By on May 28, 2021

Today’s review is brought to you by water: Water! It’s moist. The other day when I handed over the keys to the Golf Sportwagen, my dealer’s service department loaned me this base model 2021 Tiguan S 4Motion. There’s no glass on the roof so it’s almost certain not to leak water, but what about its other characteristics?

The Tiguan’s been with us in its second generation guise since the 2018 model year in North America. In production since 2016 globally, a refreshed Tiguan arrives this fall for the 2022 model year and brings looks more in line with those found on the Taos that Tim reviewed recently. North America lags again in VW product, as said refreshed Tiguan is already for sale in Europe. VW may have forgotten the market difference, as they show a Tiguan you can’t buy on the infotainment screen of the 2021 version. Are they perhaps eager to move forward?

If you asked me how long the Tiguan had been around in current format, I’d have guessed five or six years. Though ubiquitous, the Tiguan’s look has aged decently. Though the architectural rear is a bit more decisive looking in its design than the softer front end, Volkswagen crossover buyers don’t seem to care either way.

The front end’s look is different in upper trims, but here in S there are no LED lamps, fog lights, or a sporty grille, just halogen and fog lamp blanks all the way. LEDs are limited to the DRLs here. Grabbing a door handle rewards with a positive pull and return action, and doors clunk open and closed reassuringly in a Germanic way. Opening the door from inside feels similarly nice. You’ll need the remote in hand to conduct any door usage, as there’s no proximity key function and no start button either. Doors are surprisingly long especially for the rear and make for easy access. Paint quality overall is good, with the nice metallic graphite color evenly applied and with very little orange peel. Panels, trim, and doors all align properly, unlike competitors who will remain nameless.

Once inside things head downhill a bit. Swaths of grey cover every surface, and the trim flexes and clicks with the application of any pressure. Reminders of the base price are everywhere, from the copious button blanks to the rubber steering wheel shared with the basic Golf.

Gauges are Golf-esque but have fewer markings and come off a bit cheaper. The infotainment is the old-style unit from years ago and does not include XM radio. The backup camera image is pretty poor, and has a low, laggy frame rate. Buttons on screen are small and difficult to jab at without taking eyes off the road. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are present, but perplexingly you need a USB-C to plug in. VW does not provide a standard USB port, AKA the one everyone has for their phone charger.

Lacking said cable, I was easily able to pair my phone via Bluetooth, and music quality was fair if a bit tinny. Climate adjustment is via the manual unit shared with Golf and Passat, though it feels better put together than in the Passat tested last year. Front and rear traffic assist are present at this trim, but radar cruise is not. Parking sensors are also amiss. Blind spot monitoring is standard.

Cheapish, textured plastics cover most surfaces, but padded cloth covers door armrests and center console. The cloth isn’t smooth so grabs lint, hairs, and (grossly) the armrest on the driver’s door already reflected skin cells around the window buttons. It’s all black, so such details stand out nicely. Seats are fully manual as expected and upholstered in a couple of different fabric textures on the S. Surfaces where bums rest are printed in a diamond pattern. Upfront the seat bottoms are too flat, and there’s not enough thigh support for someone who’s six feet tall.

Normally that might be corrected with some tilt adjustment on the seat, but the seat bottom isn’t adjustable for rake at the front. The seat lever for the rake adjusts only at the rear and props the driver forward in an attempt to slide them out of the seat. Side bolstering is fine, and if bolsters don’t hold passengers in place the grippy fabric will. One gripe I had on the 2018 Altima is shared here: Headrests are covered in the same grippy fabric as the seats and grab your hair as you drive along. Back seat passengers experience even flatter seats that don’t offer contouring or support for any long journey. The rear seat bottom is also fairly low. 

On the plus side, there’s enough leg, head, and shoulder room for four full-size adults in the Tiguan. With the front seat adjusted for my six-foot frame, the rear seat passenger behind has lots of legroom. It was a welcome surprise in the segment, and not something expected from a compact CUV. There’s good space efficiency here, including the surprisingly large cargo area. Rear seats fold down via straps at the second row or levers at the rear. A third row is optional in AWD Tiguans, but that option goes away next year. 

