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2018 Volkswagen Tiguan Review: First Drive

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CARS.COM — Volkswagen is all about rebuilding the brand, and U.S. buyers have shown they’ll forgive and forget a lot if a maker has the right new products at the right price. These days, that means competitive SUVs and not cars, which are about 40 percent of the market and shrinking.

Related: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Review: First Drive

With its eye on that, car-centric VW just put its all-new three-row Atlas SUV on sale, and coming this summer is an even more critical launch: the redesigned 2018 Tiguan in the booming compact SUV class.

Shop the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan near you

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0T S
46,442 mi.
2018 Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0T SE
86,214 mi.

The redone Tiguan now fits squarely, if belatedly, into this group, which includes the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape and redesigned 2018 Chevy Equinox, to name just a few. The aging current Tiguan has been a niche entry: smaller, a little pricier and with a tall-Golf look not to everyone’s taste. It will soldier on into 2018, though, as the Tiguan Limited with some improvements and slimmed-down choices yet to be specified.

The 2018 Tiguan is nearly 11 inches longer than the 2017 at about 185 inches, and about 4 inches longer than a CR-V, which is among its larger competitors. The extra length is enough to accommodate a small third row as a distinguishing feature (standard with front- and optional with all-wheel drive), something only the Rogue also offers in this group. Also standing out: VW gave the stretched Tiguan a stretched bumper-to-bumper warranty of six years or 72,000 miles, transferable if you sell it, which is twice the typical backing. (Powertrain coverage matches.)

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Pricing still is on the high side for a mainstream compact SUV. It starts at $26,345, slightly more than the old model, and can be optioned to about $40,000 (all prices cited include destination charges). That’s rarefied air compared with the top end for a CR-V or Rogue. But it shares that pricey neighborhood with fully loaded versions of some others, including the Escape and Equinox.

More relevant for many shoppers is that a moderate $31,180 will buy a second-level SE trim with front-wheel drive and competitive features including automatic climate control, leatherette (imitation leather) seats, eight-way power driver’s seat and an up-to-date media system with smartphone integration, plus a third row and the optional a panoramic moonroof. Get a full look at Tiguan pricing here.

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The company showed off the new Tiguan in Denver (per our ethics policy, pays for its airfare and lodging) with a day of driving that included a twisty road climbing up to more than 8,500 feet and some unpaved road. I drove the volume SE model as well as a top-trim SEL Premium.

Designed to Fit In

The new styling is a sharply creased evolution of the VW look, but seems aimed to blend in with the small SUV crowd, not stand out.

Inside, the design is similarly understated, even a bit bland, but if you’re looking for fashion-forward, this is not your group of vehicles. And the materials and trim have an upscale feel, even on the volume SE trim. Surfaces are soft-touch down to elbow level, with hard plastic taking over farther down and in the entire third row. The front seats are firm, but I found them comfortable; some other drivers found them a little narrow and lightly padded.

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A most notable feature of the interior, however, is a lack of wind and road noise. I never needed to turn up the audio or raise my voice, even on a gravel road with washboard ruts.

The standard third row (a $500 option on AWD models) represents the cheap seats — thin, very low and upright, and best left to the pre-puberty set. The 40/20/40-split folding second row is easy to tilt and slide for third-row access with one lever, though the high position and muscle needed likely mean kids will need help. The best thing about the third row for me, however, is that providing wayback access necessitated a second row that slides — around 7 inches — and reclines. Legroom and headroom are ample in that row, even in models with the panoramic moonroof.

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The 58 percent increase puts cargo room with seats down at 73.5 cubic feet in the two-row model, close to the roomy CR-V’s 75.8 cubic feet; the space drops to about 66 cubic feet in three-row Tiguans. Behind the third row is a skinny 12 cubic feet for luggage.

On the Road

The only engine offered in the U.S. is a 184-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s a version of VW’s current 2.0-liter with a modified combustion cycle that cuts power by 16 hp from the current Tiguan, though torque increases to 221 pounds-feet.

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It’s just punchy enough in town, but it really wants more juice to confidently move the new Tiguan’s nearly two tons around. You don’t buy this VW expecting a Golf GTI, but even so, you’ll feel the seconds tick by getting up to speed on entry ramps or while passing, and the gas pedal requires you to put your foot deep into it for that response. The eight-speed automatic is a smooth shifter, but sometimes it hesitates to kick down to a lower gear.

Where you feel some Golf DNA is in agile handling that rates with the drivers’ choices in this group, even if it’s not the equal of the benchmark Mazda CX-5. Cornering is flat and positive; the Tiguan doesn’t protest until you push it beyond where most compact SUV buyers will dare to go. The ride is Euro firm, giving you more feel of road imperfections than cushier rivals, but it’s not harsh or choppy. Steering is light but not numb. On a gravel road with washboard rutting, the Tiguan’s chassis danced a bit, but that’s not a surface you’ll encounter much in the suburbs where this SUV will see most duty.

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The standard stop-start system can be rough on restart. It’s on by default at startup but can be disabled, much appreciated on a 97-degree day in Denver to keep the air conditioning from slacking off.

All-wheel-drive models have VW’s 4Motion system with a center differential that can disengage the rear wheels for better gas mileage in normal driving and engage them when needed. All-wheel driving modes include On-Road, Snow, Off-Road or Custom Off-Road. Only the Tiguans with AWD also offer Normal, Sport, Eco and Custom driving modes that alter engine response and transmission and steering settings. 

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It might not matter to many shoppers in these days of low gas prices, but if you have a long commute or rack up urban miles like an Uber driver, take note that the Tiguan’s EPA ratings lag rivals: The front-wheel-drive Tiguan is rated 22/27/24 mpg city/highway/combined, well down on the turbocharged 1.5-liter front-drive versions of the CR-V (28/34/30 mpg), Equinox (26/32/28 mpg) or Escape (23/30/26 mpg). See comparison here.

Technology and Safety

VW, long the land of small screens and lots of buttons, gave its new SUV an up-to-date entertainment and control display. But it thankfully still provides buttons and knobs for functions that should not require menu diving. The 8-inch display system on SE and above trims (6.5 inches in the S) is crisp, very bright and fast, with good-looking graphics. And the standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration meant not missing the SEL and SEL Premium’s built-in navigation. Tiguan’s show-off tech feature, however, is the SEL Premium’s digital instrument cluster, a 12.3-inch display that is easy (and fun) to configure for the data you want to see.

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All Tiguans have a backup camera and automatic post-collision braking, which helps avoid a second collision that often follows an initial crash. Front collision warning with low-speed automatic emergency braking unfortunately is part of an $850 package for the base S but standard on the second-level SE and above. This is more availability of the important safety system than many in the group, but it lags the Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue with standard systems on all trims.

Moving up to the SE, which is expected to be the volume seller, adds standard blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert (also with automatic braking), while SEL adds stop-and-go adaptive cruise control and SEL Premium has standard lane-keeping assist and a 360-degree camera system.

VW will have to work hard to get on compact SUV shopping lists with better-known rivals from major automakers and their huge corps of current customers. But the bottom line is that the 2018 Tiguan now packs enough mainstream appeal to be worth a serious look.

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Photo of Fred Meier
Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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