Car reviews - Volkswagen - Tiguan - 103TDI 5-dr wagon
Refinement, comfort, TDI performance, economy, compactness, versatility
Room for improvement
Not beautiful, silly name, boot not huge, space-saver spare an issue for some
28 Nov 2008
LET’S face it: the Volkswagen Tiguan is no thing of beauty.
While not offensive, we’ve seen sexier SsangYongs than this latest German compact SUV. Somebody mentioned the VW looked a little like the previous Mitsubishi Outlander from behind, and for that we apologise to the Japanese.
In an era of good-looking SUVs like the Mazda CX-7, BMW X5, Ford Territory and Audi Q5, this VW’s dumpiness is disappointing.
And, to boot, it has a ridiculous name to bear. Anybody who thinks otherwise is either on VW’s payroll or called something equally silly, like Moon Unit Zappa or Minnie Driver.
Shallow, you say? Us? Perhaps, but we have a right to be, because the Tiguan is actually the most beguiling faux-by-four by far, with a depth of virtue that frankly astounds us. Our criticism, therefore, can only be of a superficial nature.
Like some modern Peugeot 504 descendent, the VW transcends its dorky design, rising to the very top of the class with unfettered panache, revealing a very real inner beauty.
Strangely, the effect this has is like wearing beer goggles after a late night on the turps.
Because by the time we finished with the Tiguan, we could not help but gaze lovingly at its boxy silhouette, snub snout, cartoonish face, awkward stance, squared-off wheel-arches and oddly proportioned rear doors.
Nevertheless, if you’re into fine aesthetics, don’t expect to find solace inside this VW either.
Opening any one of the wide-arcing quality-feel doors reveals a cabin of equal visual hodgepodge, from the heavy-handed upper-dashboard bit jutting out at you like a bloated belly to an unrelenting sea of grey trim.
Yet the Tiguan is a triumph of function over form, so you’ll grow to love it inside too.
Swing your hips onto those hip-height seats and only admiration awaits.
Tap the top of the finely crafted dashboard and all you get is a rubbery, squidgy indentation, revealing a level of quality that seems to rise above the compact SUV norm. We found ourselves pinching the instrument binnacle just to remind ourselves we weren’t dreaming up all this quality in a car at this price point.
Better still, in darkness, all you see is the nicely illuminated instruments (Golf blue with red lettering of course), leaving no doubt that you are driving down Quality Street.
We’ve always preferred manual, non-climate control circular knobs to activate a vehicle’s heating and cooling, and the Tiguan obliges with a stupendously simple arrangement that even an ancient Beetle owner will fathom. The same is also true for the VW-generic audio interface.
No compact SUV this side of a Land Rover Freelander II feels this solid, sensible and functional all-at-once inside.
There’s more too, such as the really supportive front seats that provide hours of comfort. Our base model’s seat trim looked and felt non repulsive (for a change).
Aiding this is a (fabric covered) lid for the deep centre console that ratchets up to act as a left armrest, forming part of a veritable cornucopia of storage solutions, which range from deep door bins to a small tray besides each outboard seat.
The three-spoke steering wheel is also pleasantly tactile, with both reach and tilt abilities to accommodate a wide range of drivers. Finding the perfect driving position is easy.
Stepping up into the rear bench area might be a challenge for the littlest folk (as well as medium-sized dogs), but once there, all will be perched high and mighty thanks to the elevated seating. No prizes for guessing that the centre rear pew ain’t no holiday destination, however.
With three abroad in the back shoulder room is restricted, but there is ample leg and headroom for the outboard passengers. One bonus is that the rear side windows virtually retract fully.
But having no front seat map pockets is simply cynical corporate penny pinching. And, frankly, the rear seat loses some of that quality lustre by virtue of being so austerely presented – even if, in reality, you do get to enjoy a nicely engineered fold-down set of cupholders, 12-volt power source and ventilation outlets stacked behind that large centre console. Better-than-usual interior lighting is another back-seat bonus.
Lowering the rear bench is a one-lever affair, with the whole assembly folding down evenly. Lifting it up again takes a certain amount of muscle though, and annoyingly the seatback only returns to its most upright position – which is never one that somebody might use – necessitating a second pull of the lever.