Given a string of days with temps in the mid-80s, the Tiguan’s air conditioning performed admirably at combating dark paint and a dark interior. The car cooled within a few minutes after sitting in the sun all day. Less praiseworthy is the stop-start, which cuts the engine at lights when the car is not yet cooled. It can be defeated via a button to the right of the gear lever (conveniently hidden from view when in drive). However, unlike the Golf where the “stop-start deactivated” message goes away after two seconds, it’s permanent on the Tiguan’s center display until you remove it via steering wheel menu buttons. Odd.

Are you excited to hear how the Tiguan drives? Don’t get your hopes up. Across the entire Tiguan range is the same turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI engine and the same eight-speed automatic. The engine’s good for 184 horses, and that might be enough if it were tuned properly. But it’s not. It seems VW was mostly concerned with fuel economy here and created an engine that’s very pokey at low RPMs because of a narrow powerband. To make up for this, the transmission is very busy during everyday driving. Though it attempts to keep RPMs around 1,800 to 2,000 in most situations, at that rotation the engine is not on the boost. When acceleration is called for, the transmission jerks into action and kicks down a couple of gears. “But that’s what it’s supposed to do!” you’ll say to your screen. While that’s true, the engine runs out of steam quickly. By 4,600 RPM you’re past the peak, and the transmission is all too happy to upshift to get you back toward 2,000 rotations. The Tiguan feels heavy and slow, and the transmission adds in dim-wittedness. There is some okay turbo whoosh from the engine, but other engine noises are a bit raspy and unrefined.

The result is a crossover that’s very difficult to drive smoothly. Lurches forward in traffic are common as with a gentle foot you sometimes end up on the boost accidentally. This happened even in a parking lot. If the transmission were a slick one the process would be less noticeable, but it’s clumsy and ham-fisted in serving up gears. Up and downshifts are both handled sloppily. The problem is worse in Sport mode, so Normal mode was the flavor of the week here (which is selected only within the infotainment). The current driving mode is indicated via tiny text at the top left of the infotainment screen.

The aforementioned lurching is not aided by an overly loose acceleration pedal. The spring feels tired here and put your author in mind of a certain 200,000-mile Tahoe owned in the past. It’s not possible to rest one’s foot on the pedal during coasting, because mere foot pressure will cause pedal movement. Similarly when attempting to maintain speed, bumps in the road cause your foot to move the pedal slightly. Hopefully, Volkswagen will use a stiffer spring on the 2022 refresh, as the current setup leads to foot fatigue.

The vertical distance between the brake and accelerator pedals is a bit too far, so covering the brake pedal in traffic requires more ankle strain than necessary. The brake pedal itself is firm, and braking comes on strong and early in the pedal travel. No issues there. 

Once underway at a constant speed the Tiguan settles down, and a generally controlled ride is noted. There’s a decent compromise between handling and comfort here, with controlled body lean in turns. Comfort is aided by the chunky tires of the S trim, but this sentiment would change in upper trims where larger rims require lower profile tires. Tires here are Goodyear Assurance 215/65 R17s, and offer up a bit too much road noise into the cabin. At highway speeds there’s wind noise from the A-pillars but it’s not excessive, and conversation is possible without raising one’s voice.

Steering is fairly precise, though numb. There’s almost no dead space on-center, and even tiny adjustments will change the car’s direction of travel. The steering is a bit light at high speeds, and VW would do well to weigh it more to prevent excessive corrections. Road vibrations come through the wheel at all speeds over 35 miles per hour, for what it’s worth.

So, should you buy a base model Tiguan S 4Motion for the $26,545 ask? No. The Tiguan is showing its age, and is among the oldest competitors in this rapidly updated segment (only the Equinox is older). It’s due for a refresh in a few months which will bring visual modernization and hopefully address many of the issues, though the power train will remain the same. Choosing a base model is fine, but in this competitive segment, there’s no reason to settle for a car with poor dynamics. The engine and transmission combo in the Tiguan is not acceptable and needs considerable improvement in the areas of power delivery and transmission programming. If for some reason you simply must buy a Tiguan, wait for the new one.

[Images © 2021 Corey Lewis / The Truth About Cars]

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47 Comments on “Rental Review: The 2021 Volkswagen Tiguan S 4Motion, Days be Numbered...”

  • avatar

    Purchasing a VW as a journalist is a gift that keeps giving!

  • avatar

    Your description of the engine and transmission behavior of this vehicle perfectly correlates with the experience I’ve had with every Volkswagen I’ve ever rented. Golfs, Jettas and Passats. Looks good on paper, miserable driving dynamics. Constantly upshifting to a gear that results in low rpm operation and no power on tap, then downshifting a gear or two with a jerk and a sudden surge of power, then immediately back up to a high gear. The Passat was the worst, completely underivable. Every 20 miles I had to suppress the urge to pull over and put a bullet in the cylinder head.

