Road test: 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan

Having grown up with a continuous supply of Jeep Wagoneer station wagons (plus one or two Land Rovers) in my family, I have never been able to generate the righteous contempt some of my colleagues have for the sport-utility segment. Even my hypocrisy has limits.

Still, I have often pondered the need for oversized (cue Simpsons reference) Canyoneros as gasoline-depleting suburban mall assault vehicles. Fortunately, the spike in fuel prices over the past couple of years, coupled with the recession, seems to have restored some semblance of normalcy to this automotive segment.

Likewise, I have been conflicted regarding the whole “sport-utility vehicle” nomenclature. Truly, how much actual sportiness is there in these jacked-up four-wheel-drive family wagons? I’m not talking about blistering acceleration such as is capable from the likes of the larger Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 (zero to 100 kilometres in 5.4 seconds) or AMG-infused Mercedes M-Class, just an uptick in performance and handling above and beyond the norm.

Fortunately, again, there seems to be a fair bit of movement toward the sporting side of things, courtesy of compact-sized SUVs powered by turbocharged small-displacement four-cylinders. Since the Acura RDX got the ball rolling in 2007 (not to take anything away from the original Subaru Forester), we can add the Audi Q5, BMW X1, Kia Sportage, Mini Cooper S Countryman, Nissan Juke, Range Rover Evoque, (revised) Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan (the subject vehicle here) as well as the upcoming 2013 Ford Escape.

Since its debut for the 2009 model year, the premium-priced Tiguan has been described as the GTI of compact SUVs by the motoring press, and Volks- wagen has done little to dissuade us of that notion (its tagline for the sport-ute is “responsibly wild”). It’s not completely without merit since the Tiguan is powered by the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder as the GTI hot hatch. Then again, it’s more than 200 kilograms heavier and has a significantly higher centre of gravity — just to throw in some perspective.

Still, the Tiguan is a handsome rig, made all the more so for 2012 courtesy of a freshening, specifically lighting upgrades and changes to the front and rear ends to give the vehicle more of the “family” look. Inside, the revisions are slight, with minor changes to switchgear. The drivetrain remains unchanged, however — not that this is a bad thing.

It’s not the first time I’ve said it nor will it be the last, but VW’s 2.0 TSI four-cylinder is one of the auto industry’s truly great engines, its 200 horsepower more than capable of handling the all-wheel-drive Tiguan’s 1,544-kilogram weight. It’s not so much the ponies but the 207 pound-feet of torque — available from a low 1,700 rpm and sticking with the program all the way to 5,000 rpm — that assists in the SUV’s acceleration time of 9.2 seconds to 100 kilometres an hour, though it feels quicker. That said, for the motorheads out there who want their sport-utes to feel like sport sedans, two of the newest higher-end versions — the more muscular 241-hp X1 and 240-hp Evoque — are significantly quicker (6.8 seconds and 7.6 seconds, respectively, to 100 km/h). The Tiguan’s passing power is quite adequate — 80 to 120 km/h takes 7.2 seconds. As for fuel economy, I averaged 12.7 litres per 100 kilometres (premium unleaded) during my time with the tester, which isn’t too bad for the size of the vehicle and the type of commuting I was doing.

The engine is mated to a either a six-speed manual (standard on the base Trendline and mid-range Comfortline front-wheel-drive versions) or six-speed Tiptronic manumatic (optional on Trendline and Comfortline and standard on the top-end Highline 4Motion). The tester was the Highline, and the manumatic makes the most of the engine’s low-end grunt. It also upshifts early under light throttle to enhance fuel economy. However, I found that when driving up longer inclines — I live in an area that is quite hilly — the engine revs sometimes dropped to a level that bogged the Tiguan before the transmission downshifted. Shifting into manual mode with the console-mounted gear lever rectified the situation.

Like the GTI, the Tiguan isn’t the fastest of its ilk, but it is one of the most balanced, with ride and handling that complements the engine. If its performance figures have been surpassed by some of the newer members of the turbo SUV fraternity, it redeems itself with driving dynamics that are simply first-rate. Its fully independent suspension system uses struts up front and a multi-link setup for the rear, which not only capably handles potholed tarmac, it also provides a definite sporting element when taking curves and on-ramps.

The electro-mechanical steering system has a good heft to it without the numb feeling some similar systems generate and gives the driver a decent accounting of what’s going on underneath him or her. After a spell of warm, wet weather, some snow and sleet finally arrived; this meant the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system got to do its thing. The Haldex system comes with the electronic logic to pro-actively lock the differential in certain situations, thereby distributing power to all four wheels before the fronts lose traction. Backed up by four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control and an electronic stability program, the SUV displayed surefooted grip on slippery surfaces.

Being the Highline, the tester was fully equipped with the necessary modern conveniences and then some, optional Technology and Sport packages adding $4,200 to the model’s $38,875 price tag. The cabin, although laid out in a conservative, straightforward manner, is particularly well finished, with quality materials and above-average fit and finish. Thanks to a massive panoramic power sunroof, the dark interior was a lot brighter and cheerier than it would normally have been. The front seats are comfortable and provide plenty of support for long distances, while there is just enough room in the back row for a couple of six-footers.

Even though the Tiguan’s sightlines are quite acceptable fHighlineor an SUV, the rear park distance control was the most useful feature of the $2,300 Technology Package (which includes a navigation system), especially when backing into parking spaces. However, a rear-view camera used to be part of the package, but it is no longer offered — a short-sighted decision, I think.

Also useful is the trunk area as the 60/40-split rear seats can be folded flat. In the upright position, there’s 23.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Dropping both seats more than doubles capacity to 56.1 cu. ft. The front passenger seat can also be folded flat to allow longer items to be carried.

When it first debuted, the Tiguan, like the Acura RDX that preceded it, managed to establish a sporty reputation against similar-sized but more mainstream compact utes as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, while still being less expensive than other European models such as the Q5, BMW X3 or Mercedes GLK.

Against the likes of the new BMW X1 and Range Rover Evoque, however, that sportiness has been surpassed. Still, the VW’s highly regarded 2.0 TFSI engine, impressive ride and handling, clean styling and tidy cabin cannot be dismissed. For those looking to downsize from larger sport-utes or upsize from compact sedans, the Tiguan remains a strong candidate.

Type of vehicle: All-wheel-drive compact SUV
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 200 hp @ 5,100 rpm; 207 lb-ft of torque @ 1,700 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manumatic
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires: P255/40R19 (optional)
Price: base/as tested $38,875/$43,075
Destination charge: $1,580
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 9.8 city, 7.4 hwy.
Standard features: Dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, digital compass, multi-function trip computer, 12-way power driver’s seat with three-position memory function, heated front seats, power door locks, heated mirrors and windows, power panoramic sunroof with power sunshade, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, premium AM/FM audio system with in-dash, six-disc CD changer, eight speakers and satellite radio, tilt and telescopic steering column, Intelligent Crash Response System, Bluetooth Mobile Phone connectivity, automatic wiper speed control and rain sensor, heated windshield washers, automatic headlights, tire pressure monitoring system, hill hold assist

Photograph: Brian Harper, National Post