In the cabin
In a word, the cabin of the Tiguan S is utilitarian. Perhaps a better word would be boring. Almost every surface is finished in the same matte black plastic and the seats are a dull charcoal cloth. In the optional tan interior color, there's at least a little visual excitement, but the charcoal interior of our Tiguan was downright depressing. The materials didn't feel cheap and all of the elements of the cabin seemed well made, but none of the Tiguan's sporty nature is reflected by the interior's dull execution.
The standard audio system is just as dull as the cabin in which it sits. In the S trim level, the only audio sources are FM/AM radio, single-disc CD audio playback with MP3 support, and an aux-in hidden in the center console. There's no option available for iPod/USB support, no HD or satellite radio available, and no Bluetooth hands-free. Audio quality is satisfactory, but suffers from dull highs and heavy, distorted bass at high volume.
The Tiguan has a few neat features, such as Auto Hold and an electric parking brake, which eliminates the need for an emergency brake handle. When activated, the Auto Hold feature will hold the brakes after a complete stop, keeping the car stationary even after the brake pedal is released. When the accelerator is depressed, the Tiguan immediately releases the brakes and the car moves. This is a neat feature for drivers who spend a lot of time waiting at traffic lights or for drivers of the six-speed manual version of the Tiguan S who live in hilly areas. In stop-and-go traffic, we found the feature annoying. Fortunately, it's easily enabled and disabled with the touch of a button.
Out back, our Tiguan was equipped with rear side airbags, a $350 option, and a 60-40 split folding rear seat. Seats folded flat, we were able to easily fit two bikes with the front tires removed into the back of the Tiguan.
Under the hood
The 2-liter turbocharged four cylinder that motivates the Tiguan is a gem of an engine. There's a good deal of turbo-lag, which makes easing into a slow start sluggish. Once you get it going, however, the Tiguan easily scoots through traffic. Flooring the accelerator from a stop, the turbo-lag is slightly less evident, but at around 2,500 to 3,000rpm the 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque kicks in hard, thrusting the little SUV forward and loudly chirping the front tires. With the traction control deactivated, the tire chirp becomes a longer and louder squeal. It may not actually be fast, but the Tiguan certainly feels quick.
Utilizing direct injection technology, the Tiguan averages an EPA estimated 18 city mpg and 24 highway mpg. That sort of fuel economy isn't bad for an SUV, but still a bit lower than most vehicles in the Tiguan's segment.
Delivering power from the engine to the front wheels is Volkswagen's six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic. This transmission features three forward modes: drive, sport, and manual. Drive mode features smooth shifts and programming for comfort and fuel economy. Sport mode raises the shift point to keep the engine in the powerband to reduce turbo lag and increase responsiveness for more aggressive driving. The manual mode lets the driver choose the gears by pushing the shifter forward and backward. We found it best to leave the car in Drive for regular urban and highway driving. The manual mode came in handy for keeping the car in first in stop-and-go traffic and for downshifting to get the revs up in preparation for merging with faster moving traffic.
The Tiguan's suspension makes a valiant attempt to tame the body roll of the tall compact, but it doesn't eliminate it. The short wheelbase makes the vehicle easy to rotate around turns, but like most front-wheel driven vehicles, the Tiguan displays piggish amounts of understeer when pushed to its limits. Thanks to a high suspension that's tuned for softness, those limits are fairly low.
That same high suspension is the reason for the Tiguan's smooth ride and commanding view of the road ahead. You wouldn't want to go off road with the Tiguan's front-wheel drive and very untrucklike 6.9 inches of ground clearance, but poorly maintained roads and all but the most severe potholes are soaked up by the suspension's longish travel.
While we were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Tiguan S, the cabin was just too spartan for our tastes. At the S trim level, the Tiguan has an MSRP of $24,300 with the only options available being the rear side airbags ($350) and a no-cost six-speed manual transmission. We can't really recommend the Tiguan S for drivers who are also technophiles, but the higher trim levels are another story.
Stepping up to the Tiguan SE trim (MSRP $26,925) will upgrade the interior to a higher grade cloth, upgrade the odometer to a multifunction trip computer similar to Audi's offerings, increase the wheel size to 17 inches, and add steering wheel controls for the audio system, cruise control, and trip computer. Moving to SEL trim level (MSRP $30,990) upgrades the interior to leather, replaces the audio system with a 600-watt Dynaudio 10 speaker setup, and adds the Adaptive Front Lighting system with Bi-Xenon headlamps that turn up to 15 degrees in response to steering inputs. At SE trim and above, tech options come available in the form of a panoramic sunroof ($1,300), a touch-screen navigation system with a 30GB hard drive (20GB available for music), a back up camera ($1,990), and 4Motion all-wheel-drive ($1,950).
Prospective Tiguan owners will also want to look at the Toyota RAV4, the Nissan Rogue SL, and the Ford Escape Limited, all of which can be had with premium audio and Bluetooth integration for about the same price as the base model Tiguan. All three of these alternatives average 22 city and 28 highway mpg, but do so with 30 fewer horsepower than the Tiguan.