Despite high gas prices and melting polar icecaps, Americans still love their SUVs. Now, they're moving to smaller versions of the go-anywhere, carry-anything wagons. Although it seems that every company offers something these days, the compact-sized, reasonably priced car-based crossovers mainly have been offered by the Japanese and Korean nameplates. With the arrival of the Tiguan, you can buy a German Volkswagen in this size and shape.
Just as hard-to-spell but slightly easier to pronounce than its big brother, the Touareg, the Tiguan brings the fun-to-drive sportiness of VW's GTI to the marketplace. Its 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder provides more zip than many competitors, with an official zero-to-60 time of just 7.8 seconds, while offering EPA mileage figures of 19 City, 26 Highway ,reasonable if not astounding numbers. But remember, this is a 3,400-pound family hauler, not a sports car. Premium fuel is required, thanks to the turbocharger.
You can enjoy a six-speed manual transmission or Japanese-built six-speed automatic in the Tiguan, but all three models have a "European tuned" suspension, which in this market means responsive, level handling and a compliant ride. Choose from front-wheel drive or VW's optional 4Motion� four-wheel drive, depending on your expected weather conditions and terrain. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the Tiguan a 7 for Air Pollution and a 5 for Greenhouse Gas, so this is not the greenest option out there.
The S model, such as my Wild Cherry Metallic tester, has much of what a person needs to get around comfortably. That includes air conditioning, eight-way manually adjustable seats, remote keyless locking, power windows and mirrors, and illuminated vanity mirrors on the sun visors.
Safety features include six airbags, anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, the Electronic Stabilization Program, and other electronic guardians to preserve handling in a crisis and protection in a crash. The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently gave the Tiguan a Top Safety Pick award it's highest rating for its impressive performance in the institute's crash tests. Twenty-four-hour roadside assistance for three years/36,000 miles is part of a comprehensive warranty package that gives owners peace of mind.
The SE, the likely volume model, adds a raft of other features that you can live without but may not want to. These include a leather shift knob and steering wheel, upgraded cloth interior and trim, fog lamps, a roof rack, a trip computer, and heated windshield washers. The six-speed automatic is standard on this model as well. The SEL loads on the luxuries that the "L" represents leather seats, automatic headlights, rain-sensor wipers, dual zone climate control, a 300-watt audio system, a self-dimming inside mirror and a few other items.
Prices range from $23,200 for the S through $30,990 for the SEL, plus $690 on top of that for destination charges (subject to upward change). Available options include rear side airbags and a navigation system. My S model tester, with the optional rear airbags, came to $25,340.
Anyone who has ever driven a Golf, Jetta or Passat will feel right at home in this VW. You sit a bit higher, so it's easy to get in and out. Underway, steering response is quick, with a gentle pulse of the road transmitted to your hands. There's German precision in the straightforward presentation of information and logical switch layout, as well as high quality but not ostentatious materials, in my tester mainly black and metallic dark gray. Eight tiny circular air vents add interest to the dash design. The emergency brake "handle" is miniaturized as well.
The door seal made an annoying squeaking sound and the coat hooks were inadequate for five shirts, but I can think of nothing else to complain about. Flexible seating is handy, with reclining rear seats that move up to six inches forward and back to accommodate more passengers or more cargo. Maximum cargo space with rear seats folded is more than 56 cubic feet, and the front passenger seat folds flat for carrying long things like ladders. In case you wondered, a string bass fits without requiring folding that seat down.
Following a trend from the pricier German brands, VW offers the Carefree Maintenance Program, which covers all scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. So, if you lease the car for three years, you'll likely never pay for an oil change or routine adjustment or inspection. The crossover market offers a mind-boggling array of small SUV choices. Now, if you want the German motoring experience, there's a very appealing and more affordable way to do it.