HERNDON, Virginia (AP) -- Volkswagen's first compact SUV, the 2009 Tiguan, has a standout interior, European-style ride and a starting price tag that's lower than all other European SUVs sold in America.
Indeed, the Tiguan's manufacturer's suggested retail price including destination charge of $23,890 is some $16,335 less than that of the competing 2009 BMW X3. It's also far less than the $40,000-plus starting price of VW's only other SUV, the 2009 Touareg.
The base Tiguan S is a two-wheel drive model with 200-horsepower, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. A Tiguan S with automatic transmission starts at $24,990, while an all-wheel drive Tiguan starts at $29,565.
To be sure, Tiguan prices are higher than the starting retail prices of many Japanese SUVs.
For example, the 2009 Honda CR-V starts at $21,765 with two-wheel drive, while the 2009 Mazda CX-7 starts at $24,550.
But the Tiguan comes with more standard features. It also has more engine power than what's provided in the base CR-V, though the CX-7 develops 244 horses out of its turbocharged, 2.3-liter four cylinder.
It's just too bad that the Tiguan's fuel mileage rating isn't better.
Based on a modified platform of the VW Rabbit car, the Tiguan with two-wheel drive and automatic transmission is rated at 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. This is less than even a four-wheel drive CR-V with a 20/26 mpg ranking.
Plus, pricey premium gasoline is required for the Tiguan, so a fill-up of the 16.8-gallon tank could cost more than $60 these days.
But a diesel engine offering for the Tiguan, expected to come next year, likely will help boost fuel mileage substantially.
Admittedly, the Tiguan joins the U.S. compact SUV market late, given that Toyota's compact RAV4 debuted a dozen years ago and the Ford Escape has been around since 2000. But the timing is good since Americans are looking at smaller vehicles now and the compact SUV segment is relatively healthy.
The Tiguan is the same width and height as a CR-V, but it's 3.6 inches shorter in length and has a slightly smaller wheelbase of 102.5 inches.
This makes for a maneuverable vehicle that in the test drive felt nimble and manageable. The Tiguan was easy to park, and while seats are positioned high enough to afford good views out over cars, the vehicle doesn't feel or look like a towering behemoth.
I just had to turn and slide onto the firm, supportive seat cushions to get into the front seats. In the back seat, I scooted upward a bit, because the second-row seat cushions are higher than those for the front seats.
But be careful when backing up. It is difficult to see what's directly behind the rear bumper, and an optional rearview camera is available only on uplevel SE and SEL models.
Unlike a lot of other SUVs, the Tiguan doesn't offer a third row of seats, and cargo volume is a roomy, yet not too big, 56.1 cubic feet when the second row seats are folded down. This compares with 72.9 cubic feet in the longer-length CR-V and 58.6 cubic feet in the longer-length CX-7.
Second-row seats in the Tiguan have six inches of travel fore and aft to help adjust legroom back there for both short- and tall-stature passengers.
In the test vehicle, I heard the Tiguan engine every time I accelerated, and I had to adjust to the harder-than-expected push needed on the accelerator pedal. I noticed a slight turbo lag but enjoyed the surge of engine power that came on immediately after. There's no turbo gauge in the Tiguan, but there's a palpable feeling of "oomph" as the torque peaks at 207 foot-pounds at a low 1,700 rpm and continues to 5,000 rpm.
This compares with 161 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm in the 166-horsepower, four-cylinder CR-V.
The test car came with the six-speed automatic with shift points programmed for good performance. The Tiguan is one of the few in the segment to offer a manual transmission, which has six gears.
As expected in a VW, braking power is strong.
The Tiguan didn't attract attention from passersby, and I suspect if the VW badge wasn't on the grille, people wouldn't know what car brand it was.
But they would know more if they drove the Tiguan. Despite some body motions in the curves, the Tiguan held its line well in aggressive turns and on off-camber roads, and there was a sense of solid construction to the body.
With 16-inch tires on the test Tiguan S, passengers felt road bumps all the time, but it was mostly because of the stiff ride as the wheels roll over road imperfections. Larger 17- and 18-inch tires also are available.
The test Tiguan developed an annoying rattle by the driver sun visor that wouldn't go away, and air vents on the dashboard seemed a bit small. The center armrest in the rear seat was weird. Basically, the whole middle seatback, with head restraint, flopped onto the seat cushion.
Nearly all safety equipment is standard, including frontal and curtain air bags and antilock brakes. Rear-seat side air bags are optional.
In a May safety recall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 2,500 early production Tiguans needed to be checked for engine control software that might cause engine surge when the air conditioning is on. Officials, fearing a surge might surprise drivers and cause them to lose control, ordered that the software be updated.