  • avatar

    A tale of two 2.0Ts…the same company that makes the excellent units in the GTI/GLI, plus a whole range of Audis, makes this lump. Hard to fathom.

    Is this the Budack-cycle engine?

  • avatar

    The headrests “grab your hair as you drive along”? Kinky! Probably the most exciting thing about the Tiguan.

  • avatar

    Corey owned a Subaru and even he thinks this engine is bad.
    I know some of you from the early 80s had to drive a 29hp Granada with a 1.98 final drive ratio but just because you were force-fed rat guts at some point doesn’t automatically make this burnt toast VW palatable.

    • 0 avatar

      Not sure later Boomers or early X are the target demo, which makes it much sadder that the actual target demo would find this appropriate.

  • avatar

    So its, CUV by committee with this one?

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    We test drove a 2020 SEL and it was similarly priced as the CX5 with a 2.5t. While we knew it would be slower, but for the amount of money it was just unpleasant compared to the CX5. If it was running the 250 HP engine it would have been worth more a look.

  • avatar

    I think the only competitive draw (you obviously get VW people and euro car people and the I don;t want a Honda people) to VW CUVs, is the interior space. They seem to do very well at packaging and the back seats and cargo room always seem a bit bigger then their competition. Other than that and the third row availability I don’t see why you buy this over a CRV, Rav4 etc.

  • avatar
    Rick T.

    VW has been under the impression that I would find it compelling to trade my 2016 red Sportwagen in for one of these for ALMOST THE SAME MONTHLY PAYMENT. My reaction before has been “No Thanks” but after reading this it’s “NO THANKS! AND TAKE ME OFF THE MAILING LIST!!”

    PS – at 99k miles I’ve not regretted the purchase. It hasn’t been perfect but the problems have been minor. The dealer, on the other hand, can burn in Hell.

  • avatar

    Wow, this Tiguan isn’t getting much love, but quite a few people have stepped up to make it VW’s most popular car. I leased an SEL 4-Motion in a lovely shade called Stone Blue in Feb. 2021, and while it’s not the best all-around CUV, it met my needs the best. Why?

    * Comfortable for my 6’3″ frame (long arms and 34″ inseam), with an airy cockpit and no center console restricting my right knee.
    * Easy to clean, almost white leatherette (eliminates the coal bin look of most interiors these days).
    * Decent fuel economy when driven like a normal person and it runs 87 octane.
    * Huge cargo/rear seat accommodations. The rear seat can be folded down without any interference from the driver’s seat (when set to my liking, which is all the way back and down). This has never been the case in most similar cars).

    So, will it win a stoplight drag race? No, this is not a bigger GTI. I drove a 2015 2.5 Outback and a 2018 Terrain with the 1.5 Turbo for a combined 5 years, and this engine is better than the Subaru’s, and pretty similar to the GMC (but with more torque when you give it the wood). For a daily driver to take you from point A to B, it’s pleasant and innocuous. YMMV.

    • 0 avatar

      “So, will it win a stoplight drag race?”

      I think it’s a bit more than “it’s slower than a Camaro”

      7.1 seconds at wide open throttle to go from 50mph-70mph.

      You aren’t going to die (unless you try to pass on a two-lane road), but those rolling acceleration times are rough. Maybe the lower trim ones with smaller wheels at least manage Outback numbers.

  • avatar

    Corey – I’ve had to loaner Tiguans as well. One was an S and another SEL. Agree about the powertrain issues. I never felt like I could drive them smoothly and that it was hellbent on getting into 8th gear as soon as possible. The upside was decent highway economy, but it always felt very busy driving around town.

    Very easy to read gauges and it uses the same infotainment as my GLI. Probably the same “sounds like everything is underwater” speakers as well. God I need to rip those speakers out… It’s easy to use, but getting Android Auto to sync up the first time only happens about half of the time.

    I recall the one I had for a week while the dealer was waiting for the parts to come in were shod in Giti tires. That’s the first time I’ve seen those tires come on a new car, especially one with even the most basic of perforance credentials.

