VW gets serious: 2009 Tiguan S

Americans fell in love with the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1960s, but VW did almost everything it could to alienate their affections, from erratic product quality to the  absence of cupholders.  And did anybody mention the ill-starred $70,000 Phaeton?

Now, after 40 years of starts, stops and incompletes, VW, the largest auto producer in Europe,  is finally getting serious about the U.S. market again.  It is starting to pay attention to the wants and needs of American customers; it’s building an assembly plant in Tennessee to protect itself from currency fluctuations; and it is reworking its product line with American tastes in mind. The results of its efforts are showing up in the monthly sales reports. While overall U.S. sales fell 15.5% in August, VW’s were up a fraction of a point.

One of the reasons for the increase is the 2009 VW Tiguan, a compact crossover sport utility that went on sale a few months ago.  Except for its weird (and apparently meaningless) name, the Tiguan sets no new standards for anything.  But it adds a VW branded vehicle to a fast-growing product segment (Honda sells some 20,000 units a month of the CR-V) in an attractive package for an attractive price — $24,200 for the model I tested.

Inside and out,  my silver metallic Tiguan S, which was made in VW’s ancestral home of Wolfsburg, Germany,  gleamed with the attention to detail for which VW is rightly renowned. The exterior was handsome without being attention-getting, and the interior was crafted to VW’s customary levels – which are bit higher than most of its competitors.

Powered by a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that put out 200 horsepower, and combined with a slick six-speed manual transmission, the Tiguan produced all the pep I needed.  At 3426 pounds, it is a relative lightweight — compared to its Touareg garage mate that weighs in at 5299 pounds —  and Road & Track has clocked it getting to 60 miles per hour in a respectable 7.8 seconds. The EPA figures you’ll get 19 miles per gallon in city driving, 26 miles per gallon on the highway.

Based on early reports, the next couple of VW models to reach these shores won’t be so finely attuned to U.S. buyers.  One is a rebadged Chrysler minivan with another weird name (Routan); the other a stretched Passat called the CC that likely will have to fight it out with Audis and BMWs. But new diesel-powered VWs on the way will find a welcome audience with economy-minded drivers and should maintain the momentum of VW’s American renaissance.

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