Volkswagen Tiguan — Above average driving experience

By Russ Heaps

In the jam-packed world of crossovers, the 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan carves its own niche. Targeting buyers looking for more "sport" than "utility" in their driving experience, Tiguan offers the only standard turbocharged engine in its segment. Add to this handling that has a distinctively European feel, and you have a fun-to-drive vehicle with a healthy dollop of utility.

A crossover as a sports car? That would be overstating the Tiguan's highway prowess; however, it is more engaging on the road than many of its peers. It is also a bit pricier.

For 2012, VW addressed the front- and rear-end styling elements. It adapted the Touareg face to the smaller crossover along with a new headlight design. The new tail lamps are also based on the Touareg's. Changes in the automatic transmission resulted in a 2 mpg bump in highway fuel economy. The remaining changes have more to do with trim-level content than anything of real substance.

Volkswagen dropped off a $31,345 Tiguan SE for this report. VW groups more expensive extra features into the name and base price of some models. In this case, it was actually a Tiguan SE with Sunroof and Navigation. A standard SE slots in below the top-of-the-line $34,795 SEL and sells for $29,455.

Anchoring the Tiguan lineup is the $23,660 Tiguan S, followed by the limited-edition $25,995 LE. The S comes in a more expensive version with a Sunroof, while the SEL has a higher priced iteration with Navigation and upgraded audio.

Adding 4Motion — VW speak for all-wheel drive — available on any trim level except the LE, increases the bottom line by $1,955. Under most conditions, 90 percent of power goes to the front wheels; however, when they slip, this system can direct as much as 100 percent of power to the rear wheels.

Packing 18 more horsepower than the Chevrolet Equinox and 25 ponies more than the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Tiguan delivers spirited acceleration from its 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. All but the base S funnel engine output to the wheels via a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. The base S gets a six-speed manual tranny unless you pop for the automatic at a $1,500 premium.

The EPA rates fuel economy for Tiguans equipped with the automatic at 22 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. This is in line with competitors. The Equinox rates the same in the city and 5 mpg better on the highway. The Santa Fe posts 2 mpg less in city driving and an additional 1 mpg on the highway.

Consisting of MacPherson struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear, the suspension is tuned more toward handling and control than ride quality. That's not to say that the passenger experience is harsh, but the Tiguan is simply more of a driver's vehicle than most of its competitors.

Along with antilock disc brakes are the usual array of safety elements, such as stability control, traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist. Inside, six airbags are standard.

With each generation of crossovers, the interiors get better and better. Tiguan doesn't need to aspire to some segment benchmark in this area; its cabin is a class leader in styling, fit and finish.

Where Tiguan might fall a little behind the competition is interior space. This is true whether looking at passenger space, where Tiguan has two or three inches less in front- and rear-seat legroom than Equinox or Santa Fe, or cargo capacity in which Tiguan lags by notable amounts.

Tiguan has 24 cubic feet of cargo room with the second-row seat in place versus 31.5 cubic feet in the Equinox and 34 cubic feet in the Santa Fe. With the second-row seat folded, Tiguan's cargo room expands to 56 cubic feet, while Equinox jumps to 64 cubic feet and Santa Fe to 78 cubic feet.

Functionality is the order of the day in the Tiguan's interior styling. The lines are clean and rather simple. All of the systems are logically organized across the instrument panel. German imports tend to over-complicate the controls; not so in the Tiguan.

The front seats are comfortable, offering adequate support. A reclining split rear seat is an up-level touch.

Every Tiguan is equipped with full power accessories, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, trip computer, heated outboard mirrors, cruise control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity, and an eight-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

The LE is basically the automatic-equipped S with faux leather seating, heated front seats and iPod interface.

SE swaps out the S's 16-inch wheels with 18-inch alloy ones, and adds foglamps, power recline for the driver's seat, and an upgraded audio system with a touchscreen, redundant steering wheel-mounted controls and iPod interface.

The SEL bumps up the wheel size another inch while adding keyless start, multi-adjustable power driver's seat, rain-sensing wipers, automatic climate control and Bi-Xenon headlights.

Not sold in the numbers of many competitors, Tiguan isn't a common sight. Not only does it provide a degree of individuality to its owners, it is unique in its attitude. Who cares if its somewhat stingy cargo hold demands an extra trip on moving day? The above-average driving experience will more than make up for it.