    I think I had a better experience with the SEL than your loaner S. I recommended it to my sister and brother in law, and they just got a new Tiguan SEL and like it a lot. It is a little generic, but the shape lets it hold a lot of stuff, it gets decent mileage, and mine drove smoothly, which makes me wonder if yours might be knocked out of balance or alignment. Compared to some of the more generic CUV blobs out there, I think the Tiguan looks a little better and you do get a lot for your money. Of course if they put the 268hp version of their 2.0L turbo in one…

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    This gray-on-gray-on gray vehicle would make me sad every day. If I’m going to spend $26k, at least one color has to be palatable. This looks like Oliver Twist’s gruel dinner.

    “The result is a crossover that’s very difficult to drive smoothly”

    And that is why I like electrics so much. Even the lowliest ones are smooth operators.

  • avatar

    The impression I get from this review is that nobody who worked on this car gave a sh!t. I couldn’t own a car where I thought that was the case. It would depress me too much.

    If I needed five doors at this price, I’d go get a CR-V LX. Still an ascetically equipped car in a boring segment, but at least you get the impression that someone really cared about making it a good car.

    • 0 avatar

      This is what I find depressing about too many recent VWs. My Golf is just the opposite; they seemed to have sweated the details about every single part. The radio buttons alone are more thoughtfully and cleverly designed than some entire cars I’ve driven. Attention to detail is what used to draw me to VWs; now, lack thereof may keep me from buying another one.

  • avatar

    I test drove a 2018 Tiguan and completely agree with the drivetrain comments. The transmission/ throttle/ turbo lag was some of the worst I’ve ever experienced. I just couldn’t imagine confidently and comfortably driving it in any kind of traffic. I was also unpleasantly surprised by the amount of engine NVH under hard throttle or while idling in drive.

  • avatar

    “Though it attempts to keep RPMs around 1,800 to 2,000 in most situations, at that rotation the engine is not on the boost.”

    It most certainly is “on the boost” at 1800 rpm, since the torque peak of 220ft/lbs is at 1600rpm to like 4000 rpm.

    It might suffer from lag, though, probably exacerbated by the slushbox.

  • avatar

    Great review by the way. I could feel your disappointmenr rise from every word. Just … nothing.

    Ah, the joys and pleasure of Mr Budack’s version of the Miller cycle, an early intake valve closing brute. Everyone else uses the other system with similar DI and turbo, but late intake valve closing. Toyota even does it on normally aspirated engines in their hybrids. But VW couldn’t copy what works, no sir, since theory said the two methods should overall be equal. But the facts show theory and practise differ.

    Considering the complication, one wonders if the 228hp Mk7 GTI engine cylinder head and turbo would have cost any more, but it would go like stink and get decent mileage as well. Nobody ever complains about that engine in GTIs and Audi A3 AWDs. Amazing that VW doesn’t see the competitive advantage of installing the better engine, but they must stick with their defense of the Budack for hubris and save-facw reasons, I guess. Bunch of idiots. The hell with the customer. Hey ho.

    Although it’s had its temperature control and fuel-in-engine oil problems, the 1.5t Honda turbo makes mincemeat of this Budack horror, accelerating the CR-V faster and getting about 4 mpg more. Yup, there’s your Teutonic superiority for you. I wonder if the other automakers test turkeys like Tiguan and rub their hands with glee at the ineptness. “No competition here folks! Move along, nothing to see, soback to churning out RAV4s”. Or whatever.

  • avatar

    If I have to put up with German reliability i am darn sure I want it to drive like a German car. The last VW I drove felt like a cheap KIA and not in a good way.

  • avatar

    There is nothing perplexing about using a USB-C connector for CarPlay or AAuto, and be thankful VW upgraded from the old, semi-obsolete USB-A connector. USB-C recharges your phone *much* faster, and you don’t have the annoyance of having to orient the plug in the proper direction each time you connect (with the old USB we all guess wrong half the time). Of course, wireless CarPlay or Android Auto would be even better, although it drains the phone battery quickly so a wired option is still good to have. The automotive industry has been too slow in adopting either USB-C or wireless phone connections, although both are finally catching on in a big way this year.

    • 0 avatar

      Most USB-C cables have a USB-A connector on the charger end, meaning whatever current you pass through the “C” part is also going through the “A” part. And if you provide a USB-A connector, both old and new Android phones, as well as iPhones, can plug in.

      (The really impressive charging speeds on USB-C connections depend on using 20V instead of 5V, which adds complication because most cars are still using 12V for the majority of their electrics.)

