Volkswagen Tiguan TDI

What are auto writers always asking for from global automakers? "Give us your hip European wares," we plead, "give us your diesels and your manuals and your wagons, your tauter suspensions and Welsh B-road handling, your neat matrix lighting and your funky little Hello-Kitty-sized trailer hitches to haul the little Hello-Kitty-sized caravans that we'll also need you to start exporting."

How do the automakers almost always respond? At best, "We'll gauge demand." More likely, "No," because for whatever reason, "We just don't think it's right for the US market."

If that's how they had answered us in the case of the Volkswagen Tiguan "Track & Style" Bluemotion TDI, they'd actually be right. Volkswagen recently brought this Euro-spec compact crossover to the US for a 'Get to know me!' tour, and while we hate to drag the cute little thing into the public square to acquaint it with the whip, well, we have no choice. See, it's just not right for the US market.

2014 Volkswagen Tiguan TDI

We like diesels, but this one is not the way to go in the US.

The problems start with the engine, a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged, direct-injected diesel with 174 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. That's 26 hp down and 73 lb-ft up on the Tiguan R-Line we recently drove, and the doors to all of that torque open at just 1,750 rpm. From the flywheel, it's sent to a seven-speed DSG transmission and onto the Haldex-managed 4Motion all-wheel drive. Of that R-Line model, we wrote, "That 207 lb-ft of warthog grunt comes on from 1,700 rpm, same as the 200 hp, and the six-speed transmission didn't need help knowing where to be in the rev range when called to attention," and, "the compact crossover that looks like a big shoe is a perfect hoot to drive." You'd think that with buckets more torque, a dual-clutch gearbox and another gear, the sweet experience we had in the R-Line would become diabeetus in the TDI.

You'd be wrong. The engine sounds like it was sourced from a minor farm implement, as if a deal VW finally was able to strike with Fiat was to take its excess inventory of New Holland tractor motors. It's not obnoxious, but it does sound like a Latin colossus shaking out a samba with 250-pound maracas, clattering in a way that announces exactly what kind of fuel it runs on and not letting you forget until you get up to highway speeds and wind noise throws a blanket over it. We found the clatter especially strange since VW and sister brand Audi have been working so hard, so publicly, and so effectively at erasing the stigma of diesel engines with its North American TDI offerings. This engine does not do that. Then we remembered that it's not for sale here, and we were glad. We like diesels, but this one is not the way to go in the US.

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The transmission on occasion likes to sample several gears before it settles down and chooses one.

You need this turbo going full bore to get the Tiguan TDI to do anything, which is not surprising. What is surprising is that you've got to punch the turbo in the face to wake it up – a little extra throttle when cruising won't cut it. Within 25 miles of getting in the Tiguan TDI for the first time, we had trained our right foot to curve through 30 degrees more arc than we'd normally do, in order to leave the seven-speed DSG no doubt it was time to downshift, get up and move. If we didn't do that, there was a less-than-pleasant rattling, akin to a smoker clearing their throat, as the 2.0-liter tried to use its naturally aspirated gumption to dig itself out from around 1,500 rpm where it likes to cruise. Keep the transmission in Sport and you'll eliminate most of that, but at the other end of effort, more than once we detected a muted, vacuum-cleaner-like whine when decelerating from highway speeds that we think was coming from the gearbox. And outside of all that, under various throttle conditions the transmission on occasion likes to sample several gears before it settles down and chooses one.

The one time the engine was never a disappointment was when taking off from lights. Lay a firm foot on the throttle and it gets the crossover to giddy up. VW pegs its 0-100 kilometer-per-hour (0-62 miles per hour) time at 8.5 seconds, but it feels quicker.

Not that you'll want to stop at lights, because the stop/start system is one of the roughest applications we've experienced. No matter how long you'd been driving, when it restarts, it emits three staccato whinnies and shakes the whole vehicle thrice before the motor catches, as if it is being turned on after not having been used for days. This happens every time.

2014 Volkswagen Tiguan TDI

All of this is a shame, because everything else about the Tiguan TDI is everything we really like about the compact crossover. It's good looking outside. The steering wheel feels great in the hands, the steering itself is fine and accurate. Braking is confident and linear. It has the same beautiful handling you expect from a Tiguan, such that you'll get to the limit of its 235/50R18 Bridgestones before you reach the end of its capabilities. You can't enjoy B-roads in Drive, however, because unless you pistol-whip the transmission with the throttle or shift for yourself with the paddles, you won't get the engine to wake up before the next turn. And we suspect that the Comfort/Sport button for the dampers is actually a blank that got mistakenly labeled, because we couldn't actually feel any difference in any setting.

