Pros: Peppy turbocharged engine; good fuel economy with automatic transmission; uptown interior; roomy back seat; smooth, quiet ride

Cons: Cargo capacity is limited; subpar fuel economy with manual transmission; fancier trim levels are unusually expensive

The 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan brings an unexpected touch of class to the compact crossover SUV segment. Typically, we expect compact crossovers to be like economy hatchbacks on stilts: practical and affordable but hardly upscale. The Tiguan, though, features rich interior materials, a luxurious ride and confident turbocharged performance from the cheapest model on up.

Of course, the Tiguan doesn't stay cheap for long. Although its base price is appealingly low, a Tiguan with all the options pushes $40,000. That's a lot of coin for a compact Volkswagen, no matter how nice it is. You can actually get a base Audi Q5 for a few grand less than a loaded Tiguan SEL.

But if you ask us, more reasonably priced Tiguan models are something of a bargain. They deliver an undeniably premium ownership experience, and that's something we can't say of any comparable vehicle under $30,000. If you think "classy compact crossover" is an oxymoron, you owe yourself a test drive in a 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan is offered in S, LE, SE and SEL trim levels with various option packages. All-wheel drive is optional on every model except the LE, while the unusual six-speed manual transmission is only available on the base front-wheel-drive S model.


The Tiguan S starts with 16-inch steel wheels, eight-way manual front seats with height and lumbar adjustments, cloth upholstery, reclining rear seats, a trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and an eight-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input. Adding the automatic transmission to the S replaces the steel wheels with 16-inch alloys. Optional on the S is a sliding panoramic sunroof.

The LE model improves on the S by adding leatherette upholstery, heated front seats and iPod connectivity.

The SE model gets the LE's equipment plus 18-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, silver roof rails, heated front washer nozzles, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, a power reclining function for the driver's seat, and a touchscreen audio system with a six-CD changer, an SD card reader, and satellite radio. Optional on the SE is a package that adds the panoramic sunroof and an SD-based navigation system.

The Tiguan SEL tacks on 19-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, xenon headlights with LED accents, rain-sensing wipers, the panoramic sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, silver interior trim, a power driver's seat with memory functions, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, power-folding heated exterior mirrors and the SD-based navigation system. Optional on the SEL is a hard-drive-based navigation system with voice recognition, digital music storage, and a larger 6.5-inch display. The top-of-the-line SEL with Premium Navigation and Dynaudio adds standard all-wheel drive and a 300-watt Dynaudio sound system.

The Tiguan's interior won't blow you away with its beautiful design; the prevailing theme is German austerity. But it's a top-quality environment, with premium materials almost everywhere you touch. Although the Tiguan starts in the mid $20,000s, its cabin wouldn't be out of place in a luxury crossover costing $35,000 or more.

The Tiguan's front seats lack lateral support, which makes sense, as this crossover has zero sporting pretensions. Its forte is comfortable highway cruising, and the standard adjustable lumbar support for both driver and passenger ensures that the cruise will be comfortable. The standard seat height adjustment and tilting and telescoping steering wheel help tall and small alike find an agreeable driving position. The panoramic sunroof really brightens up the interior, and unlike many supersize sunroofs, it actually slides back for open-air motoring.

The back seat is perhaps even more impressive. On the outside, the Tiguan looks like a pretty compact vehicle, but the rear quarters are full size. Thanks to a high bottom cushion, ample headroom and standard reclining seatbacks, six-footers can ride all day without complaint. That's definitely not always the case in a compact crossover.

Cargo capacity is below average, however, checking in at 23.8 cubic feet behind the second row and 56.1 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded. That's barely more than some compact hatchbacks can manage.

Technology

The Tiguan means business on the technology front: even the entry-level Tiguan S has Bluetooth and a solid eight-speaker stereo with an auxiliary input. It's a bit more challenging to get iPod connectivity, but the first model to feature it, the LE, is still fairly attainable. Our main objection is that a USB port isn't offered on any Tiguan, although higher trims get a touchscreen audio interface with an SDcard reader that lets you bring your MP3s along for the ride.

Like many other Volkswagens, the Tiguan offers not one but two navigation systems. The hard-drive-based unit is the clear winner, as it boasts not only the larger 6.5-inch screen but also about 20 GB of digital music storage. However, it's only available on the upper-level Tiguans.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Available with either front- or all-wheel drive, the Tiguan is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 rated at 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the front-wheel-drive S, but the Tiguan otherwise gets a six-speed automatic. The 2.0T engine is a real gem, delivering sprightly acceleration almost from idle to redline. It's ultimately not as capable as the V6s in the RAV4 and the Kia Sorento, but it feels peppier around town thanks to that ever-present turbocharged torque. We appreciate that VW still offers a manual shifter, and it's a pleasant one that helps make the S model a real bargain, but most Tiguans will have the exceptionally smooth automatic transmission.

Fuel economy is just 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway with the manual transmission, considerably worse than the FWD automatic's respectable 22/27 mpg. Adding AWD barely makes a difference, yielding 21/27 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).

The government hasn't crash tested the Tiguan using its latest methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Tiguan its highest rating of Good in every testing category.

Driving Impressions

It's been said that the Tiguan drives like a jacked-up GTI, but let's be honest: this crossover is all about comfort. Yes, the Tiguan shares the GTI's engine, but the suspension has been tuned primarily to isolate occupants from the elements. And you know what? We wouldn't change a thing. The Tiguan is a lovely car on the highway, suppressing road and wind noise so thoroughly that it could just as well have an Audi badge on the steering wheel. It's equally at home on patchy urban streets, thanks to its combination of decent ground clearance and generous ride compliance. We can't think of a more pleasant compact crossover to drive at this price point.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sorento - The well-rounded Sorento delivers great value, offering robust V6 power for about the same price as the Tiguan LE. It has an available third-row seat, too.  

Mazda CX-5 - Similar in spirit to the Tiguan, the CX-5 is a compact crossover with a premium feel and genuinely athletic handling. The Tiguan is considerably more powerful, however.

Toyota RAV4 - The RAV4 is an oldie but goodie. Its optional V6 is still the best engine in this class, and it also features an available third-row seat and Toyota's reputation for reliability.

AutoTrader Recommends

We think the Tiguan is at its best toward the low end of its price range. Our choice would be either the S with the panoramic sunroof or the LE. Either way, you're getting a lot of crossover for around $25,000. Pricier Tiguans compete surprisingly well with entry-level luxury crossovers, but remember, the S and the LE have the same drivetrain and interior.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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