Building Momentum With A Mid-Life Refresh

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan

At first blush, Munich seems like an awfully long way to travel for the chance to drive a mid-cycle refresh. But Volkswagen has good reason to ask us to schlep across the Atlantic to drive its updated-for-2012 Tiguan: Momentum.

The compact crossover had a bit of a knock-kneed start out of the gates when it arrived in the U.S. in May of 2008 as a 2009 model. While demand was spectacular at home in Europe, the VW failed to find early favor with North American shoppers, despite entering a white-hot segment. But that's rapidly changing. Last year, Tiguan sales increased from fewer than 14,000 units to nearly 21,000, and this year, it's on its way to a new record, selling almost 3,100 units in May alone. And thanks to a series of meaningful updates for 2012, there's every reason to believe that the kid brother of the pricey Touareg will continue to find increasing favor among consumers.


Utilizing the same 2.0-liter turbocharged TSI four-cylinder engine that helps the GTI tug at our heartstrings, the Tiguan has always been an engaging drive. Generating the same 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque output as last year's model, a willing drivetrain was never the problem – it was lackluster fuel economy. VW says it has made significant strides in this area, executing lots of little changes that add up to a big improvement in miles per gallon. Chief among them is an updated version of its 09M six-speed automatic, which now uses two overdrive gears instead of one. Along with this change, the Aisin gearbox uncouples its torque converter when coasting, and the transmission software features reduced shift points and lowered idle speed (now a diesel-like 600 rpm).

Although official EPA fuel economy numbers aren't in yet, Volkswagen says these alterations, along with low rolling resistance tires, should add up to a 15-to-20 percent gain in efficiency. Being conservative and going with the 15-percent improvement, that should work out to about 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway in front-wheel-drive spec – big improvements over the outgoing model's frankly unimpressive 20/26 ratings. Unfortunately, the turbo'd Tig still recommends premium fuel.

2012 Volkswagen Touareg side profile2012 Volkswagen Touareg front2012 Volkswagen Touareg rear

The Tiguan's updated hardware hides beneath a modest exterior updo that's surprisingly effective. The front fascia adopts VW's latest corporate look, with a twin split-bar grille and new headlamps that look markedly more assertive than the somewhat saggy fixtures they replace – particularly in SEL trim, which incorporates U-shaped LED arrays, a change that recaptures some of the aggression lost when the Concept Tiguan of 2006 made the transition to production. In profile, little has changed other than the addition of a chrome lower trim strips, and out back, reshaped two-piece taillights look less globby, with more intricate "Double L" internals. To our eyes, the new look is at once more cohesive and premium, and the refined Tig has a more confident stance, particularly when outfitted with optional 19-inch Savanna alloys.

Interestingly enough, ours is one of two front-end looks for the 2012 Tiguan. Known as the 28° Track & Style nose (you can't make this stuff up), it has a light-duty plastic skid plate and slightly improved arrival angle (name aside, VW specs suggest the arrival angle is actually 24.3°, but we don't see many people off-roading their Tiguans anyway). The other front fascia, known as the 18° Sport & Style, incorporates a bluffer face, with a larger center air intake and a Leno jut to its lowermost region. European customers will get their choice of front-ends depending on which model they choose, but U.S. customers will have to be happy with the style seen here.



Much to our quiet relief, the interior of the 2012 Tiguan is largely the same as its predecessor, which is to say comfortable, clearly laid out, and well-constructed. There's a new steering wheel with multi-function switchgear, a crisper and more colorful data display nestled between the tachometer and the speedometer, an updated gearshift lever and top-spec SEL models get a thin fillet of matte silver trim on the door cards. That's about it. Those fearing the same sort of decontenting and discount materials inflicted upon the 2011 Jetta have nothing to worry about – the 2012 Tiguan still errs on the premium side and observed fit-and-finish in a variety of test models was first-rate.

Sadly, we can't give you the complete goods on the new Tiguan just yet, because even though we drove a whole range of examples, they were European-spec models with all manner of powertrain and option combinations that we won't see in America. We powered out of Munich and into the heart of the Austrian Alps driving everything from the innovative 1.4-liter twincharger (which is both supercharged and turbocharged to deliver 158 horsepower and 177 pound-fet of torque) to our 2.0-liter TSI four-cylinder backed by a six-speed manual and 4Motion all-wheel drive, both wearing Sport & Style togs. We even spent time in an automatic-equipped 2.0-liter TDI diesel 4Motion, the subject seen here in our photographs. Since we won't get any of these powertrain combinations (as before, we'll have a choice of a base front-wheel-drive model with manual transmission or uplevel trims with front-or all-wheel drive paired exclusively with the updated six-speed automatic), we'll have to wait to give you our full impressions.



Alright, we'll give you one observation that's likely to come as a surprise: In this application, the 2.0-liter TDI needs work. We've been delighted with the flexibility and driving characteristics of this very same diesel in other VWs (including our own long-term Jetta), but if an oil-burning Tiguan is to come to the States, it's going to need a trip to manners school. While likely acceptable to a European audience used to diesel power tradeoffs, we found the TDI to be surprisingly coarse sounding – acutely so upon start-up (despite ambient air temperatures in the mid-60s). Once underway, it's possible to forget about the noise, vibration and harshness after a while, enjoying the TDI's 168 hp and 258 lb-ft. of torque output, but the start-stop feature caused us to revisit our misgivings about the engine's refinement every time it kicked in. Officials reconfirmed that the company is actively considering offering a TDI model stateside, so we hope they sic their engineers on the problem, as some extra sound insulation and a bit of tuning would probably address our concerns. Cornering the market on a high-mpg compact diesel CUV certainly strikes us as worth the added effort.

From our vantage point, the Tiguan's other chief impediment to bigger sales has been its price. The 2011 Tiguan may boast a more sophisticated engine and a nicer interior than many of its competitors, but its $23,720 base price is well north of its larger chief competitors, the Honda CR-V ($21,895) and Toyota RAV4 ($22,475), not to mention cheaper offerings like the Kia Sportage ($18,295) and Nissan Rogue ($21,460). Volkswagen hasn't tipped its hand on pricing ahead of the 2012 model's September on-sale date, but it's likely to at least hold the line, if not decrease a bit.

2012 Volkswagen Touareg rear 3/4 view

Bigger changes will have to wait until the next-generation Tiguan, a model that's likely to be very different from what you see here. For one thing, the all-new model is widely expected to be built not in Wolfsburg, but in Chattanooga at VW's new plant. Building in the U.S. will help make a much lower price point possible, and this successor will almost certainly grow a bit in size to fit U.S. tastes – likely sprouting a long-wheelbase variant with three rows. What's more, we hear from several sources that the next Tig is unlikely to see the sort of interior cost-cutting that's drawn fire from auto critics and brand loyalists. According to what we've heard from several sources, Jonathan Browning, VW of North America's new CEO, is understood to be unhappy with the Jetta's accommodations, so a repeat performance with the Tiguan is unlikely.

In the meantime, we don't see anything here that will stop the current generation from continuing to build momentum. It's more refined, better looking and cheaper to run, and it still packs the heart of a GTI.