Extending from 395 litres with all seats in situ to 1510 litres, the Tiguan’s cargo area might be a little short and shallow (the space-saver spare lives under there) for some – certainly compared to, say, a Nissan X-Trail’s – and loading things into it does require a bit of lifting, despite the tailgate’s down-to-bumper level opening.
On the other hand, this is only meant to be a compact SUV and it is nicely finished back there, with all the requisite power outlets, lighting and cargo hooks to aid versatility and load lugging, as well as a satisfyingly solid parcel shelf. A large section of the middle seat folds down to provide a load-through facility too.
So far then, so good: the Tiguan ticks every comfort, access and usability box, delivering a superlative cabin experience that makes the driver feel good and confident using it, while shutting out the outside world with an effectiveness usually reserved for much more expensive vehicles.
Here’s where VW will snare many potential buyers even before they’ve driven the Tiguan out of the dealer lot for the first test drive.
But if you’re one of the many that need plenty of time behind the wheel before parting with your hard-earned, this German compact SUV easily rises to the challenge.
Remember how we mentioned the Peugeot 504 in the beginning? That was no random example of an overachieving ugly car: both boast a remarkably relaxing and supple yet controlled ride (on the base model wheel and tyre package, in the case of the VW).
When, we ask you, was the last time you drove a contemporary German car with long suspension travel? Pockmarked urban streets and gravel roads alike are dealt with (and here’s a motoring cliché warning) pure aplomb.
Underneath the Tiguan is a revised version of the Golf V’s sophisticated MacPherson strut-front and independent (like the 504’s) multi-link rear suspension set-up.
Tailored for compact SUV duties, it feels strong, absorbent and isolating, yet sturdy enough to provide an excellent level of body control when you feel like hustling the Tiguan through a series of tight turns.
To illustrate this point, we headed for a spirited blast from Anglesea to Lorne on Victoria’s fabulously rugged south coast, and came away extremely impressed with the high levels of handling finesse on offer here.
The VW cornered with poise and control, displaying a very neutral attitude through even the tightest bends, with minimal body lean (for an SUV) and maximum confidence.
Underneath is the latest version of the company’s part-time all-wheel drive system, featuring a Haldex clutch to serve out the appropriate amount of torque to each driven wheel.
If you are seeking some off-road ability, an option pack is available, which alters the Tiguan’s throttle response, enhances traction control response, allows more lock-up of the anti-lock brakes for better bite-through on loose gravel surfaces and activates Volkswagen’s version of hill descent control that can limited speeds to between 4km/h and 16km/h.
Otherwise, the Tiguan is basically a front-wheel driver (with up to about 90 per cent of drive heading to the front wheels, although in extreme conditions 100 per cent can go rearwards), and so basically behaves like one.
But no car in this class is as accomplished dynamically as the Tiguan full stop.
Speaking of which, the brakes are certainly up to the task, with an eager and even stopping force.
Being a 103TDI model means that a 103kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine provided our Tiguan’s motivation.
Remember how we described the cabin as isolating? Well, this includes mechanical noise, since we barely were conscious of the diesel din going on just ahead of us.
Instead, the TDI’s acceleration comes on like a drunk colleague at a Christmas party (after an initial hesitation as the turbo spooled up and the fine six-speed automatic gearbox got their act together), whisking the Tiguan along with absolutely effortless ease.
On the go, and deep inside the (rather narrow) torque band, the driver is thus able to execute a quick overtaking manoeuvre instantaneously.
The reality is, this diesel powertrain is good enough for higher-end Audis, and so proves to be one of the most appealing aspects of the VW as well.
A combination of country and urban driving returned around 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres, further underlining the worth of choosing the 103TDI engine.
What this particular Tiguan does is fully realise the potential of the car-based compact SUV in a way that all others cannot quite fully manage.
Far from feeling cumbersome, the whole set-up is balanced enough to please keen drivers and weary passengers alike.
Not only is it not thirsty, the diesel engine swathes the VW with another veneer of refinement to match the very decent performance on offer.
And the packaging is a happy compromise between hatchback compactness and wagon-style practicality, for easy and sensible city-friendly motoring and lightweight off-road duties alike.
In the most basic 103TDI guise, not only is it the best compact SUV available on the Australian market right now, the Tiguan is also that rare beast – a vehicle that stretches well beyond the sum of its parts.
Styling and sensible name apart, this VW has everything going for it.
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