A funny thing happened when the second-generation Volkswagen Tiguan went on sale: it was a hit. Oh sure, the Tiguan (a nonsense portmanteau of, we kid you not, “tiger” and “iguana”) is a bit player in the huge compact crossover segment, but when VW phased out the old model in 2017 and introduced the new model in 2018, sales went from 47,000 units to 103,000. Like we said, a hit.
We didn't need 700 miles of highway driving to understand why consumers have bought over 100,000 Tiguans annually since that 2018 model year, but then Volkswagen invited us to a winter drive of the new Golf R in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and offered a 2021 Tiguan for the journey. Here's what we learned after driving up and down Interstate 75 for nine hours in a range-topping SEL Premium R-Line.
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The Tiguan is due for a refresh in 2022, but we only say that because it's what the calendar dictates. The current exterior is clean and attractive but isn’t nearly as dull as the US-spec Passat, while the cabin is a simple place chock full of high-quality materials and pleasant detailing (in contrast to the more expensive and simultaneously cheaper Atlas).
The exterior's crisp, straight lines contrast with pleasant styling elements, such as the faux side grilles on the front fender and the detailing in the LED headlights. Gloss-black accents in the sporty front and rear fascias, exclusive to the R-Line trim, match neatly with our tester's Pure White paint. That same trim includes flashy 20-inch wheels, a full inch larger than on the standard SEL. This is a nice crossover, with none of the polarizing flair present in the competition. That's neither a good or bad thing, but it is refreshing.
Speaking of polarizing, the Saffrono and Black leather upholstery is, um… it's a look. The upholstery is vivid, almost lurid, like an overzealous mix of classic tan and red coloring, although it does broadly match the tin of saffron sitting in our spice rack. The color scheme the most eye-catching element in a cabin that relies on simple, logical design and high-quality materials instead of excessive tinsel. The thin-spoked, flat-bottom steering wheel, upright center stack, and conventional layout for the various climate controls are both unique in today's market and are easy to adjust to. Again, this is just a nice place to hang out.
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Driving a vehicle 700 miles means becoming intimately familiar with things like seat comfort and noise control. Thankfully, the Tiguan impresses on both counts. The front seats feel like they could have come from a GTI, offering up huge support via the thick side bolsters and ample adjustments. In particular, leg support is excellent and the seatback is so good we barely fiddled with the lumbar. There's plenty of padding too, so our stomach and bladder dictated when we stopped rather than a need to get out and stretch.
Your author made the northerly trek alone, so the backseat's only occupants were a pair of muddy duckboots and a backpack. Still, throwing open those rear doors exposes plenty of legroom. With the driver's seat set for a 6-foot-2 driver, the rear bench is a capacious place. Volkswagen quotes 38.7 inches of second-row legroom, which is a figure only a few vehicles in the class can beat (we're looking at you Honda CR-V and your 40.4 inches). And on the cargo front, our two-row Tiguan offers up 37.6 cubic feet with the seats in place and 73.5 with them folded. Both numbers upstage the otherwise roomy Honda.
With an average speed during our test of 60 miles per hour, the Tiguan had every opportunity to show off its impressive noise, vibration, and harshness controls. Even the stiff breeze that blows through the straits of Mackinac failed to get into the cabin, sonically or otherwise. The ride was comfortable, even with the big 20-inch wheels, as the VW shrugged off mild to moderate impacts and exhibited excellent high-speed stability. As road-trip cars go, this is a fine one.
If you're looking for an excuse to wait for the updated 2022 Tiguan, the infotainment system is a good one. The current car's setup, with an 8.0-inch touchscreen running MIB3 software, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a pair of USB-C ports, is more than adequate, but it's not too pretty. The new OS found in the ID.4 and Golf R – and likely making its way to the Tiguan following its upcoming mid-cycle update – is a substantial graphical upgrade.
In terms of responsiveness and ease of use, though, there's very little wrong with the Tiguan's screen, especially if you just cast it aside and rely on Apple CarPlay, as we did. Connecting wirelessly was a breeze and over two solid days of driving, we didn't experience a single lapse in our connection. It was perfect.
We're happy VW has made the switch to USB-C ports, too. Yes, yes, everyone has USB-As and buying replacement cords is annoying. But the newer inputs are easier to use (there's no wrong way up when plugging in) and delivered a quick charge – we took our iPhone 12 Pro from 20 percent to 65 percent in just half an hour of driving.
