Some driving enthusiasts (for reasons that escape me) take their significant other’s tastes into account when buying a car for themselves. Invariably, the s.o. won’t abide a hatchback, but finds crossovers the epitome of automotive style and utility. So our whipped enthusiast wonders which compact crossover they will least regret. Oh, and it can’t cost BMW money. Volksagen, Mazda, and Ford offer the most entertaining hot hatches. What do they offer in something a little taller? Today we examine Europe’s (relatively) affordable offering, the Volkswagen Tiguan.
A facelift for the 2012 model year fails to conceal the Tiguan’s advanced age. A more demure grille and LED headlight accents update the face to the current VW look, but the basic shape remains the same, with a long hood, squared-off upper body, and bobbed tail. Even when this shape was new, four years ago, it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t meant to be. Many people just want a crossover that appears functional with hints of sport and ruggedness, and the Tiguan’s chunky exterior delivers this.
Interior updates lend the interior a slightly less downscale ambiance, but the cabin’s basic character remains functional rather than stylish. The controls are simple by current standards, and easy to reach and operate. The driving position is more upright, and so less car-like, than more recently designed compact crossovers. Depending on personal tastes, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The instrument panel seems a little too tall, perhaps to provide some real truck flavor, but it’s not deep. Raise the seat an inch and forward visibility is good. Rearward visibility not so much, but it’s better than in swoopier competitors. A good thing, as neither a rearview camera nor a blind spot warning system is offered.
With no substantial changes to its body, the Tiguan remains among the more compact of compact crossovers. Its wheelbase and length are three to four inches briefer than those of the entirely new Mazda CX-5 and Ford Escape. Passenger space isn’t much affected, though. According to the official specs, the VW has 4.4 inches less total legroom than the CX-5, a big difference. In person, I had an equally generous amount of rear legroom in both of them. (We’ll discuss the Ford’s rear seat later in this series.) Unlike that in the Mazda, the VW’s comfortably high rear seat slides and reclines.
No such magic was worked with the Tiguan’s cargo area. The VW’s deficit might not be as large as the official specs suggest (56.1 cubic feet vs. 64.8 in the Mazda and 67.8 in the Ford), but there is a deficit. The only folding front passenger seat in the threesome (which goes away with the SEL) compensates.
Ironically, the German-engineered and manufactured Tiguan has the least “European” dynamics of the three. Its steering feels relatively loose on center and considerably lighter in all situations. Its seats and suspension tuning are similarly the softest in this bunch, if still firmer than you’ll find in a Honda or Toyota. The Tiguan’s handling is composed and even confidence-inspiring, but not especially sporty. A GTI with a suspension lift it isn’t; a Rabbit with a suspension lift, perhaps.
The Tiguan has one clear advantage over the CX-5. Both have a single engine option (and thus no options at all), a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. But the VW’s has a turbo, and 200 horsepower compared to the Mazda’s 155. The difference in straight line performance is readily evident even in casual driving. The Mazda engine often sounds and feels like it’s straining, the VW engine rarely if ever does.
According to the EPA ratings, the Tiguan isn’t nearly as fuel-efficient as the Mazda, 21 city / 27 highway vs. 25/31. In all but the most casual driving the real-world difference seemed about half as large (26 vs. 28 in the suburbs, if the trip computers are to be believed). For a crossover with a powerful engine and all-wheel-drive, the VW’s real-world numbers might actually be the more impressive.
Not that all is top notch with the Tiguan’s powertrain. You’ll find no quick-shifting, quick-witted DSG transmission in this VW, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Instead, a conventional six-speed automatic supplied by Aisin (a Toyota affiliate) too often lurches, lugs the engine, or swaps cogs when no swap seems necessary.
The Tiguan’s handling might not be terribly Teutonic, but its price is. The tested 2012 “SE AWD with Sunroof and Navigation” listed for $33,300. For the 2013, add another $430. Similarly equip a Mazda CX-5 with sunroof and nav, and it lists for $3,315 less. Did we mention that, so configured, the Tiguan has vinyl upholstery, while the CX-5 has red-stitched black leather and a considerably more upscale ambiance? The Mazda’s lower price also includes larger wheels, a premium Bose audio system, power driver seat, proximity key, blind spot warning system, rearview camera, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, dual zone automatic climate control, and steering-linked HID headlights. Adjust for this extra stuff (save the wheels and audio) using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the Mazda emerges with a nearly $6,000 price advantage. You can equip the Tiguan past the CX-5’s level by opting for the SEL, but then the sticker tops $38,000.
Despite (or in cases because of) the noted shortcomings, my wife strongly preferred the Tiguan over the other two, with their more steeply raked windshields, heavier steering, and less compliant suspensions. My wife is not a driving enthusiast. Neither are most buyers in this segment. But even those who prefer how the Tiguan drives won’t prefer how much it costs.
Volkswagen provided an insured vehicle with a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.