2013 Volkswagen Tiguan review: Small SUV is short on features, high on price

Pricing Unavailable
  • Available Engine Gas
  • Body style SUV

Roadshow Editors' Rating

5.6 Overall
  • Cabin tech 5
  • Performance tech 6
  • Design 6

The Good The 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan's compact SUV style allows easy maneuverability and good cargo utility. Available 4Motion all-wheel drive sends torque to rear wheels when necessary.

The Bad The navigation system lacks real-time traffic and the audio system delivers subpar sound quality. The ride quality in this pricey little SUV can be rough.

The Bottom Line The 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan suffers from a high price and inferior cabin electronics, compared with other compact SUVs, and struggles to make a compelling argument for itself.

Does an SUV need to be a lumbering behemoth, drinking gasoline by the barrel and stripping side mirrors and paint from parked cars as it waddles down the street? The 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan answers that question with a resounding no.

The Tiguan, a compact SUV built on VW's Golf platform, seats five in high-riding comfort and measures only 14.5 feet long.

Not that Volkswagen exactly pioneered the compact SUV. The Tiguan entered the market in 2007, giving Volkswagen a car to compete with the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, the Ford Escape, and the Nissan Rogue, to name a few in this crowded segment. The success of this type of car comes from a public that wanted carlike maneuverability, decent fuel economy, and rarely needed a cargo area that could fit a king-size bed.

The Tiguan takes advantage of Volkswagen's efficient production strategy for its small, global cars. Along with being built on the Golf platform, the Tiguan gets an engine and cabin electronics that can be seen in models such as the Jetta and Passat.

The version I reviewed was the top-of-the-line SEL trim, feature Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, in-dash navigation, a giant sunroof, leather seating, and keyless start. In SEL trim, all those features are standard, but after reading the price, I would have done a spit-take if I had a beverage in hand.

The 2013 Tiguan SEL with 4Motion comes in at $37,955, with destination fees, uncomfortably close to $40,000.

Feature-free navigation
Volkswagen designates the head unit in the Tiguan SEL as the RNS 315. Relatively simple, it combines navigation, a Bluetooth phone system, and digital audio sources on its small touch screen. The onscreen interface uses an intuitive, semicircle of icons as a common menu for each function. It let me select each menu item either by turning a knob below the LCD or just touching an icon on the screen.

This head unit includes voice command, but it only controls the phone, letting you place calls by contact name or number.

2013 Volkswagen Tiguan

Route guidance graphics on the instrument cluster display are a big help for navigation.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Tiguan's navigation system works as an argument for not getting the SEL trim. Compared with what you can get in other compact SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V we reviewed recently, its lack of features is embarrassing. Although it runs off of flash memory, the maps move sluggishly and show little detail.

It showed me minimal route guidance graphics which would have been difficult to follow through complex intersections, and the voice prompts did not call out street names. The Tiguan's saving grace, and something Volkswagen generally does well, is the LCD in the instrument cluster, which shows better route guidance graphics than those on the map screen.

The Tiguan's navigation system also lacks real-time traffic, which comes as a bit of a surprise since just about every other automaker includes it, even on low-end models.

The LCD also shows audio sources, of which the Tiguan offers a good array. And for the umpteenth time, I'm complaining about Volkswagen's use of a proprietary port for most external audio sources. This port lives in the center console, and takes cable adapters for iOS devices and USB drives. Volkswagen does not offer an adapter for Apple's new Lightning connector, just the old 30-pin plug, which means you will need yet another adapter plugged into the cable.

I expect Volkswagen will go to a simple USB port one of these years, but the Tiguan is stuck with the current system.

2013 Volkswagen Tiguan

The Tiguan came with this Media-Interface cable for older iOS devices.

Josh Miller/CNET

Oddly, the Tiguan's head unit has a separate slot for an SD card, which worked well enough for music. The tuner can handle satellite radio, but not HD Radio. Mostly, I relied on Bluetooth audio streaming, which worked seamlessly and showed full track information on the display.

Unsound audio
However, after listening to a few songs, I wanted to turn off the stereo entirely. This audio system was the worst I've ever heard in a car. Oh, the bass and midranges were acceptable, about what I would expect from a low-end car, but the high frequencies were awful. Notes from guitars and horns came though exceptionally shrill and tinny, making listening painful. I actually turned down the treble, which improved the music playback enough so I could continue testing.

I found that music sounded the worst playing through an iPhone 5 cabled to the car through the Apple Lightning to 30-pin adapter, even with Apple Lossless or high-bit-rate MP3 tracks. Bluetooth streaming was next on the list for poor audio quality, while SD card and CD were better.

