The Good: Quickness, handling, safety, upscale and flexible interior
The Bad: Relatively high price, lack of luggage space, no third row of seats
The Bottom Line: One of the sweetest compact SUVs around—for a price
I like just about everything about the handling and ergonomics of the new Volkswagen Tiguan, a compact SUV that competes with models such as the Toyota (TM) Rav4, Honda (HMC) CR-V, Ford (F) Escape, and Nissan Rogue. The Tiguan has an upscale cabin, tasteful, understated styling, and well laid-out controls, as well as handling and quickness reminiscent of the sporty Volkswagen (VOWG) GTI. If you're in the market for a compact SUV and appreciate German engineering, the Tiguan is definitely worth considering.
However, there are several big negatives about the new model, which appeared in the U.S. last spring. The first is its price, which mounts quickly as you move up the line—which isn't too hard to do. The entry-level, front-wheel-drive Tiguan S lists at $23,950 with a stick shift, and $25,050 with an automatic. However, the base price jumps to $29,625 for a midrange SE with all-wheel drive (which comes only with an automatic transmission), and to $33,690 for a fancy SEL with all-wheel drive. The Tiguan's main rivals aren't as much fun to drive but end up costing an average of about four grand less
The second consideration is fuel economy. With an automatic transmission and front-wheel drive, the Tiguan is only rated to average 21 miles per gallon (18 in the city, 24 on the highway), which lags the four-cylinder Honda CR-V (20/27), Ford Escape (20/28) and Nissan Rogue (21/26), as well as both the four- and six-cylinder Toyota RAV 4 (even the six-cylinder version gets 19/27). Premium gasoline is recommended in the Tiguan, while its rivals use regular.
The third reason for doubt is VW's reputation for iffy quality. As a new vehicle, the Tiguan hasn't been rated, but in the past VW has scored lower than Honda and Toyota, to say nothing of Ford and Nissan, in J.D. Power's rankings of overall vehicle dependability.
On the other hand, a big selling point for the Tiguan is its engine, which is the same turbo-charged, 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower inline four-banger that's found in the Audi TT sports car (Volkswagen is Audi's parent company). It's a great little powerplant that generates 206 ft.-lb. of torque and provides lots of oomph both from a full stop and at highway speed. A further plus for driving enthusiasts is that the entry-level Tiguan S can be had with either a six-speed stick shift or automatic transmission. The front-wheel and all-wheel-drive versions of the SE and SEL are only available with the automatic, but there's a manual function for those who want to do the shifting themselves.
Safety is another of the Tiguan's strong points. The model earned excellent crash-test ratings in Europe and is a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the U.S. Standard equipment includes stability and traction control and six airbags, with rear side airbags available as an option.
Volkswagen is doing better than most other carmakers right now: U.S. sales were down only14.7% in the first two months of this year, to 26,404, while rivals such as General Motors (GM) and Ford saw their sales cut in half. New models such as the Tiguan and the new CC sedan have helped VW offset a huge drop in sales for the Rabbit and Passat. However, neither of the new models does big volume: VW only sold 2,880 CCs and 1,633 Tiguans in the first two months of this year.
Behind the Wheel
You feel confident in the Tiguan in just about any situation. The suspension is taut without being harsh, yet smoothes out bumps in the road quite well. There's little body roll when you throw the vehicle into a curve. The brakes have real bite and seem to bring the Tiguan to a stop faster than those of its main rivals.
The advantage of the turbo-charged engine is that the Tiguan is quicker than any of its four-cylinder-powered rivals. I clocked my test Tiguan, an all-wheel-drive SEL with an automatic transmission, at 7.9 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60. Car and Driver got a time of just 7.3 seconds in the front-wheel-drive Tiguan with a stick shift. Among the rival compact SUVs I've mentioned, only the six-cylinder Rav4 is speedier.
The Tiguan's interior isn't fancy, but fit and finish are excellent, and the materials used are high quality and good-looking. The optional panoramic sunroof extends over the entire seating area of the cabin, giving the car an airy, open feel. There are numerous handy storage areas, including bottle holders molded into the doors, and clever storage slots for credit cards and coins on the dash. One downer is that VW has stashed the CD changer in the center console between the driver and passenger, limiting storage space there.
The Tiguan is almost exactly the same size as the Escape, and 7.6 inches shorter than the Rav4 and 3.6 inches shorter than the CR-V. It seats a maximum of five, though putting three large adults in the rear seats would be cramped. However, the VW's flexible interior design helps offset its diminutive size. The rear seats fold down and are adjustable in two sections, and move forward and back with about six inches of travel. That plus the tilting and telescoping steering wheel make it easy to adjust the front and rear seats to accommodate plus-size passengers.
A major downside: Luggage space behind the rear seats is very limited. Towing capacity is 2,200 lbs, enough to accommodate a small boat or trailer.
Buy it or Bag It?
The '09 Tiguan's recent average selling price is $27,642, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). However, you may be able to do better than that because through VW is offering $1,000 rebates on the Tiguan in many regions of the country through May 4.
The Tiguan is a bargain compared with more genuinely upscale models such as the BMW (BMGW) X3 and Lexus RX 350, which sell for an average of $44,231 and $38,172, respectively, according to PIN. However, the VW costs significantly more, on average, than the Ford Escape ($23,156), Honda CR-V ($23,841), Nissan Rogue ($23,561), and Mazda CX-7 ($24,165). Ditto for the newly redesigned Subaru Forester ($23,841), which comes standard with all-wheel drive, and the four-cylinder Toyota Rav 4 ($23,253). (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)
Among all these rivals, the Toyota Rav4 powered by a six-cylinder engine looks awfully attractive. The six-banger Toyota has been selling for an average $27,455, about the same as the Tiguan, and is much faster, gets slightly better mileage (19 city, 26 highway), seats up to seven and has more luggage space.
Still, the Tiguan left a very positive impression on me. It occupies a niche somewhere between models like the Rav4, Ford Escape and Honda CR-V and the far more expensive BMW X3 and Lexus RX 350. If you're considering any of those models, the Tiguan is well worth a test drive.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan.
Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.