Bred to pinch sales from the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 – North America’s favourite crossover SUVs – Volkswagen’s overdue contender was first and foremost a refined driving machine saddled with an odd-sounding badge.
Let’s get the origins of that inscrutable name sorted out first. The etymology of Tiguan is the inexplicable fusion of the words “tiger” and “leguan” (German for iguana), which was the abomination of choice by readers of Auto Bild magazine in Germany.
If it sounds like an improbable winner, just consider the other contenders in the contest: Nanuk, Namib, Rockton and Samun. Daft Punk didn’t make the list for some reason.
Regardless of what Volkswagen called its all-new-for-2009 compact crossover, you could be certain of two things: (a) it would be rewarding to drive, and (b) no moniker could be worse than Touareg, the Tig’s big brother.
Features and powertrains
Like lots of models in the VW stable, the Tiguan was spun off from the front-drive Golf and Passat platforms, with all-wheel-drive running gear cobbled together for 4MOTION models (the base model was front-drive only).
Engineers specified an electro-mechanical steering system mounted to the rack instead of the steering column, which helped eliminate kickback at the driver’s hands. Other tech features included electronic stability control, a trailer stability program and an electronic parking brake with auto-hold function for hill starts.
The five-door Tiguan gave up a little space inside to the larger CR-V and other compact crossovers. Still, its tall seating provided ample legroom front and rear, and the split-folding rear bench even slid fore and aft to mitigate the space requirements between occupants and their cargo.
“Very comfortable seats, and easy to hop in and out. The step-in height is perfect. Great visibility,” summed up one Tiguan owner of the environment inside. It provided standard height adjustment for the passenger seat, a feature that isn’t always available on Asian models (looking at you, Subaru). A massive, optional glass roof panel with an integrated sunroof kept the interior sunny and warm – ideal for iguanas.
In Europe, where the Tiguan sold like bratwurst at a biergarten, buyers had a choice of three gasoline engines and two diesels. No such luck on this side of the pond. VW sent just one: its familiar turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0 L four-cylinder gasoline engine, good for 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. The Tiguan could tow one metric tonne with gusto.
Buyers could choose between six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, the latter gracing 4MOTION models exclusively. The Haldex all-wheel-drive system used a multi-plate centre clutch controlled by a computer that monitored the ABS wheel-speed sensors’ information for signs of slippage. It’s capable of dispatching all torque to either axle as required. As is usually the case with these compact utes, there’s no low-range gearing.
In U.S. government collision testing, the Tiguan received four out of five stars for overall crash protection, with three stars for total frontal impact protection and five stars for side impact protection.
The Tiguan was allowed to age gracefully with minimal massaging over the next seven model years. All versions of the 2012 Tiguan received some exterior styling updates plus tweaks to the automatic transmission that boosted highway fuel economy. Top-of-the-line SEL models earned new 19-inch alloy wheels, adaptive xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights.
By 2016, a bunch of extra features had migrated to the standard-equipment list to keep the Tiguan relevant and competitive, including a rearview camera, premium vinyl upholstery, heated front seats and keyless ignition. The first-generation Tig finally bows out at the end of 2017.
Driving the Tiguan
The lighter front-drive base Tiguan could sprint to highway velocity in 7.3 seconds, while the fully loaded 4MOTION model required 7.1 seconds to do the deed with its conventional automatic slushbox. Doesn’t quite add up? Consider that results may vary with the 2.0T engine.
Dynamically, one magazine called the Tiguan a “GTI on stilts,” an apt description with the hot hatch’s suspension geometry making the transition to the crossover. The steering was ideally weighted and accurate, making it easy to place the little ute in a turn. Brake feel and performance were excellent.
“Handles like a much smaller car, and is just a pleasure to drive and use,” read one owner’s post online. It’s a popular sentiment.
In a published comparo of eight 2010-model-year compact SUVs, the Tiguan finished a strong second, beaten only by the V6-powered RAV4. Editors deducted points for the Tig’s “dimwitted” automatic transmission and its noisy powertrain.
Many owners commented online saying the little engine could be reasonably frugal or quite piggish, depending on how far the accelerator is pushed. It’s a common lament of turbocharging. And that’s premium fuel, please.
Imported from Wolfsburg, Germany, the Tiguan was quickly embraced by volks willing to pay a premium for Teutonic engineering and design. There’s not a line or crease out of place and the crossover drives straight and true. The posh interior earned rave reviews.
However, Volkswagen’s build quality can be spotty, especially for second-hand buyers who often don’t have the benefit of a warranty. VW has traditionally ranked poorly in J.D. Power’s seminal dependability studies. The 2.0T turbo gasoline engine uses a timing chain for durability, but it has exhibited issues relating to the lower timing chain tensioner.
“My 2011 Tiguan tensioner failed. VW knows it’s a faulty part, won't help. My entire engine is seized,” reads a tweet from an upset owner. An early version of this tensioner may fail. When that happens, it can cause the intake or exhaust valves to contact the piston while the engine is running, bending the valves.
The cylinder head would have to be removed and the valves replaced, which is typically a $2,000 to $4,000 repair bill, depending on the damage done. There is a TSI tensioner update kit available to owners of older Tiguans and other VWs that use this engine.
Another reported mechanical issue that has aggravated owners is a broken plastic intake manifold, which can present drivability issues. Failed ignition coils and short-lived fuel injectors and fuel pumps are commonplace – the warning sign is usually stalling at speed – as are faulty sensors and other electrical bugaboos.
The remote keyless entry transmitter may quit working due to a synchronization issue. Squeaking brakes are a common gripe, which some dealers claim is resolved with thorough cleaning. Coolant and other fluid leaks are not unknown.
The Tiguan impresses with its thoughtful engineering and its refined, fun-to-drive character. But it can disappoint with higher – much higher – repair costs post-warranty. Keeping exotic pets is costly.
2009-16 Volkswagen Tiguan
Typical price range: $11,000 - $33,000
> Robust construction
> Talented chassis
> European flare
> Small cargo space
> No diesel
> Turbo engine costly to repair
Things to Watch Out For:
> Engine stalling, rattling or chugging
> Faulty fuel and water pumps
> Oil consumption
> Transmission sluggish
> Lit warning lamps
> Electrical faults.