One of the first things we noted about the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan S is its similarity to Volkswagen's hot hatch, the GTI MkV. Both vehicles have 200 horsepower 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Both have about the same amount of passenger space and a similar wheelbase and track width. Aside from the Tiguan's taller stance, you'd be hard pressed to note any difference between the two vehicles when driven with a degree of civility.
However, when driven aggressively, the differences become more apparent. The Tiguan's taller ride height and ground clearance translate into a higher center of gravity and more body roll through hard turns. The Tiguan's extra 271 pounds over the four-door GTI equals a 0 to 60 time of 7.8 seconds versus the GTI's 6.9 seconds.
The GTI could beat the pants off of the Tiguan on a track, but that's not really the point. Consider that the Tiguan is a compact SUV packing performance that's only slightly bested by Volkswagen's hottest sport compact, but with more cargo volume and a smoother ride quality, and the Tiguan is all the more impressive.
Test the tech: Mountain road exploration
With specifications that rival those of a sport compact car and a transmission that boasts a Sport mode, we decided to see if the Tiguan S could put its money where its mouth is on a twisty mountain road. After finding an appropriately serpentine course for our test, we had to print directions because of our Tiguan's lack of a navigation system. Hopping behind the wheel, we studied our course and hoped we wouldn't get lost.
The first leg of our trip took us through the sort of terrain on which the Tiguan is most at home: city streets and highways. In light traffic with the transmission set to drive, the Tiguan's small size made it easy to steer into and out of traffic. On the short freeway blast up the mountains, the Tiguan felt stable and remarkably carlike. However, at cruising speeds turbo-lag, coupled with the transmission's slow downshifts, added up to slow top end acceleration. Reaching the foot of the mountain, we put the transmission into Sport mode and started up. Immediately we noticed that the Sport mode increased responsiveness by keeping the revs up and the turbo spinning. The shifts of Sport mode didn't feel any faster than in Drive, but the rpm at which the shift happens is much higher in the powerband. An added bonus was the Sport mode's engine braking feature that downshifts the transmission as the vehicle decelerates to help slow the vehicle and prepare for exiting turns.
Though the 200 horsepower engine motivated the Tiguan up the mountain without struggling, we weren't able to really get up to speed due to the extremely technical aspects of our chosen course. Our path up the mountain consisted of a two-lane road with dozens of switchbacks and hairpin turns. As fantastic as the Tiguan's Sport mode was coming up the mountain, it was terrifying on the winding descent, often downshifting harshly midturn and upsetting the vehicle's weight transfer. Not wanting to go spinning off into oblivion, we put the transmission into Manual mode to get better control over the gear changes. Manual mode's shifts are the same speed as the other two modes, but now that we didn't have to worry about an unexpected gear change we were able to focus on the Tiguan's handling.
The Tiguan's power steering made for light steering effort, but didn't really communicate much about what the wheels were doing underneath us. Through the hairpin turns, the Tiguan exhibited the expected front-wheel-drive understeer, which was easily correctable with a lift of the throttle. The poorly maintained mountain road put the Tiguan's suspension through its paces. With the window down, the hissing of the dampers could be heard echoing off the sheer rock face of the mountain, but from the driver's seat the ride was smooth and controlled.
At the bottom of the mountain, we were greeted by the beautiful Pacific Coast. After the intense concentration required navigating the mountain, the sweeping curves and ocean breeze were a treat. We put the transmission back into sport mode and headed home, impressed by the versatility of the Tiguan's performance.
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.