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A cute-ute drives off Dr. Moreau's island

August 01, 2008|DAN NEIL

Volkswagen often invokes the climes and cultures of North Africa for its products' names: Toureg -- the name of VW's goodly sized off-roader -- is borrowed from the aboriginal people of the Sahel. Scirocco is a withering desert wind. This is a curious practice since the Germans had a decidedly mixed record in North Africa.

The name Tiguan, attached to the company's new compact utility vehicle, is faux exoticism, splicing together the words "tiger" and "iguana." I wish I could have been at the product briefing where executives -- including Dr. Moreau, I guess -- explained how this cute-ute, as they are called, combined the attributes of a fierce jungle cat and a lazy decorative reptile.

In fact, the Tiguan combines the attributes of a VW Rabbit, the compact runabout with which it shares its platform, and the larger Passat. (That would make it a Rabat, wouldn't it? Isn't that a city in Morocco?)

Fractionally smaller than the Honda CR-V, the Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4, the Tiguan is an urban-friendly, ski resort-capable wee truck with optional all-wheel drive, backed up by VW's great 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Outdoorsy and athletic -- think the ponytailed shortstop on a women's collegiate fast-pitch team -- the Tiguan looks like it could handle itself on a muddy infield.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Volkswagen: The Rumble Seat column in Friday's Business section about the 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan incorrectly spelled the name of the Volkswagen Touareg, another vehicle in the company's fleet, as Toureg.

Truly, though, the Tiguan's saving grace is its fortuitous slowness. Several years late to the cute-ute party, the Tiguan hits the market precisely as buyers are leaping out of mid-to-large utes and crossovers like they had VD in their glove boxes. This broad-based impulse of car buyers to go smaller and thriftier -- call it demi-sizing -- can only help the Tiguan. It's the fresh face in a crowd of mini-utes, so it feels like the car of the moment.

An aside: What I've noticed about demi-sizing in readers' e-mails is the desire not to find incrementally better fuel economy -- say, five miles per gallon better, or seven -- than their current car, but to double their fuel economy. I've probably gotten 50 e-mails from people saying they won't buy any vehicle that offers less than 40 mpg. I had previously discounted the theory of peak demand -- which argues that a fundamental shift in Americans' love of petroleum has occurred, irrespective of the price at the pump -- but now I'm not so sure.

In any event, the Tiguan doesn't get anywhere near 40 mpg. The Environmental Protection Agency figures the vehicle can wring 19/26 mpg out of its turbocharged 200-horsepower engine -- not bad, but nothing to make Dick Cheney soil himself. This raises the first of a couple of caveats with the Tiguan. No diesel engine. With a diesel, the Tig could raise efficiency to around 30 mpg combined, but VW hasn't committed to putting a legal diesel in the Tiguan, as it has with the U.S. market Jetta (such powertrains are expensive to federalize). This greatly discomfits hard-core VW oil-heads, who would use diesel fuel as salad dressing if you let them.

The other caveat: Price. The Tiguan starts at $23,200 (base two-wheel drive, six-speed manual transmission, S trim), but if you start getting fancy with the box ticking you can easily run the price into the mid-$30,000s. As a value proposition, VW in the U.S. has always been a bit of a dicey proposition. These days, with the euro trading about $1.50, VW is obliged to ask for European luxury premiums for what are mass-market vehicles. Small wonder VW is looking to move more manufacturing stateside.

A diesel option would add an additional $2,500 or so to the already currency-inflated sticker price.

Add navigation, leather, full-length panoramic sunroof, a 30-gigabyte multimedia system with DVD and rear-view camera and the Tiguan is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend some wheel time, to be sure. The cabin is spare but sophisticated. The ambience is quiet and upscale. And it's pretty useful. The rear seat slides back and reclines, making life generally pretty good behind the front seats.

When the rear seats are folded the cargo capacity expands to 56.1 cubic feet, relatively vast considering the trucklet's 174.3-inch overall length. Amazingly, VW offers an optional automated parking system -- like that of the Lexus LS 600 -- to help drivers parallel park. If you can't park a 14-foot novelty such as the Tiguan, you should have your license cut into bits and fed to you like cereal.

Sporting around town, the Tiguan acquits itself nicely. The ride is firm and composed, and the electromechanical steering direct and linear. The all-wheel drive system -- VW's 4Motion -- operates in front-wheel-drive mode unless and until the front slips. The system then shifts some engine power to the rear axles. Simple, transparent, but definitely useful when the weather turns ugly.

With all of its torque available from 1,700 to 5,000 rpm, the Tiguan always feels willing and spirited, if not mind-blowingly fast. It's quick, agile and compact. Not squirrelly, but definitely squire-like. It's also small and cute and plush, like a mink.

How about Squink? No? This naming thing is harder than it looks.





2009 VW Tiguan

Base price: $23,200

Price, as tested: $38,000 (est.)

Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.0-liter DOHC, 16-valve inline four with variable-valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 200 at 5,100-6,000 rpm

Torque: 206 pound-feet at 1,700-5,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,433 pounds

0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds

Wheelbase: 102.5 inches

Overall length: 174.3 inches

EPA fuel economy: 19/26 mpg, city/highway

Final thoughts: Late for the party, right on time

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