words: Bryan Joslin

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If you're going to show up late to the party, you'd better at least bring something worth waiting for. A decade or so after Toyota and Honda arrived on the scene with their appealing car-based compact SUVs, Volkswagen has finally arrived with its homemade treat in hand, the 2008 Tiguan. But if you're thinking, "Yeah, the world really needs a re-bodied and lifted Golf," then guess again.

It's true the Tiguan shares a fair chunk of its mechanical bits with the current Golf (er... Rabbit), but while the overall look is unmistakably Volkswagen, nothing about it says "Golf." Instead, it looks every bit like a junior Touareg. It feels like it too; the interior is trademark VW, with high-quality surfaces everywhere. Well, just about everywhere - the center stack is finished in a faux-titanium silver, painted over smooth plastic, that not only doesn't match the genuine metal door handles, but also looks borrowed from any entry-level Asian car. It's the one dark spot in an otherwise brilliant cabin.

The cabin is ideally suited to adventure pursuits. Useful details like an air-conditioned glovebox, overhead storage binnacles, sliding storage bins under the front seats, one-liter bottle holders in the front door pockets, and even aircraft-style picnic trays on the front seatbacks are what we expect from the thoughtful Germans, and the Tiguan delivers them. The optional navigation system is an entirely new unit for Tiguan and features touch-screen inputs and 3D viewpoints; the seriously trail-ready models includes off-road navigation functions that stores up to 500 waypoints.

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Thanks to the tall roofline and extended greenhouse that define the Tiguan as a mini-ute instead of a jacked-up hatchback, interior space and versatility are exceptional. The rear hatch is deep if not long, but the 60:40 split rear seats slide forward a full six inches to enlarge the cargo hold. That's not their only trick either; they also offer twenty-three degrees of vertical adjustment. Unlike the Golf, the Tiguan perches its driver and passengers high, offering superb visibility in all from any seat. But the best view of all may be the one through the massive panoramic moonroof, four times as large as a standard sunroof.

Volkswagen will offer three distinct option packages (Trend & Fun, Sport & Style, and Track & Field) in Europe with a variety of gas and diesel engines, all of which will feature forced induction of one sort or another. When the Tiguan arrives in the States next spring, it will be powered by the familiar 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo that moves the GTI. VW will offer front-wheel-drive versions with a choice of six-speed transmissions, either manual or automatic, but 4Motion all-wheel-drive variants will get only the autobox. We get to skip the cutesy package names, though; instead we'll get a standard-level S model (similar to Trend & Fun) and an upgraded SE (very much like Sport & Style). And we won't get the Track & Field model at all, with its unique front bumper that allows a 28-degree approach angle and one-touch off-road button for optimal maneuverability.

We sampled a European-market Trend & Fun with 4Motion and a manual transmission, powered by the 1.4-liter TSI engine. By pairing a supercharger with a turbocharger, the little sixteen-valver makes the power and torque of a much bigger motor, putting out 150 horses and 200 lb-ft of torque. But like so much else on our Tiguan tester, it won't be coming to our shores, either. Despite the not-for-this-market powertrain combination, we still got a good sense of what this little trucklet is all about.

The solidity of the Tiguan's body structure is apparent within the first few kilometers. It's tight and quiet and has a Teutonic heft that you feel through the seats and steering wheel and brake pedal. The suspension strikes a nice balance between ride and handling for a vehicle like this; it leans far less in corners than its competitors and yet feels confident, even sophisticated, on the rough stuff. In the countryside skirting Budapest, the Tiguan tackled winding forest roads with the poise of a small sports sedan, understeering mildly when the line sharpened, but falling back in step at the mere release of the throttle. On the bumpy brick and stone streets in the heart of this old Eastern Bloc city, the large-diameter tires easily absorbed small bumps.

Thanks to the generous amount of travel offered by its off-road suspension, bigger bumps, like hopping curbs to escape the insanity of local bus drivers (they actually bumped and dented one of our colleagues' cars when he couldn't get out of the dedicated bus lane in time) are barely felt. The electromechanical steering system manages such unexpected shocks, preventing the steering wheel from snapping the driver's wrist in such conditions. The system is well weighted and combines natural loading at road speeds with low effort at parking speeds. The only drawback is a slightly "lost" sensation on-center.

All models get the same four-wheel-disc brakes regardless of engine, with ABS and ESP standard. The 12.3-inch ventilated front discs are ample for both on-road duty and the gruel of trail riding. The rear rotors are solid but equally sufficient at 11.3 inches in diameter. The pedal is free of any ambiguity, offering an accurate report of what's happening at the corners. Real off-roaders may begrudge the electric parking brake, but the absence of a large conventional handbrake between the seats is a welcome change.

The 4Motion system uses a Haldex center clutch integrated into the rear axle assembly to split torque between the front and rear as traction demands. Under normal conditions 90 percent of the torque goes to the front, but nearly all of it can be shifted to the back if the front loses grip. The Tiguan will easily clear several inches of snow and has seamless all-weather traction - which is, after all, as much as most mini-ute drivers demand anyway. And though we won't get the true off-road package, VW's baby-Touraeg is more capable than it needs to be for most buyers in this segment.

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VW has not yet announced pricing, but it will certainly play a major role in the Tiguan's success in North America. In Europe, its base price is 26,700 Euros, which positions it against other premium soft-roaders like Land Rover's Freelander/LR2 and BMW's X3. Here, it will have to play with the likes of the CR-V and RAV4. Volkswagen will surely draw a premium for it, but by how much remains unsure.

Whatever its final price, the Tiguan promises to offer something unique in an established segment. Perhaps because of Volkswagen's ability to appeal to younger, cooler types, the Tiguan may find the kind of hipster buyers that marketing wonks fantasize about in their brochures and commercials. Never mind the small utility party is well under way; VW seems to understand that sometimes it's better to be fashionably late than promptly dull.