Volkswagen Sharpens its CUV Game

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan

The Volkswagen Tiguan hasn't exactly enjoyed booming success on the U.S. market. In a land populated by a people distrustful of anything with less than a league of ground clearance under the belly pan, the high-riding CUV should have been right at home. But a preponderance of well-oiled competitors like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape meant elbowing onto the scene was a bit more difficult than Volkswagen anticipated. That trend has been hard to buck in the three years since the machine first touched our shores. While the model has seen a steady climb from the 13,903 units it sold in 2009 to the 25,990 that went home last year, those figures pale in comparison to the heavyweight Honda. Buyers bought nearly eight times the number of CR-V models in 2011.

So, the engineers and designers at Volkswagen freshened up the Tiguan for 2012. Small tricks like a new front fascia and reworked light elements help give the vehicle a more upscale appearance outside, while the interior retains all of the simplicity and well-executed materials that we've come to appreciate from the German automaker. Slightly improved fuel economy is also part of the recipe, but these changes aren't quite enough to help the Tiguan hold its own against all-new generations of both the CR-V and the Escape.

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan side view2012 Volkswagen Tiguan front view2012 Volkswagen Tiguan rear view

Volkswagen chose to run the refresh playbook word-for-word on the 2012 Tiguan.

Volkswagen chose to run the refresh playbook word-for-word on the 2012 Tiguan, starting with a new front fascia. The CUV's nose now wears the same corporate grille found elsewhere in the stable, and the change is for the better. The split bar looks handsome enough and helps draw some much-needed parallels to the larger Touareg. LED daytime running lights now grace the headlights up front, and a simplified bumper cover takes much of the business from the crossover's face. Of course, the change also more closely links the machine to the Golf. That's fitting given both machines share a chassis.

From the side, there's little to distinguish the 2012 Tiguan from the 2011 model, though the rear now shows off a set of two-part tail lights just like the ones found on the big-brother SUV. Buyers can opt for a 19-inch wheel design seen here, which looks sharp against the Pepper Gray paint.

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan grille2012 Volkswagen Tiguan headlight2012 Volkswagen Tiguan wheel2012 Volkswagen Tiguan taillight

Well enough was left alone inside ... a good thing for those of us who feared a Jettafication of the wee Tiguan.

Step indoors and the scene looks refreshingly familiar. Volkswagen has left well enough alone inside, and the Tiguan maintains its handsome cabin. The soft-touch dash, solid-feeling climate controls and attractive, if not simple, leatherette-wrapped steering wheel all stay on for another year. That's a good thing for those of us who feared a Jettafication of the wee Tiguan. The driver and front passenger enjoy nicely-bolstered perforated faux-leather seats, while rear passengers get to take advantage of a very flexible rear bench. The back seats slide fore and aft to maximize leg room or cargo area as needed, and the seatbacks themselves recline for a little additional comfort. None of this is new, of course, but it does help give the Tiguan an attractive level of functionality.

By contrast, competitors like the 2012 Honda CR-V and 2013 Ford Escape are stuck with fixed rear benches, though that fact doesn't impede the two on space. The CR-V delivers 2.5 inches more rear leg room and a full 13.4 more cubic feet of cargo area with the rear seats up. Likewise, the Escape is no slouch. The Ford serves up 36.8 inches of rear leg room to the Tiguan's 35.8, and 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Compared to the 23.8 cubes found in the Volkswagen, the Escape begins to look downright cavernous.

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan interior2012 Volkswagen Tiguan front seats2012 Volkswagen Tiguan rear seats2012 Volkswagen Tiguan trunk

The powerplant never felt winded lugging the 3,404-pound CUV around.

Our tester came packing both a massive panoramic sunroof and navigation. The glass roof extends well into the rear passenger area and dumps a phenomenal amount of light into the cabin, helping to give the interior some much-needed airiness.

The 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan keeps its excellent turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as well. Despite boasting just 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, the powerplant never felt winded lugging the 3,404-pound CUV around. That's largely thanks to the well-geared six-speed automatic transmission. As with elsewhere in the Volkswagen line, the duo work well together, and the gearbox helps keep the engine happily spinning where it makes the most power. Shifts are appropriately smooth and the well-executed transmission logic means we were never aware of the gearbox hunting or holding one gear for too long. The pairing dumps power to the front wheels, and is good for 22 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Those numbers equate to 24 mpg combined, though we saw 23.7 mpg in mostly city driving during our week with the Tiguan. As always, your mileage may vary. Meanwhile, competitors like the 2013 Ford Escape can offer buyers a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 240 horsepower and up to 30 mpg highway according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan engine

If the 2012 Tiguan existed in a vacuum, it would be an excellent little runabout.

From behind the wheel, the Tiguan delivers a perfectly acceptable driving experience. The brakes are neither overly firm nor overly soft. The steering neither razor sharp nor Novocaine numb. Acceleration is also adequate, though the Tiguan does serve up a fairly engaging suspension. The CUV can be hustled about with confidence if the driver can push through the initial helping of body roll. Understeer only rears its ugly head when clowning about in a manner unbecoming of a baby utility. This is, after all, a high-riding Golf.

If the 2012 Tiguan existed in a vacuum, it would be an excellent little runabout. Unfortunately, it doesn't. The CUV market is blooming with fresh hardware left and right, and models like the redesigned Honda CR-V, fresh Ford Escape and yes, the Mazda CX-5, all offer consumers significantly updated packages with more power, refinement, technology, interior space and fuel economy.

2012 Volkswagen Tiguan rear 3/4 view

The company intends not only to stay in the CUV segment, but expand its presence there.

Then there's the price. A well-equipped, front-wheel-drive Tiguan hits the wallet for a lofty $31,425 with destination. While that does include the nice leatherette interior, expansive sunroof and navigation, there's little else on this machine. By comparison, the 2013 Ford Escape starts at $22,470, and the SEL trim with its real leather seats and MyFord Touch system lands at $29,790 with a more powerful EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Likewise, the 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L serves up all the niceties of our Tiguan in a $29,325 package. All prices include destination.

Volkswagen has had a rough start with the Tiguan in the U.S., which is a bit of a shame. On its own, the playful little machine is as endearing as the Golf. Unfortunately, it just so happens to find itself at sea with a wave of all-new and more compelling hardware. The clean and stylish exterior, similarly well-sorted cabin, flexible rear seating and sufficient engine simply aren't enough to keep the Tiguan afloat. Fans of the people's automaker need not fret, however. Volkswagen has made it clear the company intends not only to stay in the CUV segment, but expand its presence there. While that means a new generation Tiguan is already in the works, it also means we could see additional models arrive on dealer lots designed to slot under the slightly upscale CUV. Until those arrive, save your coin and look elsewhere for your compact SUV needs.