Testing the Tiguan

Can a little fuel-efficient, smooth-handling, well-priced off-roader get VW back on track?

Bullet holes and shell scars pockmark the old castle overlooking the ancient Hungarian capital of Budapest . From the parapet of the Citadela, we can see city, suburbs, and wooded countryside, the long and circuitous route ahead of us as we take our first drive inside the new Volkswagen Tiguan.

It's an appropriate course for VW's new, downsized sport-utility vehicle. What one senior executive calls "the little brother" to Volkswagen's big Touareg, the new Tiguan is designed to be a do-it-all vehicle: with the go-anywhere capabilities of an SUV, but the comfort, handling, and fuel efficiency of a sedan. Sound familiar?

Now add in some surprisingly luxurious touches at an unexpectedly affordable price and, at least on paper, you've got a product that could challenge the likes of well-established crossovers like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. But we're not interested in press kits. We want to know how the long-awaited Tiguan fares in real-world situations.

To start with, though, we're in for a bit of make-believe. To provide a sense of the crossover's capabilities, the automaker has set up a challenging, if completely artificial, off-road course complete with steep hills, sharp descents, and even a teeter-totter.

For this first run, we start out in what we'll refer to as the Tiguan 28. In an unusual, though not entirely unique, move, Volkswagen has given its new SUV two faces. This number refers to what off-roaders call the approach angle - in this case 28 degrees, a reasonably impressive figure for those who might want to assault something more aggressive than a snowy street or gravel trail. And as we make our way around the course, there's no question that the Tiguan offers some real, off-road capabilities.

The face for America

So it might come as something of a surprise to hear that the automaker has decided not to import this version into the U.S. , focusing instead on the alternate Tiguan front end. With an 18-degree approach angle, it will still do fine in moderately deep snow, and it can handle reasonably rutted dirt trails, as well. But the marketing decision reflects the reality that for all those TV commercials showing SUVs handily assaulting boulders and ravines, less than one in ten American drivers will ever challenge anything more aggressive than a washboard road.

With that in mind, we jumped into a silver Tiguan with, for the most part, American-spec hardware, and headed down from the Citadela into the heart of old Budapest.

Visually, the Tiguan 18 is the more attractive package. It's got a more traditionally rugged look than some of the newer Japanese entries into the compact crossover segment. The double mesh air intakes below the bumper give VW's offering a particularly sporty feel, complimenting the twin-crossbar grille, with its large VW badge. Cat's-eye headlamps wrap into the fenders and are paired with fog lamps in the lower fascia.

To deliver a roomy package, with plenty of usable cargo space, VW designers gave the relatively short-wheelbase Tiguan a high and gently arcing roofline. Gracefully sculpted side panels, large windows, and minimal cladding on the rocker panel keep the feel balanced and avoid the impression that the Tiguan is a tall wagon.

The taillights, with their ovoid lamps, sweep from rear fenders into the large tailgate, which rises high enough for a tall man to stand underneath without stooping. The cargo compartment it reveals it unexpectedly roomy, with a small hidden storage bin underneath the load floor. There is, in fact, plenty of storage space throughout the Tiguan's cabin, from the twin glovebox back.

Minimum plastic

Automakers are facing two big conflicts when it comes to their cabin designs, these days. In this hotly competitive market, they need to design lavish and elegant interiors - but while holding down, even slashing, costs. Several manufacturers, including Toyota and Mercedes-Benz, have suffered as a result of what manufacturers often call "de-contenting."

None of that here. The cabin of our test car - which did not feature all the bells and whistles - was surprisingly well executed, trimmed in a mix of black and cordovan leather, with baseball stitching on the upper half. Even plastic trim matched or complimented the color scheme and graining.

There was a minimum of that black plastic that most manufacturers fall back on, especially in the center stack. Our Tiguan came with a large navigation screen, with well-sized and positioned control buttons mounted in a stylish platinum surround. The navi unit also boasted a slick entertainment system, including AM/FM and CD audio, with an iPod input and a hard disk drive that could be used to store thousands of MP3s.

We didn't have a sunroof, but the Tiguan will feature an optional Panorama package that opens a large part of the roof to the sky.

The crossover's handsome seats were both sporty and supportive, yet pleasantly easy to climb in and out of. There was no chintzing out on the back row, either. And even with the driver's seat set for my own, 6'2" frame, my co-pilot found himself anything but cramped riding in the seat behind.