      Now, if you are criticizing Micro-USB (Micro-B is most common in older Android devices), that criticism would make sense to me.

  • avatar

    Got to suspect that given the way they turned the 2.0t into a lump with the Budack cycle to run on 87 octane, this must be greatly improved by an APR Tune (+45hp/+59ft-lb on 87)

    Has anyone driven the 2018+ tune for the 2.0t Budack???

  • avatar

    I’ve two legacy vehicles: a 49 year old 10-speed bike and an 80-year old tractor. They are easy to rebuild and parts are still available for both. A 60’s small sedan with an I-6 and mech transmission would be easy to maintain. Any auto in the last 50 years quickly becomes overly complicated. With scrappers grabbing steel & iron, it’ll be hard to maintain most anything built in the 1900’s in the next few decades. Maybe we’ll descend to batteries and electric motors like the toys of our youth. At least I have half a chance of generating some power from the sun or wind without building an offshore derrick & refining plant. There’s always horses.

  • avatar

    I’ve two legacy vehicles: a 49 year old 10-speed bike and an 80-year old tractor. They are easy to rebuild and parts are still available for both. A 60’s small sedan with an I-6 and mech transmission would be easy to maintain. Any auto in the last 50 years quickly becomes overly complicated. With scrappers grabbing steel & iron, it’ll be hard to maintain most anything built in the 1900’s in the next few decades. Maybe we’ll descend to batteries and electric motors like the toys of our youth. At least I have half a chance of generating some power from the sun or wind without building an offshore derrick & refining plant. There’s always horses.

    • 0 avatar

      “There’s always horses.”

      Coming soon to a highway near you.

      “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”

      -Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum

    • 0 avatar

      For further discussion:

      Exhibit A:

      “the shop is booked out for five to six years”

      “However, once reassembled, caulked, greased, and fitted with EV propulsion, such cars could run virtually trouble-free into the 22nd century.” (Dan Neil)

      Exhibit B:

      “I want to challenge your thinking a little bit, because I absolutely see an upgradable car, a physically upgradable car.”

      “So I could easily see customers owning these vehicles, multiple customers, [for] 30 years. It could be like a 737 fuselage, where it gets upgraded. I think that’s absolutely on the table.” (Jim Farley)

  • avatar

    I own a 2018 Alltrack SE with the 1.8 turbo and the DSG. I love the car. I did a unitronic tune which bumped hp from 170 to 254. 0-60 in 5.7 seconds. The low center of gravity makes for great handling, the DSG transmission has lightning fast shifts and the AWD keeps all the power under control. Inside the quality of materials is excellent and assembled impeccably…Alas, the Alltrack is no more in America and CUV’s are king. My next VW will be a GTI

  • avatar

    Fantastic review, Corey. Livability details and a thorough examination of what it’s like to drive beyond the numbers are the kind of things that’ll keep me coming back to TTAC. I would not be disappointed if this became a template for further reviews!

  • avatar

    I see you’ve joined the “sunroofs are useless” club. Welcome.

    The seats are the same as the base Jetta, but they are OK for this six footer-in the Jetta application. The cloth will stain very easily, but it also cleans very easily with mild ammonia water and some towels.

    I have never owned a VW with an automatic…the GTi, TDi, two Jettas, and two early diesels…all stick. Thank you for warning me off in the future.

  • avatar

    Great Review!! Correct about everything. I regretfully have a ’21 Tiguan and can corroborate everything you say about this car and I am currently looking at what my next purchase should be. I wish I had spent more time researching and maybe trying to rent this to drive for a few days before making the purchase. I think the most dangerous thing about this car is the utter unresponsiveness of the engine that has placed me in danger on more than a few occasions, when pulling out into traffic and stepping on the gas and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING happens for a second or two until something kicks in and the engine decides it will start to act like an engine. I still cant believe anyone at VW actually drove this thing and thought “yeah, this is a great car”. I too wondered why they placed the auto on/off button on the blind side of the shifter so it is not visible to the driver. There are plenty of other empty switch blanks that would be a better location. And did I mention the pathetic excuse for a sound system? This stereo sucks some serious doo doo and the cheap plastic door panels rattle at the slightest hint of bass, and the rear door mids and highs are non-existant. They should have saved some money and added a portable Jawbox speaker velcroed to the dashboard and called it a day. It would have sounded much better. Thanks for your review, and I hope it saves others from the mistake that is Tiguan.

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