2009 VW Tiguan S – Click above for high-res image gallery

Over the past decade, virtually every automaker in the world has first introduced an SUV (or two) and more recently a crossover utility vehicle (or two) in an attempt to address every possible market niche. Volkswagen is no exception, although the German brand was a relative latecomer to the party. Its first attempt, the mid-sized but decidedly heavy-weight Touareg was the first entry, and earlier this year VW added a second smaller CUV called the Tiguan. Unlike the Touareg, which was built on an all-new platform shared and co-developed with Porsche, the Tiguan is more closely related to VW's mainstream car models.

When the Tiguan was introduced in Europe at last years Frankfurt Motor Show, VW made a big deal of the fact that it was the only CUV in the world powered exclusively by "charged" engines. Technically this is not true, as the Acura RDX currently has only one powertrain available, a 2.3L turbocharged four-cylinder. Nonetheless, all five of the engines available in the European Tiguan have either turbocharging or both a turbo and supercharging. While Europeans get a choice of four-cylinder engines running on gas or diesel, buyers here in the U.S. are stuck with only the most powerful gas engine, a 200-hp turbocharged and direct-injected unit. Find out what it's like to live with VW's new compact soft-roader after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

The Tiguan is a fairly conventional-looking compact crossover. It doesn't have any glaring design flaws that will make you recoil in horror, nor does it have anything all that compelling that will cause you to continue staring. The sides, however, have enough contouring to catch the light and prevent it from looking slab sided. The Tiguan's face, meanwhile, is a clean interpretation of the current VW family appearance and doesn't suffer for lacking the huge swath of chrome below the grille that the Jetta and Passat have.

Perhaps the only real complaint about the Tiguan's appearance is its nose profile. From certain angles the front overhang appears a bit long and ungainly. In comparison to the nearly identically sized Ford Escape, both axles have been shifted rearward under the body. This is likely a result of designing for both lower aerodynamic drag and meeting European pedestrian protection regulations. Since the Escape is not offered in Europe, it doesn't have to meet those requirements and has a more blunt nose. In plan view, the the Tiguan's front corners also have a prominent rear sweep.

On the inside, all the major dimensions are again largely the same as the Escape, but the similarity ends there. Where the Escape's interior motif is in keeping with its big brothers on the truck side of the family, the Tiguan is pure contemporary VW. That means even this entry level Tiguan S has materials that look to be of a higher grade than its price suggests and the layout is generally very good. The audio and climate controls are placed up high in the center where they are readily visible and accessible, and the seats are firm, supportive and comfortable in typical German fashion.

One area where the Tiguan has a big advantage over the Ford is the back seat. The rear seat of the VW has the ability to slide fore-aft and the seat back angle has some adjustability, as well. This allows the rear seat to be used while providing some extra cargo volume in the back. The rear seats can, of course, fold forward 60/40 and the front passenger seat can do the same for extra long cargo.

There are a couple of minor ergonomic issues in the Tiguan. The door arm-rests sweep right up to the window line and the window switches are mounted right up near the top. The more annoying thing to us was the angle of the steering wheel. The wheel is adjustable for both reach and height, but no matter where you put it seems tilted a bit too far from vertical and just never quite feels right. It's certainly nothing like driving an old micro-bus, but does take some getting used to compared to most modern vehicles.

The Tiguan does have an interesting new feature called Auto Hold. When the button behind the parking brake switch is pressed to engage Auto Hold, the system will keep the brakes applied when the vehicle comes to a stop. As the vehicle slows to a stop, the brake pressure is retained so that the brake pedal can be released and the vehicle won't move. As soon as the gas is pressed the brakes are automatically released. This is really more useful on models equipped with a manual transmission rather than an automatic, but it does have utility when stopped on a hill.

Under the hood, all U.S.-bound Tiguans get VW's latest 2.0L TSI four-cylinder with 200 hp and a very respectable 206 lb-ft of torque at just 1,700 rpm. The base S model can be had with a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission, though all other models are automatic only. Our base S model had the Tiptronic automatic. Tapping the shifter to the right from the D position allows for the usual up and down tap shifting, and you can push it backwards from D to engage Sport mode.

The engine always feels like it has plenty of power, but the responses just feel a bit lethargic in Drive. Stabbing the throttle to accelerate down an on-ramp or pass someone on a two lane road elicits leisurely down shifts. This is actually a pretty common phenomenon of late with automatic transmission cars. We've never been a fan of Tiptronic manu-matic type gearboxes because they typically aren't all that responsive. However, one side benefit of such electronically controlled transmissions is the ability to use multiple calibration sets.

Pulling the shift lever back into Sport mode transforms the Tiguan's behavior entirely. All of a sudden shifts are quick and precise, accelerating causes it to hold gears to near red-line and downshifts are readily available. What doesn't change is the steering or suspension. Compared to the Escape, the Tiguan is definitely a soft-roader with emphasis on the soft. Body-roll, pitch and squat are all more pronounced than its competitors like the Escape or Saturn Vue. The damping is reasonable so the CUV doesn't rock back and forth, but the spring rates do allow the body to move quite a bit before settling down. The plus side is a fairly plush ride. We haven't tried the higher trim levels to see if they are tighter, but the Escape certainly feels more spritely on the road compared to this Tiguan S.

The only option on our Tiguan S besides its automatic transmission were $350 rear airbags that brought the bottom line up to $25,340 including a destination charge. That make it about $3,000 more than a similarly equipped four-cylinder Escape. The Escape has a little less power (171 hp vs 200) but feels similarly brisk in performance. Also, the Escape's ride and handling has a more sporting feel at least compared to the base Tiguan. The interior design and materials are certainly a big plus on the German and also compare very favorably to the similarly priced, slightly larger and significantly heavier Saturn Vue. At 18/24 mpg from the EPA, the Tiguan also splits the difference between the Escape's 20/28 and the Vue's 16/23 mpg. If the softer nature and German price premium of the Tiguan are not issues for you, it's definitely worth a look in this segment.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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