Upon initial review, Volkswagen's timing couldn't have been more perfect. Just as gas is approaching a Lincoln per gallon, the German brand introduces the Tiguan, its first compact crossover in the U.S. and one with a miserly 2.0-liter engine that achieves combined fuel economy of up to 21 mpg. Prospective buyers of mid- and full-size sport/utilities, who know deep down that a smaller vehicle will suffice, are taking notice. In its first month of sale, for instance, the Tiguan enticed 179 more buyers than did its larger, thirstier sibling, the Touareg. And with no end in sight for the rise of fuel costs, the discrepancy is bound to become more severe. After all, who really needs a V-6 or V-8 engine, certainly when a four-cylinder exhaling through a turbocharger delivers horsepower and torque figures at or above 200 and gas mileage that hovers around 20 mpg?
With that in mind, we gathered the all-new 2009 Vee-Dub, along with two of its turbo-four rivals-the equally new 2009 Subaru Forester XT and the formidable 2008 Mazda CX-7-equipped them in topline trim and with all-wheel drive, and took them on a 500-mile trip to Lone Pine, California, home of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48. Along the way, we evaluated the threesome over our hilly 40-mile test loop in Tehachapi as well as the rugged, dirt roads in Fossil Falls State Park in Little Lake. Naturally, we concluded the review with our usual battery of instrumented track testing. Which of these go-anywhere turbochargers performs best under pressure? Let's get spooled up.