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Preview: 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

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  • SEE ALSO:Volkswagen Showcases 2009 VW Tiguan CUV At 2007 LA Auto Show - Video

  • SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Specs, Pics and Prices - Volkswagen Buyers Guide
  • By Carey Russ

    Crossover sport-utilities are like sensible shoes or health food - good for you, perhaps, but ultimately bland and boring. Just as a mix of tofu and brown rice, healthily unspiced and without even basic salt, is unlikely to excite your taste buds, the average small crossover is unlikely to excite that part of the human brain that enjoys a spirited driving experience.

    Unless the small crossover is the just-released 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan.

    VW has made its reputation on fun-to-drive cars, as best exemplified by the GTI hatchback. A hatchback of the GTI's size, with two or four doors, offers much of the space efficiency and versatility of a crossover, but it is smaller. What would happen if a GTI was stretched a bit - but not too much - made a touch wider and higher, and given a slightly higher stance - but not so high as to upset its road manners - and given four-wheel drive for improved all-weather traction?

    What would happen is a Tiguan. With the same 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged FSI direct fuel-injection engine as the GTI, in a version of VW's transverse-engine platform stretched just a bit in every direction compared to the GTI or Rabbit, and given a boxy crossover body with all of the current Volkswagen styling cues, it's touted as "The GTI of crossovers."

    At 174.3 inches in length on a 102.5 inch wheelbase, the Tiguan is 8.5 inches longer than a GTI, on a inch-longer wheelbase. Most of that length is to the rear, for greater rear-seat and storage room, and the Tiguan is still five inches shorter than a Jetta (also on the same platform), so sneaking into tight parking spaces or campsites won't be a problem. With 6.9 inches of ground clearance, the Tiguan isn't exactly Baja-ready, but that should be plenty for most forest roads and urban construction zones.

    With Tiguan weight between 3397 pounds for the base front-wheel drive model and 3631 for a top-line four-wheel drive version, VW's lovely 2.0T FSI four-cylinder does have to haul a few hundred pounds more than a 3100-pound GTI or 3300-pound Jetta or Passat. But with 200 turbocharged and intercooled horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque, it should still be more than competitive with any other compact crossovers. And turbocharging means no loss of performance at altitude, as on ski or camping trips. Transmissions are a pair of six-speeds, manual or torque-converter automatic with "Tiptronic" manual shift mode.

    Suspension is similar to that of other current VWs, fully-independent with struts in front and a four-link system at the rear. Steering is electro-mechanically assisted, and antilock disc brakes are among some of the 45 features of the "Prevent and Preserve Safety System" that will be standard in all 2009 Volkswagens. All 2009 VWs, including the Tiguan, will also be equipped with the Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) stability-assistance system as standard trim. The "Carefree Maintenance Program", free scheduled maintenance for the first three years, is included in the purchase price of every Tiguan and other `09 VW, as well.

    Models are base (but well-equipped) S, the expected volume-seller SE, and entry-luxury SEL. If you want a stick, the S is the only choice, and only in front-wheel drive form. SE and SEL models are automatic-only, with 4MOTION(tm) all-wheel drive available. The Tiguan's AWD utilizes a Haldex electro-hydraulically controlled multiplate wet clutch to vary torque distribution between front and rear axles as needed, with 90 percent to the front in normal operation for a familiar front-drive feel.

    Among the many standard comfort and convenience features of all models are power windows and mirrors and remote locking, multiple 12-volt power outlets, adjustable driver's seat cushion height, a fold-flat front passenger seat, and a rear seat that not only folds 60/40 but also has adjustable back angle and fore-and-aft travel.

    Options are limited to Sirius satellite radio, upgraded wheels, rear-seat side airbags, and a factory-installed trailer hitch for all models, and, for SEs and SELs, a power sliding and tilting "Panoramic" sunroof with an opening roughly three times the size of a regular sunroof and a DVD-based navigation system with a rear-view camera.

    The compact crossover class could easily be seen as saturated, if not over-saturated. Volkswagen was one of the few automakers not to have an entry, and the 900-pound gorillas of the class, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, don't exactly lack for recognition or sales, nor do potential upscale competitors like the BMW X3 or Acura RDX. Volkswagen is prepared to carve out its own niche within the class, to benefit both VW fanatics who need a little more room and anyone who wants a crossover with more attitude than usual and an actual driving experience. At the product presentation during the recent press introduction in Boulder, Colorado, Volkswagen spokespeople mentioned that the Tiguan was expected to appeal more to male buyers than the typical small crossover. This is in keeping with the "GTI of crossovers" theme, and besides, VW has the Touareg SUV, Passat mid-size wagon, and upcoming Routan minivan and Jetta SportWagen for more traditional family transportation.

    You'll notice that the introduction was in Boulder, elevation 5430 feet. Thin air means less power - for a naturally-aspirated engine. It's much less of an issue with forced induction, and the ride and drive route took us up to 8,000 feet or so in the Front Range west of town, on a mix of highway and very tight, hilly secondary and tertiary roads. The Tiguan took elevation and corners in stride, with road manners superior to those of your average crossover. Or even the allegedly sporty ones. The morning was spent in both the driver's and front passenger seats of a stick-shift S, and it suffered not at all for lack of "upscale amenities". It performed admirably and felt little different from a GTI, merely roomier.

    The trip back in the afternoon was in a 4MOTION SE. It was a little nicer inside, with extras such as the nav system and panorama roof, which was quiet and turbulence-free even at highway speeds when open. The automatic could be shifted manually easily enough, which was useful on those sections of road that were exceptionally narrow, tight, and twisting, but the strong, flat torque curve of the 2.0T engine meant that most of the time D was just fine. Is the Tiguan "the GTI of crossovers"? Absolutely. But then again... the next day, my trip out to the airport was in the rear seat of an SEL. With leather, wood (or at least convincing woodgrain), and a remarkable amount of leg and head room, it was more than merely the GTI of crossovers. It was the GTI stretch limo.

    End note: What's a "Tiguan" anyway? VW has a record of naming vehicles after winds - Scirocco and Passat - and North African desert nomads, Touareg. But "Tiguan", like the names of some competitors, is a made-up name, selected by focus groups in the same way things get done in the US or Japanese auto industry. It's a combination of "TIger" and "iGUANa". No, really. I had to ask.

    So are they gonna make cute, fuzzy tiguan dolls? No comment. The closest thing extant or extinct I could think of to a cross between a tiger and an iguana would be a gorgonopsid, far too esoteric (not to mention not even cute) to conform to the rules of car naming....