Pushing the power

Those supportive seats proved especially useful, by the way, when we began to push the Tiguan's powertrain.

As we noted earlier, the crossover we tested was not entirely up to U.S. specifications. But the really critical difference was under the hood. The 2.0-liter gasoline engine that will be coming to the States wasn't available during our stay in Hungary . So, we had to settle for the 2.0-liter TDI. But after a day behind the wheel, we'd be happy to settle for that clean-diesel package anytime VW wants to make it available.

That package, in fact, is expected to be heading Stateside, perhaps a year after the spring 2008 launch of the American Tiguan, but VW officials caution they're still working out the details, which includes price and some technical matters. There'll almost certainly be a price premium of several thousand dollars for the TDI to cover the latest emissions technology.

The same engine will be used in some of VW's passenger cars, but in lighter vehicles, the automaker has come up with a slick system which does not need the additive, urea, to eliminate excess oxides of nitrogen. Used for the heavier Tiguan, the diesel will require urea - replenished when you get your oil changed.

While we don't have final figures, we'd expect the American diesel to push past the 30-mpg mark, which could quickly offset any premium. And after driving the TDI, you might want it, whatever the cost. The powertrain is incredibly torquey, with none of the problems traditionally associated with diesels, like noise and harshness. Except for the slightest clatter, a start-up, the engine was almost Lexus-quiet.

Driving through rush-hour Budapest , we had all the power we needed to grab an open spot in the next lane. And on the open highway, the engine was quick, responsive, and a general delight to drive.

We're told that the 2.0 TDI's manners are quite similar - but for the added mileage and cost - to those of the 2.0-liter gasoline engine, which will be available at U.S. launch.

Both powertrains come with a choice of six-speed automatic or six-speed manual. The manual on our test vehicle was quick-shifting and smooth, what we've come to expect from VWs.

We also had 4Motion on our test model, a good combination and one we'd recommend for most buyers, though front-drive will likely be the option of choice in the Sun Belt. As we mentioned earlier, there are two different "faces" for Tiguan, but only the 18-degree version coming to the States. Sadly, that means we also won't get the Offroad Mode feature, which can be switched on with the touch of a button, activating such things as hill descent control and hill climb assist, electronically modify throttle response, and increase braking on gravel, dirt, and other loose surfaces.

Borrowing from the family

The Tiguan is the result of some big changes at Volkswagen. There was the time this was the least flexible of automakers. Forget bureaucratic matters, that meant rigid design and engineering practices that wouldn't have permitted the development of a flexible, car-based crossover like this one. To bring this smaller SUV to market, VW has borrowed bits and pieces from two of its best-selling platforms, the Passat and, primarily, from the smaller Golf.

The resultant hybrid is clearly more car-like than a conventional SUV, and one of the better packages among car-based crossovers. In city driving, the Tiguan proved nimble and responsive. On the highway, it handled even the most aggressive curves and switchbacks with aplomb. There was a modest amount of body roll, no surprise for such a tall vehicle, though. Steering was precise but a little soft, and driven hard into a corner, there was a bit of pushing, but overall, a well-mannered ride.

On the whole, ride and handling proved to be among the best in class, and more than a match for competitors like the CR-V and RAV4. That's going to be critical, as Volkswagen's whole reason for building the Tiguan is that it provides a more European-style driving experience, and is more fun to drive than the Asian imports. Otherwise, what reason would you have to pay the premium the German marque demands?

And when it comes to price, we won't see final numbers until next spring, closer to launch, but we're expecting to see something in the neighborhood of the mid- to high-$20,000 range. In recent years, Volkswagen products, in general, have been running 15 to 20 percent above the Asians. Now, VW's new U.S. CEO Stefan Jacoby says he wants to hold that closer to five percent.

We'd hope so. Yes, a well-equipped vehicle like the Tiguan deserves a bit of a premium, but in today's competitive market, it would be hard for the new compact crossover to price itself out of the market. Let's face it: right now, Volkswagen has dropped off the shopping list for a lot of folks, and as good as the Tiguan might be, the automaker needs to make sure it's even considered.

2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

Base price: $25,000 (est.)

Engine: Turbodiesel 2.0-liter in-line four, 140 hp/200 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 173.2 x 72.8 x 66.5 in

Wheelbase: 102.5 in

Curb weight: 3520 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A

Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD audio system; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; digital climate control; power driver seat; remote keyless entry; alloy wheels

Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, tire pressure monitors; dual front, side and curtain airbags; active head restraints

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.