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.


Vee-Double-Euro

The Tiguan, in $33,630 SEL 4Motion guise, proves the priciest of the group, but does come loaded with leather trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, Dynaudio 300-watt stereo, 12-way power driver's seat, bi-Xenon headlamps, 18-inch alloy wheels (it's curious that our test vehicle had 17s, a fact VW chalks up to a factory oversight), and three options -- $350 rear side airbags, $1300 panoramic sunroof, and $1950 navigation with backup camera -- which ups the price to $37,230. Damn you, Euro! (So much for that perfect timing.)

Nevertheless, the Tiguan justifies its steep sticker, at least somewhat, with the group's richest cabin. "Nicest interior," says senior editor Ed Loh, adding, "It looks actually designed, rather than assembled from a parts bin like the Subaru's." Editor at large Arthur St. Antoine feels the same: "Overall, impression is of high-quality materials and stylish design. The Tiguan looks expensive (and is)." Moreover, the VW boasts the most rear headroom as well as useful features not found in the others, namely an SD memory-card reader for the audio system, a height-adjustable center armrest, a driver-side glovebox with five slots for coins, and a mini-jack auxiliary input (the Forester's aux input is of the RCA variety).

The Deutschland-built Tiguan, not surprisingly, offers a very Teutonic ride: firm enough for responsive moves yet supple enough for everyday liveability. While the standard-but-absent 18-inch wheels might've starched the ride a smidge, they likely would've sharpened handling a bit, too, although the 17s performed admirably, providing quick turn-in and commendable grip (0.81g lateral acceleration). That said, the electromechanical steering feels too light and overboosted at low speeds, a sharp contrast from the well-weighted helm of the Mazda.

Despite its compact dimensions, the Tiguan weighs just south of 3800 pounds, over 300 porkier than the Forester. That scale readout, along with its weakest-of-the-bunch 200-horse engine, results in the slowest acceleration numbers-0 to 60 in 8.2 seconds and the quarter mile in 16.2 at 85.7 mph. Still, we love VW's ubiquitous 2.0T mill, which spins freely and euphonically and unleashes 207 pound-feet of peak torque at just 1700 rpm.

"With more than a 20 percent premium over the Forester, the Tiguan may experience Passat-like sales in the States," opines Loh. "Huge outside of the U.S., where people are used to paying a premium for less performance and more style, but not so big in America." St. Antoine notes, "The VW, with its artful cockpit and premium look and feel, is easy to like, but you can't deny that it's the slowest and by a wide margin the most expensive." The Tiguan is an outstanding first effort, but too pricey to advance beyond third place in this test.

Drivers Wanted

In light of the expensive VW, the CX-7, outfitted in $28,650 Grand Touring AWD getup, represents the base-price bargain, yet still includes Xenon headlamps, leather trim, eight-way power driver's seat, automatic climate control, and 18-inch wheels. Our zoom-zoom tester adds a $4005 Technology Package-Bose stereo, navigation, backup camera, sunroof, and smart key-as well as a few other minor options, all of which swells the sticker to $33,725, almost splitting the difference between the Tiguan and the Forester.

With regard to styling, the Mazda doesn't split the others; it shames them. From its slanted nose and ultra-raked windshield to its flared fenders and kicked-up beltline, the CX-7 is distinctive and edgy, downright racy for a crossover. "The best-looking of the group," asserts St. Antoine. The theme carries over inside, where right angles and high-tech materials impart a futuristic feel. "The interior is fabulous," he adds, "with lots of modern pizzazz that doesn't detract from usefulness. I especially like the 'alligator' trim piece that runs down the center of the seats." Loh calls it "boa skin," so perhaps "reptilian" is the best compromise. We do wish Mazda hadn't compromised on the aux jack, which can't be found in the CX-7.

VW's tagline is "Drivers Wanted," but that's really more appropriate for the Mazda, which treats enthusiasts to acutely accurate and deftly weighted steering; stout brakes, which put up the best 60-to-0 stopping distance (119 feet); and a collected chassis that feels the most at ease near the limit. "Has 'driver's car' written all over it," declares St. Antoine and observes, "Mazda is almost alone in the auto world in getting the fore-aft manual shift relationship right: backward to upshift, forward to downshift-as in a racing sequential box." The CX-7's ride is busier than that of the others, but it's far from unforgiving and does manage to relay more road feel, a feat that drivers, once again, tend to appreciate. As well as it dances and as good as it feels, though, the Mazda does suffer from a bit of a weight problem-it's over 500 pounds chubbier than the Subaru-a fact that prompts Loh to contend, "Well-controlled chassis dynamics, though it does show its weight around corners."

Alas, it also shows its mass at the track, although not as badly as the VW, thanks mostly to the gutsy 258-pound-feet direct-injected four and six-speed automatic, which manage to motivate all 3939 pounds from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.8 at 86.7 mph. Essentially the same powerplant as in the hasty Mazdaspeed3, the CX-7's 2.3-liter is amply robust, but, unfortunately, it's also plenty thirsty, delivering the lowest EPA and observed fuel-economy figures. At least the CX-7 has the biggest gas tank, although two of three judges would rather be burdened with filling up Fuji's crossover.

