Weekend Athlete: 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

Another day, another compact SUV in the crowded Weekend Athlete segment. What’s interesting this time is that the Tiguan is a rare SUV that faces a strong challenger from inside its own family.

See, Volkswagen also makes a wagon version of its Jetta. If it were my money and I wanted a Volkswagen, the Jetta SportWagen would make my decision tough. But we’ll get back to that.

The Tiguan has a very low exterior latch for its hatch door. It wasn’t so low that very tall athletes have anything to worry about, but perhaps shorter ones will appreciate the latch placement. The Tiguan doesn’t stand very tall overall, so if you’re the roof rack type you’ll probably be able to go that route without the assist of a running board or opening the doors, as long as you’re not especially short.

The cargo area itself is a mixed bag. The rear seats slide forward to give you more room, but that creates a well behind the seat. Here’s the weird part: Volkswagen includes little flaps that flop over and cover the well, but they only do that if the seatback is folded down to make an expanded flat cargo floor, not when there are people sitting there. There was no way I could see to flip them down if you’d just slid the seats forward while upright to expand the cargo area. This isn’t a huge issue, though, given the fact that if you slide the seats all the way forward, the only people still able to sit comfortably would be employees of Willy Wonka.

Even with the seats not moved forward and the cargo shade in place, there is a lot of usable room behind the seats, even if the Tiguan’s cargo area is one of the smaller ones in the segment, according to the specs. I think you could take four people camping in this car and be fine, as long as none of you are major over-packers.

When it comes time to fold the seats down, it’s just a matter of tugging a loop of fabric in the bottom of the seatbacks. While it requires a bit of effort, it’s not the end of the world. I’m seeing more cars go to this arrangement and I’m not a huge fan, but I’m also not going to ding the Tiguan or anything else for this setup.

One thing I may start deducting for is second-row reclining seats. Hate them. The problem comes when you’re trying to flop the seat back up: While a seat that can’t recline will just flip easily back into its one-and-only position, one that reclines has multiple “stopping” points as you’re lifting it back up. That means you have to keep pulling on the strap/lever/whatever and make sure to push the seat all the way back, or as likely as not it’ll get hung up and stop partway up. In that case, the next person to climb in would be forced to hunch over. For the everyday driver, it just becomes one more step in changing the configuration that has to be dealt with. The fabric loop seat-adjustment mechanism like the Tiguan has is the most likely kind to suffer from this issue.

The cargo area is kind of narrow, at least if you’re hauling a big bike. I didn’t take the wheel off for the test, but if I’d been racing and my bike were muddy I would have had to in order to keep everything from getting dirty. The Tiguan carried all the standard toys (sleeping bag, tent, etc.) well, but I think that was due as much to my packing as to the cargo area’s size.

So, really, the Tiguan is OK as far as small SUVs go, but not outstanding. When it gets interesting to me is when it’s compared to the Jetta SportWagen. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll set aside reliability ratings, cost with leather interior, navigation options, etc. and compare the SportWagen and Tiguan models I tested.

Both have large cargo areas with the rear seats up and both carry everything with the seats folded down (though I think the SportWagen edges ahead of the Tiguan in this category). The SportWagen is less expensive across the model range, but it doesn’t offer all-wheel drive. The AWD issue is likely to be the Tiguan’s biggest selling point, besides the fact that most buyers shy away from wagons these days.

To me, it’s like this: There’s nothing really wrong with the Tiguan. It does fine and doesn’t have any nasty surprises, but there’s not a lot there that makes me say “I have to have this SUV.” I would definitely prefer the SportWagen … if I lived somewhere where it didn’t snow.

Weekend Athlete Scores (out of 10)

Ease of loading gear - 6: There is just a ton of room in the cargo area with the seats up. That’s why it scores so high here. With the seats flat, it’s not outstanding.

Ease of seat operation - 5: They flop down easily, but getting them back up is a pain.

Bike hauling - 5: It’s OK, but you’ll need to take the wheel off if you play outside in the dirt.

Locker-room cred - 6: You won’t win points for originality, and if you carry a big bike you won’t like the narrow cargo area.

All-around - 5.5: It’s not bad, but I can’t say it’s much better than average.

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