2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

2009 Volkswagen Tiguan 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan
First Drive Review

As the small convoy of compact SUVs descended the steep, deeply rutted trail on the grounds of the Amani Lodge near Windhoek, Namibia, to the spot where the cheetahs are fed, it was hard not to think of the old military historians' adage about Germans tending to stick to their plan. I mean, this was terrain that most manufacturers of serious off-road vehicles would not have dared use to showcase their products' virtues.

And here we were in three Volkswagen Tiguan development mules—unibodied "soft road" SUVs—one of them even going without the underbody protection offered by VW's off-road package. Which, you should understand, was being exploited regularly as the relatively low-riding vehicles slammed onto rocks in our path.

But having planned this leg of the final vehicle-development exercise, our hosts were sticking to their guns—ultimately to the detriment of the non-off-road-package Tiguan, which suffered a crack to the oil pan, resulting in a small but steady oil leak that ensured it left the rutted trail on the end of a tow rope. But VW's persistence also saw us drive back out of the valley in the two surviving Tiguans, which had braved a challenge that would surely have tripped up the likes of a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V.

Think that's amazing? Consider this: These cars were powered by 1.4-liter four-cylinder engines and had no low-range transfer case. Okay, the TSI 1.4-liter unit does have VW's new Twincharger technology, which employs an Eaton dual-screw supercharger for low-rpm grunt and a BorgWarner KKK turbocharger for high-rev power augmentation.

The two blowers pump the power peak to 148 horsepower and provide the little engine with 177 pound-feet of torque from 1500 to 4500 rpm. On normal roads, this translates to a quiet and smooth operation—with no audible supercharger or turbo noises—accelerating the Tiguan to high speed with deceptive ease. In the U.S., however, Tiguans will be equipped with the familiar 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four, which is also fitted to cars such as the GTI, or a 140-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-diesel four. Front- and all-wheel-drive variants will be offered.

Our development mules, carefully camouflaged with body-color tape, reflector tape, and fake insignias, were equipped with six-speed manual boxes, but production Tiguans will also be available with VW's six-speed automatic.

This '09 sport-ute was developed from VW's Rabbit platform, with extensively modified running gear. Traction is managed by a new version of VW's Haldex 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, now with a multiplate center clutch controlled by a computer that looks at the ABS wheel-speed sensors. (The previous Haldex system was mechanical.) This provides a nominal fore-and-aft torque distribution of 85/15 percent but is said to be capable of sending 100 percent to either axle when required.

Equipped with an electronic parking-brake system, like those found on most current high-end sedans, the Tiguan off-road package also includes a hill-hold feature that automatically disengages when the clutch is depressed. When the off-road button is activated, the driver can floor the throttle while the computer limits engine speed to 3500 rpm, allowing the driver to concentrate on clutch engagement with maximum torque availability. Combined with electronic diff lockup, this compensates quite a bit for the absence of low-range gearing.

Other noteworthy technical aspects include an electromechanical steering-assist mechanism mounted to the rack rather than the column, virtually eliminating kickback shock at the wheel. There's a huge glass roof panel with a generous sliding sunroof and powered interior shade. The rear seats feature fore-and-aft and seatback-rake adjustments yet allow more than 16 cubic feet of cargo space before their 40/20/40 fold-forward capabilities are exploited.

The Tiguan also introduces Volkswagen's RNS 510 touch-screen navigation and entertainment system, which utilizes a 30-GB hard drive and state-of-the-art interfaces. There's even an automatic park-assist system available on the Tiguan, similar to that of a Lexus LS460, only simpler in principle. Obviously, when the Tiguan goes into production late this year, with prices starting at about $24,000, it will bring some serious techno-muscle to the compact-SUV scene, although buyers will pay a premium over a RAV4 or CR-V.