized crossover SUVs and minivans.

The much larger Toyota Venza wagon is rated by the EPA at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway with a four-cylinder and 19 mpg and 26 mpg when equipped with a V-6 engine that is much more powerful and refined than the VW’s turbo four-cylinder. VW is considering offering its TDI diesel engine in the Tiguan, which would dramatically improve its fuel economy, according to a spokesman, who said no decision has yet been reached.

A bigger obstacle than mediocre fuel economy, however, is VW’s reputation for poor reliability. When a vehicle’s primary competitors are as well regarded as Hondas and Toyotas, the aspiring collegian needs glittering references.

What will the Tiguan’s reliability be like? No one knows. VW has scored poorly in past Consumer Reports reliability ratings, but the group says the new VW Rabbit, upon which the Tiguan is based, is doing well.

Unfortunately, during my test drive, the vehicle’s navigation system repeatedly crashed — taking the radio with it — only to spontaneously reboot. VW said it had not heard of such problems from customers. To prove it the company sent a replacement vehicle, and its navigation system worked fine.

The Tiguan does deliver the expected European driving experience, with taut, responsive reflexes. Like so many other recent introductions, the Tiguan is saddled with electric power steering, which often is less sensitive than an admissions counselor to an applicant’s ego. 

The Tiguan does manage to deliver some feedback, and steering effort builds when cornering, with a useful inclination to return to center when released, placing it above the woeful average for such systems. But the steering effort is very light, making it a challenge to tell what the front tires are doing at low speeds.

Ultimately, no matter how lavishly equipped the Tiguan is, this upstart from VW is unlikely to beat established luxury players. The best bet for this newcomer is probably the value route. The Tiguan is a nice vehicle, even bereft of its leather seats, bright-white xenon headlights, navigation system and other luxury accoutrements.

With cloth seats and a nifty six-speed manual transmission, the $23,200 Tiguan S is not only more appealing to driving enthusiasts, it also costs dramatically less than the tested SEL.

Of course driving enthusiasts shopping in the VW store will probably linger near the Rabbit five-door or the new, ultra-efficient Jetta Sportwagen TDI, which both skew the driving fun/practicality equation to the “fun” end of the spectrum. They also cost less than the Tiguan and burn less gas.

All three members of the VW family are ready to mail their Ivy League applications, but the company’s success will depend hugely upon its ongoing effort to improve its reputation for reliability. Without that key component, VW will be left watching dejectedly as the kid next door rips open the fat response envelope from his first-choice school.

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