On the Road Review: The Tale of Two Compact SUVs, Part 1

The compact sport utility class has suddenly become the leading wagon segment for families large and small in a tightly constrained automotive market. Buyers have discovered that many of these designs — most are based on compact car platforms — deliver admirably improved fuel economy over their previously owned large and midsize SUVs, while exhibiting good ride dynamics and reasonable cargo flexibility. Sometimes, common sense does prevail.

Two of the latest entries in this hotly contested market come from other continents. The Volkswagen Tiguan — built in Germany — debuted late last year, while Toyota’s RAV4 — assembled in Japan — was a completely new design in 2007. While Toyota sells almost as many RAV4 models each month as VW sold Tiguans all of last year, about 8,800, each of these compact wagons represents in its own way certain emerging trends. We’ll start with the Tiguan this week and wrap up with the Toyota next week.

The Tiguan is loosely based on Volkswagen/Audi’s Golf/A3 platform. Featuring front-wheel drive or VW’s commendable 4Motion all-wheel drive, the Tiguan is one of the smallest compact SUVs but also one that is decidedly more upscale than all of its rivals.

Reflecting the brand’s recent emphasis on projecting a premium feel in every cabin design, the Tiguan not only looks the part, but projects its upscale image in superior accommodations. Supportive fabric sport seats with adjustable heaters made two weeks of extended travel, including several days in frozen Aroostook County, much more bearable than anticipated. Well-placed controls exhibiting excellent tactile feel, a vibrant stereo system that adapted very well to my portable Sirius receiver, plus the sure-footed 4Motion all-wheel-drive system made sure that the hundreds of miles rolled by with few concerns.

Space, always a concern when working out of your vehicle for days at a time, proved to be more than adequate. The split rear seats fold almost flat for an extended cargo area, while the rear liftgate allows unimpeded access. There are small open bins throughout the cabin and two power ports for accessory devices.

Rear seating is larger than it first appears with above average headroom, a supportive seat below and good foot space. Outfitted in mid-level SE trim, my Tiguan arrived with the optional Panorama sunroof — a large fixed rear panel connected to an oversized front panel that powers open. A sliding shade — not a cover — always allows daylight in and makes the VW cabin feel larger than actual measurements portray.

Underhood, the VW has a 2.0-liter turbocharged in-line four making 200-hp and 207-pound/feet of peak torque. Teamed to a six-speed Tiptronic automatic, (a six-speed manual gearbox is available with front drive models) the Tiguan is downright snappy. Turbo-lag is minimal while mid-range power delivery is outstanding. At speeds that leave most rivals gasping for breath, the VW is motoring away at a pace that brings huge grins but also too much official attention.

VW recommends premium fuel for best performance with the Tiguan, but I relied on good old regular grade gasoline and beat the EPA mileage estimates even while having good clean fun. My best mileage was just over 26 mpg, which happens to be the projected economy for front drive models, not the heavier four-wheel-drive edition.

My previous exposure to the Tiguan was just ‘OK.’ I liked the car’s power edge, yet the front drive model didn’t give me the control and handling that I expect from German automobiles.

This version — with the 4Motion — more than met my handling and ride parameters. The car is nimble and composed, just like you would expect a Golf derivative to be. There is some body lean in certain turns, yet braking action is very strong and the speed sensitive steering — light at low speeds, heavier as speed rises — produces excellent path accuracy as well as a snug low-speed turning radius.

Dislikes are few. The canted headrests are too intrusive for my tastes, like several recent Ford models; the standard all-season Michelin radials are fine for dry roads but not up to snuff for heavy winter driving, even with four-wheel drive; and I was constantly reminded why I detest automatic door lock systems that don’t unlock all doors when you stop.

Notables include the great heated seats, a handy dual-screen navigation system, and brilliant headlamps perfect for illuminating dark, foreboding country lanes. Add a very loud and effective dual note horn (why do other makers insist on whiny single note horns?) as well as a three-year free maintenance warranty plan and it is clear to see that Volkswagen is pushing its program of added value in the American marketplace.

Fully outfitted with the full VW portfolio, 4Motion, nav system, 30-gigabyte hard drive, rear DVD, Panorama roof, memory leather seats, and tow package, and the Tiguan can list for almost $35,000. My tested SE 4Motion model listed for just over $29,000 — a number comparable to several rivals when feature content is factored into the equation.

Compared to next week’s RAV4, the Tiguan is about $1,500 more expensive across the model range, yet packs more standard power, sharper handling, and a more upscale cabin — plus VW’s free maintenance warranty. If you like these attributes, then many buyers will be able to make a solid case for purchasing the VW over the Toyota. But, you can decide that after next week.

Next week: Part 2

Just the Facts: Volkswagen Tiguan

Tiguan is VW’s newest crossover wagon. There are three trim levels, S, SE and SEL with base 2WD prices staring at $23,200 plus $690 destination fee. Standard equipment includes: traction control, front side and curtain airbags, anti-skid system, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, height adjustable driver’s seat, fold-flat passenger seat, heated power mirrors, remote entry, digital media, outside temp display, trip computer, alloy wheels. SE adds heated power front seats, six-disc CD changer and satellite radio, rear privacy glass, roof rack, 17-inch alloy wheels and automatic transmission.

A 2.0-liter 200-hp four is the only engine option. EPA estimates are 19/26 for FWD and 18/24 for AWD. These numbers are comparable to Subaru Forester, Honda CRV, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4.

Tiguan measures 174.3 inches long, 71.2 inches wide, on a 102.5-inch wheelbase. Max cargo room is 56.1 cubic feet. Tiguan weighs 3,395 pounds.