The interior has everything you need, nothing you don't.

The two-tone seats are handsome, nicely finished and comfortable. The interior has everything you need, nothing you don't; we have no idea where the "Track" part of this Euro Tiguan's "Track and Style" trim name is meant to reside, but the cabin certainly lives up to the "Style" part. There's more storage in four compartments in the roof alone than you'll find in the entirety of some compact cars. There is plenty of room in the back seats – and tray tables! – for those of taller figure. Behind them is a deep and hungry boot. There's nothing not to like... if you ignore the engine and transmission.

Yet this engine in this application is the point VW is trying to make with the Tiguan TDI, claiming that it can go "more than 600 miles per tank." We had no interest in testing the claim because we had no interest in driving the car.

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The little guy has some poke if you poke it hard enough, but while it shares its design and cabin Tiguan-ness with every other Tiguan, it gets its diesel refinement from the Scania truck side of the VW Group. We can see it making sense in Europe, where diesels are a way of life and an oil-burner's table manners are more relaxed. Looking out on those automotive plains, who's going to notice just another diesel wildebeest among the herd? On top of that, when European petrol is $8 or more per gallon you'll put up with some compromises to get crossover spaciousness in addition to 600 miles on one fill-up. Nevertheless, one name for a herd of wildebeest is an "implausibility," and that's exactly what this Tiguan TDI would be if it were for sale here.

The little guy has some poke if you poke it hard enough.

But of course, VW wouldn't sell that Tiguan TDI here before tuning it for the US market. For the best comparison we could get on short notice, we drove a 2014 Jetta TDI with the same 2.0-liter diesel engine, in this application putting out 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. You still know you're driving a diesel engine, but a clear reminder comes only when you're stopped at a light and the radio is off. Turn the radio on or roll the windows down and you'll barely notice it. At steady-state cruising anywhere above 25 mph, you'd need a radar array to detect any traces of diesel-ness.

Most importantly, the six-speed DSG transmission in the Jetta is programmed to get with the shifting, quick to find the gear we wanted without making us pour on more throttle to reconfirm the request. On the same canyon roads we had driven in the Tiguan TDI, the Jetta turned in a fine enough performance in Drive. Placed in Sport, the Jetta was positively fun, and in a single day of enjoyable mixed driving, it took 200 miles for the digital gas gauge to dip down to 3/4 of a tank.

2014 Volkswagen Tiguan TDI

Yes, at 3,161 pounds, the Jetta has a 574-pound advantage on the crossover, which the Tiguan's increased power wouldn't entirely overcome. But if we used our imagination to give the Tiguan a chance, we can see the way to making the tidy crossover a compelling choice as a diesel. New shift tuning would immediately erase its ugliest bugbear and if VW got its soft-touch department working on that stop/start or, as on the Jetta, removed it entirely, they would instantly double the refinement. Then throw some additional sound deadening at it and now you've got a Tiguan TDI that fits in the US diesel VW family and that would at least be able to give it the proverbial college try.

A Tiguan TDI could make a case for itself merely by being such a distinct and high-mileage proposition.

Yes, you'd take a hit on mileage, but it would likely be small, and even if you stripped out stop/start and took the hit to around-town fuel economy, you're still going to obliterate the lowly 18 city mpg of our current Tiguan and likely stay close to that touted tally of 600 highway miles on a tank. That theoretical crossover – a refined, stylish, spacious, fun-driving and frugal Tiguan TDI – could restore our Pavlovian salivation for hip Euro diesels, assuming VW kept the pricing reasonable. Comparing TDI prices on VW models that don't have the Jetta's funky engine lineup, like the Beetle, and the premium is $4,300 over the base model. Add that to the Tiguan S and you're at $27,605 before you stump for options.

So things could get spendy, especially compared to the competition, but a Tiguan TDI could make a case for itself merely by being such a distinct and high-mileage proposition; hey, there's a reason that even VW is surprised by its diesel uptake. Or to help it out, they could always, you know, throw in one of those funky little Hello-Kitty-sized trailer hitches to haul a little Hello-Kitty-sized caravan...