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Crossover stays true

2014 Volkswagen Tiguan

As a parent, time passes all too quickly. As a small Volkswagen crossover, don't worry, it's still 2008.

That was the year the Volkswagen Tiguan was officially introduced, and the last time anything really significant changed about it. Six generations on, it's still a Golf-on-stilts.

Sales have been good, what with the crossover market booming, and while Volkswagen is one of the only companies out there to offer a genuine small wagon, the Tiguan is very popular. With a new platform for the Golf not on the way until next year, the 2014 model hopes to continue its strong selling trend.

Trouble is, the market's moved on and grown up.

Everyone's got a play in the lucrative crossover game, and with a new model fielded by pretty much every Japanese, American and Korean manufacturer, the Tiguan now finds itself beset by fresh-faced competitors on all sides.

Its name, by the way, comes from a mashup of "Tiger" and "Iguana." So, is this little vehicle still a feral big cat, or just a lumpylooking lizard? Design Despite its relative age, the Tiguan still looks fairly fresh and attractive. It sits low over the sport package's 18-inch alloys, and the twotone bodywork tricks the eye into thinking it's smaller than it really is.

Up front, Volkswagen's broad grille and LED-ringed headlights echo the looks of the larger, award-winning Tourareg. Seen from the side, the Tiguan is much nimbler-looking than some of the competition, and less fussy.

Here's where Volkswagen's designs can get away with a few years of maturation. Where some other wilder stylings rely on constantly updated refreshing to look new and interesting, Volkswagen pretty consistently puts out cars that could be called conservative or, if you're feeling uncharitable, bland.

But that's not meant to be an epithet. A touch of reserve means that the car you just drove off the lot won't look immediately outdated next year, when your neighbour picks up the latest update.

There are some niceties as well. For instance, Volkswagen does not sell this machine without foglights - you don't get stuck with the horrible plastic filler pieces that let everyone know you didn't want to pony up the dough for the higher trim model. Sixteen-inch alloys are standard, 17-inch on the mid-trim, and 18-inch on the top-spec Highline.

Environment Anyone making their way up the Volkswagen food chain from college-beater-GTI to married-with-Golf to kid-on-the-way-needcrossover will find the inside of the Tiguan immediately familiar and comforting. If you're not a Volkswagen fan, it's still pretty good.

The ergonomics, for instance, are more upright than some others in the segment, giving good forward visibility. Rear blind spots are acceptable, and certainly better than most of the rest of the segment.

The dashboard layout is very straightforward and devoid of the acres of bubbling shiny plastic that happens when designers forget about usability. There are cubby-holes aplenty, a dash-top tray of dubious usefulness, and a satisfying Germanic sensibility about the placing of controls and vents.

For instance, the four adjustable circular air-vents accessible by the driver can be set up perfectly to keep your hands warm on a cold and frosty morning. Not everyone gets this little stuff right, but Volkswagen does here.

The front seats are a little on the firm side, but comfortable. The rear seats also offer good leg room, but three-abreast makes for a VW sardine tin. Two car seats and an adult? No flippin' way.

The trunk too, is a bit on the small side, at just 674 litres. Naturally, everything folds relatively flattish, but if it's cargo-carrying capacity that's leading you into this segment, the Tiguan's smaller size next to its competitors can be a detriment.

Performance On their homepage, Volkswagen has this to say about the Tiguan's only engine option: "With 200 horsepower, this engine was designed to be one thing and one thing only: powerful."

If we're being picky, we might point out that everyone from Hyundai to Cadillac makes a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that's significantly more punchy than the venerable 200-horse VW powerplant. Perhaps they should also have designed it to be efficient.

This is the same engine that Volkswagen sticks in everything from the GTI to the Beetle, and it's at least interesting in the way it delivers the power. There's a huge rush of torque at low revs, and not as much turbolag as you might expect - it's almost like a diesel. It's also a tad loud - sounds like a diesel too.

Trouble is, the six-speed automatic transmission has most certainly been tuned for efficiency. This is a regular tiptronic automatic, not VW's dual-clutch directshift gearbox (DSG), and while it can be manually shifted, it's a bit lazy about making gear changes.

The result is a car that handles well, but has had all the edges smoothed off. Even with the optional Sport package, the Tiguan is not a backroads killer, but more of an everyday comfortmobile with a little bit of VW flavour to it.

Again, it's a Golf-onstilts, not a GTI-on-stilts, so don't be fooled by the turbocharger. The Tiguan will certainly out-perform a CRV or RAV4, but it's not as sharp as a CX-5, and an Escape with the 2.0-litre Ecoboost turbo will run away from it on the straights.

But just listen to how nonsensical that sounds: "run away from it on the straights." As if such a contest would ever occur outside of a rental car agency. This isn't a car for the track.

As it's smaller than some of its competitors, the Tiguan is as nimble as it looks, and while the steering feel and transmission shifting is set up for everyday schlepping, it is fun to drive. Volkswagen's aiming for the Goldilocks middle here, hoping to please both their enthusiast base and their more-sensible spouses.

The only issue is that both the four-door GTI and the big-trunked GLI both exist and offer not much less practicality and more performance. Both would be worth a look before making the leap to crossoverhood.

Features Standard features for the Tiguan are quite good considering its entry-level $24,990 price tag. A manual transmission is available in front-drive models, and it would wake that 2.0-litre turbo up somewhat.

All models get a smart leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, upgraded models with multifunction buttons. An on-board trip computer is standard.

My mid-grade Comfortline tester came with the Sport package's upgraded 18-inch alloys and sport suspension, both of which improve handling at the expense of ride. Also part of the $1,700 package were bi-Xenon adaptive front headlights, which came with LED running lights.

The $2,300 Technology package was also present, comprising navigation, a 300-watt stereo and a backup camera. While the Tiguan is easy enough to park, the latter should really be a standard feature in this segment.

Newly available for 2014 is the R-Line package, which adds 19-inch alloys and unique fender flares and badging for a sportier look. It'll set you back a not-inconsiderable $2,750 on the top-spec Highline trim, meaning that it's now possible to option this small crossover into the mid-$40K range. Great-looking, yet expensive.

Official fuel ratings are at 12.0 litres/100 kilometres city and 7.7 l/100 km highway. Premium fuel is also recommended - ouch. However, Volkswagen seems to be one of the more honest companies regarding fuel ratings, and the Tiguan does actually return consumption very close to the official numbers, even without hypermiling techniques.

Green light Torquey engine; handsome, conservative styling; and good handling.

Stop sign Dated chassis; lazy transmission; steering tuned for light effort over feel; and steep pricing.

The checkered flag Tiger? Iguana? More like a German Shepherd crossed with a labradoodle. A sensible Golf with a taller look.

Competitors Mazda CX-5 ($22,995) Of all the competitor brands out there, Mazda is probably the closest to Volkswagen in terms of its slightly-upmarket pricing and enthusiastic fan base. Their CX-5 crossover might not have turbo power, but it's tough to beat in this segment.

A high-compression four cylinder displacing 2.5-litre makes for 184 h.p., and with sharp steering and a willing chassis, the CX-5 is plenty of fun to drive.

The base 2.0-litre models are more about efficiency than speed, but at least there's a choice.

Even with their Skyactiv technology, the Mazda offering doesn't quite have the torque of the Volkswagen's turbo.

It also won't quite please someone who's grown to love the overall feel of the VW brand.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, contact him at @brendan_mcaleer