2012 Volkswagen Tiguan UTE

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The classy “little” Tiguan has it all, right down to the so-cool LED surrounds around the headlights.
The classy “little” Tiguan has it all, right down to the so-cool LED surrounds around the headlights.

The Volkswagen Group continues on its quest for world domination. The humble “People’s Car” of pre-war Germany spawned a juggernaut that now owns—among many other things—Bugatti, Bentley, Lamborghini, Audi, SEAT and Skoda, as well as Volkswagen, and this year it acquired not only Porsche but also Ducati, the premium Italian motorcycle maker. (Imagine Thanksgiving dinner at this family table!)

Most of us have never laid eyes on a Bugatti, rarely see Lambos and Bentleys, maybe encounter Audis or Porsches at the doctor’s office, and Skodas and SEATs aren’t available here. VWs, though, such as this Tiguan, are still the people’s cars.

Today’s German sedans, sports cars and even SUVs set the bar for luxury, performance and technology, and for sticker shock, too. VWs, on the other hand, deliver German automotive sophistication at prices that line up with mass-market vehicles from Japan, Detroit and Korea.

It’s almost uncanny. A GTI hot hatch, for example, not only echoes other, much more expensive and deluxe German cars, it somehow also feels like a direct descendant of VWs built 40 years ago. Believe me, I was there, in my 1971 Squareback. The Tiguan could be the modern counterpart to that old Type 3 VW—twice as big, more than twice as powerful and with twice as many driven wheels, but spiritually much the same sort of nimble, useful and pleasing wagon.

This is a long and possibly tiresome way to say that the Tiguan is a terrific car and a truly German car, too—born of a culture that reveres engineering, sweats the details and thinks legal speed limits are for dopes. The Tiguan drives with a delightful crispness that eludes most of its competitors, the CR-Vs, RAV4s, Santa Fes, Equinoxes, Sorentos, Escapes and so on that are slugging it out in the Small Ute category.

“Delightful crispness,” however, may not mean much to a crazed parent who’s chauffeuring kids from school to violin lessons while ordering takeout and scheduling meetings by Bluetooth, in bad weather and heavy traffic and on a budget. She or he needs an affordable, all-wheel-drive, all-around beast of burden designed to cope with the urban and suburban grind. The Tiguan is that, too.

(The Tiguan, BTW, were a mysterious, now-vanished race of nomadic pygmy warriors of the Sahara Desert, sort of smaller cousins to the Touareg. I think.)

With its squared-off corners and compact footprint, the tall Tiguan is dead-easy to maneuver and park even without the available rearview camera. There’s ample space for three lanky teenagers plus groceries or sports gear. The hassle of climbing into a third row of seats doesn’t exist because there isn’t one, but the second row folds down easily to make more room. The tailgate is well-suspended, so it goes up and down with two fingers, and the load deck sits at just the right height. Particularly under the enormous double sunroof, the car feels as spacious and airy as a greenhouse.

With the standard 200-horsepower turbomotor and a 6-speed manual gearbox, Tiguan prices start in the low twenties. If you want the multi-mode 6-speed automatic transmission, the aquarium sunroof, the touchscreen and the satnav and other toys (and you probably do), figure on laying out about nine grand more than that. Then you’ll not only be able to perform the family chores, but also ferry clients around without shame and knock off 250-mile highway sprints in Germanic safety and comfort, all at somewhere between about 22 and 28 miles per gallon. Just one caveat: If you’re used to a squishy suspension, the Tiguan’s ride will feel quite firm, maybe even rock-hard.

Back in the 1970s, when terms like “sport-utility vehicle” and “crossover” hadn’t been coined, a Tiguan would have looked impossibly large next to every other VW save the Microbus, and its comfort, spaciousness and sci-fi features would have been sensational. Today, we take all this for granted, but it’s easy to see how VW just might become the world’s largest auto company.