By the time the Tiguan, VW’s small crossover that’ll hit the U.S. in summer 2008, begins rolling off its Wolfsburg assembly line, it’ll have undergone extensive testing in myriad terrains, climates, and elevations. It’s a sport/utility after all, not to mention the Touareg’s little brother, so much of its allure will be its perceived ruggedness; thus, testing in extreme conditions is a requisite. So with the start of production just a couple months away, Volkswagen, with time for one last shakedown, had a decision to make: Where to conduct the Tiguan’s final torture test?
Naturally, the powers that be opted for Namibia in southwest Africa, a former German colony and now a popular destination spot for Teutonic tourists. Known for the extensive range of wild game in Etosha National Park, the 1000-foot sand dunes in Sossusvlei, and the fatal beauty of the Skeleton Coast, Namibia is also a country that boasts plenty of elevation change, severe temperatures, and loads (and loads) of dirt roads, most of which are as smooth as a rusty washboard. Could it get any better?
Well, yes-Volkswagen could invite a few auto journalists along for the ride. Luckily, I was one of the fortunate few, and, after 22 hours of flying time from L.A., I landed in the capital of Windhoek, ready to join the team of engineers at the tail end of a four-month, 40,000-kilometer (roughly 25,000 miles) test run. But before kicking up dust clouds the size of Rhode Island, I was first briefed on the vehicles.
The four pre-production Tiguans at our disposal were all European spec and as such were notably different from the version the U.S. will be getting. All had VW’s new 1.4-liter Twincharger four-cylinder-an Eaton supercharger and a Borg-Warner turbocharger combine forces to deliver 168 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque, and roughly 30 mpg combined fuel economy-a six-speed manual, 16-inch wheels with 215/65 Pirelli P6 tires, and a new Haldex 4 all-wheel-drive system (dubbed 4Motion), the last utilizing a wet multiplate clutch and electronic, rather than mechanical, sensors to detect slippage and engage all-wheel drive. Two of the cars also came with a “Track & Field” package, which adds a different front fascia to accommodate a 28-degree approach angle, and an Offroad Mode that utilizes ABS, the Haldex, the throttle, and both hill descent and climb features. In total, five ECUs manage this off-road system.
American customers will not get the Twincharger nor the “Track & Field” package (at least not initially) and will instead be treated to “Sport & Style” Tiguans (replete with an 18-degree approach angle and no Offroad Mode) fitted with VW’s robust 2.0-liter, 200-horsepower turbo four, a six-speed manual or Aisin automatic (the latter will be replaced by a six-speed DSG a year or so after making its debut), electromechanical power steering, an electronic parking brake, and all-wheel drive (front-drive Tiguans may be added later). Seeing that few Americans ever really venture off-road, the “Sport & Style” approach seems to be the wise choice. Available options will include a panoramic moonroof, 17- and 18-inch wheels, an eight-speaker 300-watt Dynaudio sound system, Park Assist (automatic steering into a parking space), and a new Siemens RNS 510 radio/navigation system, which includes a 6.5-inch touch screen, a 30GB hard drive, and off-road navigation that allows up to 500 route points to be recorded during a journey.
Measuring 174.3 inches long, 71.2 inches wide, and 66.3 inches tall, the Tiguan is bit smaller overall than a Honda CR-V, which spans 178.0 x 71.6 x 66.1. But looks can be deceiving. The Tiguan, with a 102.5-inch wheelbase (the CR-V’s is 103.1 in), is still quite roomy inside-6-plus footers get plenty of headroom and legroom whether up front or in back-boasting a 60/40-split back seat that slides forward and reclines, not only increasing comfort for passengers but also making the 16.6 cubic feet of cargo space expandable. As is typical of canggih Volkswagens, the Tiguan features a high-quality interior full of rich plastics and tight tolerances.
Using VW’s PQ46 modular platform, which is a modified Passat architecture with some bits from the Rabbit, the Tiguan weighs an estimated 3400 pounds, about 100 pounds less than a similarly equipped CR-V. The structure feels extremely stiff, and in conjunction with the torquey powertrain and front MacPherson strut/rear multilink suspension, it can move and shake with the best small crossovers on the market.
Out on Namibia’s dusty, dirt roads and rocky, steep pathways, the Tiguan proved it can take a serious beating. Traversing an intimidating boulder-strewn stretch that would give a Range Rover a workout, the Tiguan managed to articulate its way through, despite incessant scraping and banging on the underside that was as disturbing as 10 Lee press-ons scuffing a chalkboard. With 7.3 inches of ground clearance and no low range, the Tiguan is not exactly intended for Rubicon-style fare; rather, its appetite is for soft-roading, as in snow, sand, and dirt. Nevertheless, we proved that if incurring light damage (dents, scratches, and even a punctured oil pan on a “Sport & Style” example sans skid plates) is okay, the Tiguan can overcome some of Namibia’s worst. Further, after clipping a few hundred miles on coarse, dirt highways and swallowing more dust than a Shop-Vac, the Tiguan showed it can be a proficient back-roader, displaying excellent body control, a compliant ride, and accurate steering free from kickbacks (unlike hydraulic systems, the Tiguan’s electromechanical steering erases that unwanted feedback).
Volkswagen hopes to sell around 40,000 Tiguans a year in the U.S.-a far cry from the 200,000 or so CR-Vs that Honda moves-priced at around $25,000 to start. With modest sales expectations, a completely competent package, not to mention a 2.0-liter Bluetec diesel slated for the end of ’08, the Tiguan should have little struggle experiencing success in America. After all, if an SUV can show success in Namibia, it can be successful just about anywhere.