Beyond ripping the speakers out of the Tiguan, there is a solution to this bad audio situation. Volkswagen will offer the 2014 Tiguan with its excellent Fender audio system. Music fans will want to wait for that one.

Unchanged engine
What isn't changing between the 2013 and 2014 model years is the drivetrain. Under the Tiguan's hood sits Volkswagen's 2-liter four-cylinder engine, using direct injection and a turbocharger to make 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Volkswagen has had this engine in play for quite a few years now; it might be time for some reengineering. Ford's 2-liter Ecoboost engine, using similar tech, makes 240 horsepower.

2013 Volkswagen Tiguan

Volkswagen could probably wring some more efficiency and power out of this engine.

Josh Miller/CNET

Those numbers sound pretty good, but it seemed like just enough power for the Tiguan. With the car's six-speed automatic transmission in Drive, I pressed hard on the gas pedal and got middling results. The Tiguan hesitated, then started forward, the engine making a low, tortured wail.

The acceleration didn't feel responsive enough for quick passing maneuvers, although Volkswagen says the Tiguan gets to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds.

That hesitation likely comes from a combination of the turbo lag and the six-speed automatic transmission's programming, which is going to try to maintain a low engine speed for increased fuel economy.

Despite programming and engine efficiency technologies, the Tiguan ends up with only mediocre fuel economy. With 4Motion all-wheel-drive, the car gets an EPA-rated 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. In a mixed course of driving, I ended up with an average of 22.3 mpg. Oddly, without 4Motion, the Tiguan only gains 1 mpg in the city, a minor difference which makes getting the all-wheel-drive system only a matter of initial cost.

I found that popping the shifter down to Sport mode made the car more satisfying to drive, as it had a quicker response to the accelerator. Sport mode kept the tach needle around 3,000 rpm, but it wasn't really feasible for all driving situations. As Sport mode locked out sixth gear, the car sounded tortured when I got on the freeway due to high engine speeds.

2013 Volkswagen Tiguan

The six speed automatic is the only transmission choice for the SEL trimmed Tiguan.

Josh Miller/CNET

Beyond better throttle response, the Tiguan doesn't really need a Sport mode. It doesn't affect how the car handles in the turns. And although tuned for a firm ride, the Tiguan felt kind of tippy when I took corners at speed.

The suspension tuning didn't help the handling much, and it wasn't good for ride quality. Whenever I got the Tiguan on rough pavement, the ride felt bumpy and harsh, like I was driving the Flintstones' car. It was a dramatic difference going from a smooth, recently paved road to older, pitted asphalt.

There were a couple of upsides to the Tiguan's driving character. The electric power steering system delivers its boost with steady predictability, and increases power as the car slows. That makes it very easy to turn the wheel when parking, yet offers decent heft at speed.

In normal driving on straight, smooth roads, the Tiguan makes for an easy, uncomplicated driver. As a suburban errand runner, most people will find it simple to just get in and go. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is completely unobtrusive. Biasing torque to the front wheels, it will throw power to the rears as needed.

There is no differential locking or descent control in the Tiguan.

Obvious faults
I like compact SUVs in general for their easy maneuverability and utility, but the 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan comes off as a pretty big failure, especially considering the $37,955 price tag. The base model comes in around $23,000, but lacks the electronics, leather seating, and other amenities of the SEL trim version.

Volkswagen pioneered efficient drivetrain tech for passenger cars, but other automakers have recently begun implementing direct injection and turbocharging for even better results. Volkswagen badly needs to update its engine tech. Ride quality was the Tiguan's most obvious fault. The vehicle uses good suspension architecture, so the solution may just come down to better tuning.

As for cabin electronics, I could see this navigation system in a $15,000 car, but not in something approaching 40 grand. The whole cabin tech suite is pretty basic, offering the bare minimum of features. The stereo's sound quality was a big red flag for me. I wouldn't want to own a car where I couldn't enjoy listening to music.

Some of these issues, such as price and audio quality, will be addressed in the 2014 Tiguan. If you are looking for a compact SUV, make sure to test-drive the next model year Tiguan.

Tech specs
Model2013 Volkswagen Tiguan
TrimSEL 4Motion
Power trainTurbocharged direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy20 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy22.3 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based system
Bluetooth phone supportStandard
Digital audio sourcesBluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio
Audio systemEight-speaker system
Driver aidsBack-up camera
Base price$22,995
Price as tested$37,955