Volkswagen's Digital Cockpit remains the segment's best all-digital instrument cluster. The reconfigurable 10.0-inch display is like a mostly better version of Audi Virtual Cockpit, with more options for displaying information, including three different viewing modes. The fidelity is a little low, and we missed the Google Maps from the Audi version, but we're hopeful that VW will address both issues in the Tiguan's facelift.
Every Tiguan features a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, although, after our long drive, we were surprised by its modest output. While there’s only 184 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque to manage 3,800 pounds of crossover, it feels far stronger on the road. Peak torque arrives at just 1,600 rpm, giving the Tiguan an eager attitude off the line that doesn't really fade as engine speeds climb. It's an open secret that the GTI is underrated, and based on the Tiguan's performance, especially from 40 to 70 miles per hour, we wouldn't be surprised if this crossover was too.
Throttle response from the 2.0-liter engine deserves some of the praise too, as it's a cinch to modulate the otherwise revvy behavior. Like so many other vehicles Volkswagen Group products with the EA888 four-cylinder, there's a refined, smooth engine note to go along with the zippy performance.
Unlike the Jetta we tested a few months back, the Tiguan's engine is far more in sync with the eight-speed automatic transmission. The predictable engagement off the line matches with smooth, spot-on shifts once underway.
Handling isn't a forte of compact crossovers and the Tiguan is no exception. In short, it's just fine. The Tiguan feels tidy in the corners, with predictable roll but a detached demeanor. Squat and dive rarely feel problematic, while overall stability at speed is high. This VW is a mid-pack entry when it comes to cornering, which is more than enough for most folks. The same is true of the brakes and steering, which both offer predictable, but not invigorating, performance. The former has a pleasant pedal feel and a good range of travel, while the weighting on the latter is adequate for the Tiguan's size.
Our range-topping Tiguan comes standard with Volkswagen's entire suite of active safety gear. Headlining items include adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. While we happily avoided testing the AEB system, we relied heavily on the adaptive cruise control during our long highway journey. It performed flawlessly, offering up smooth acceleration. Traffic was so light, though, that we rarely got to see how it handled sudden lane intrusions.
The broader safety suite is good but not great. Lane keeping assist is also standard but lacks the forcefulness or ability to instill confidence that you'll find in a Honda CR-V and its Sensing suite. We'd like to feel a little more steering assistance to help reduce the strain on boring highway drives. The Tiguan would have earned higher marks in this category if it had some sort of Traffic Jam Assistant or lane-centering technology.
The EPA rates our all-wheel-drive-equipped Tiguan at 21 miles per gallon city, 27 highway, and 24 combined. That combined figure is well short of our target for this segment of 32 mpg. That said, over the course of our 709-mile journey the VW recorded a computer-indicated 29.3 miles per gallon, 2.3 points above its EPA figure. That's despite the liberal use of the adaptive cruise control and the generous 75-mph zones in the northern part of Michigan, both of which contributed to the high average speed of 60 mph.
The Tiguan, like its competitors, drinks 87-octane fuel. Speaking of those rivals, most beat the Tiguan's combined fuel economy. Both the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V net 29 mpg combined, the Nissan Rogue will hit 28, the turbocharged Chevrolet Equinox earns 27, and the four-cylinder Ford Escape hits 26. Only the turbocharged (and substantially more powerful) Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Santa Fe fall to 24 mpg combined, and they both have a one-point advantage in either city or highway fuel economy.
Prices for the 2021 Tiguan start at $25,245, not including an $1,195 destination charge. All-wheel drive is a $1,300 option on all trims, except on our range-topping SEL Premium R-Line, which isn't available with two-wheel drive. Snagging this ritzy trim means cutting a check for $40,290, which is quite a lot indeed. Working in the Tiguan's favor, though, are its complete lack of optional extras. That's a boon for consumers.
But there are still more affordable competitors. The Mazda CX-5 Signature has a better interior, is more enjoyable to drive, packs substantially more power, and costs about $1,100 less. The Honda CR-V Touring has a better safety suite and a roomier second row, along with a price that's nearly $3,600 more affordable. And the Nissan Rogue, our highest-ranked vehicle to date, is $2,200 cheaper. We appreciate that everything is standard on this top-end Tiguan – it's a big reason the score here is so good – but that doesn't change the fact that this VW feels like a poor value relative to the competition.
Tiguan Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Volkswagen Tiguan: Review
2021 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium R-Line