Over the Rainbow

The Forester, whose $28,860 "XT Limited" badge is slightly dearer than that of the Mazda, brings to the party leather trim, automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, 10-way power driver's seat, 17-inch alloys, and a 224-horse turbocharged flat-4, but it lacks some of the others' premium features, notably Xenon headlamps, CD changer, and backup camera. Still, our nicely equipped tester, boasting one option-an $1800 navigation package with six-speaker stereo and Audyssey MultiEQ enhancement-wears a best-in-test price tag of $30,660.

Speaking of best in test, the Subaru claims most of those titles-over twice as many as the Mazda and nearly four times those of the Volkswagen. It's the quickest to 60 (6.6 seconds) and the quarter mile (15.1 at 89.0 mph), yet it sips the fewest gallons of petrol, both for EPA (19 mpg city/24 mpg hwy) and observed fuel economy (19.6 mpg), even with a four-speed automatic. It weighs the fewest pounds (3423) yet it tows the most (2400). It provides the most front headroom (40.0 inches), the most ground clearance (8.9 inches), and the highest approach and departure angles (24.8/24.8 degrees). Need to transport tall passengers in the rear seat? Help your friend move? The Forester affords the most rear legroom (38.0 inches)-as well as front legroom (43.1)-and the biggest cargo area, whether the back seat is up (30.8 cubic feet) or down (63.0).

"You have to be impressed with what you get for the money," says St. Antoine, "a lot of convenience, room, and capability for the bucks." Loh concurs: "The Forester is an impressive feat of performance and packaging." Not that it's perfect, mind you, as it's sometimes overmatched in details and refinement. The steering feels artificial and vague against the others. The softer suspension equals a wealth of body roll, although the ride is markedly plush and the figure-eight time (28.1 seconds) is as quick as the others' but at higher lateral grip (0.60 g average). The interior is a WRX rip-off and not as posh as the VW's nor as chic as the Mazda's. And the exterior styling is the least stunning or innovative of the three, a quasi-combination of Mitsubishi Outlander and Honda Pilot.

Nonetheless, this Subie never ceases to amaze. It costs over three grand less than the CX-7 and nearly eight thousand less than the Tiguan, yet it's quicker, roomier, more fuel-miserly, and more off-road-capable. More for less. That's the kind of formula that wins comparison tests.

1st place: 2009 Subaru Forester XT Limited
Quick, roomy, fuel-efficient, and well-priced, the Forester checks just about every box-most important, the one for first place.

2nd place: 2008 Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD
Striking lines, sublime steering, and athletic chassis make this the driver's choice. Subpar fuel economy and hefty curb weight make it our second choice.

3rd place: 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL 4Motion
Cute, refined, and feature-laden, the Tiguan is a winner. Were it five grand less, it might've been this test's winner.


  2008 Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD 2009 Subaru Forester XT Limited 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL 4Motion
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD Front engine, AWD Front engine, AWD
Engine type Turbocharged I-4, alum block/heads Turbocharged flat-4, alum block/heads Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum heads
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 137.9 cu in/2260 cc 149.9 cu in/2457 cc 121.1 cu in/1984 cc
Compression ratio 9.5:1 8.4:1 9.6:1
Power (SAE net) 244 hp @ 5000 rpm 224 hp @ 5200 rpm 200 hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 258 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm 226 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm 207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm
Weight to power 16.1 lb/hp 15.3 lb/hp 16.1 lb/hp
Transmission 6-speed automatic 4-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
Axle/final/low ratios 3.75:1/2.57:1/- 4.44:1/3.08:1/- 3.69:1/2.55:1 /-
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering ratio 15.8:1 16.5:1 14.7:1
Turns lock-to-lock 2.9 3.2 2.8
Brakes, f;r 11.7-in vented disc; 11.9-in vented disc, ABS 11.7-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS 12.3-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS
Wheels, f;r 7.5 x 18 in, cast aluminum 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum
Tires, f;r 235/60R18 102H M+S, Bridgestone Turanza EL42 225/55R17 95H M+S, Yokohama Geolander G95 235/55R17 99H M+S, Michelin Latitude Tour HP
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 108.3 in 103.0 in 102.5 in
Track, f/r 63.7/63.5 in 60.2/60.2 in 61.8/61.9 in
Length x width x height 184.0 x 73.7 x 64.8 in 179.5 x 70.1 x 66.9 in 174.3 x 71.2 x 66.3 in
Ground clearance 8.1 in 8.9 in 6.9 in
Apprch/depart angle 20.0/24.5 deg 24.8/24.8 deg 18.6/23.3 deg
Turning circle 37.4 ft 34.4 ft 39.4 ft
Curb weight 3939 lb 3423 lb 3761 lb
Weight dist, f/r 58/42% 56/44% 57/43%
Towing capacity 2000 lb 2400 lb 2200 lb
Seating capacity 5 5 5
Headroom, f/r 38.2/38.6 in 40.0/37.7 in 39.1/39.0 in
Legroom, f/r 41.7/36.4 in 43.1/38.0 in 40.1/35.8 in
Shoulder room, f/r 58.0/55.8 in 56.1/55.6 in 56.2/54.8 in
Cargo vol behind f/r 58.6/29.9 cu ft 63.0/30.8 cu ft 56.1/23.8 cu ft
TEST DATA
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.4 sec 1.9 sec 2.8 sec
0-40 3.9 3.1 4.2
0-50 5.5 4.9 5.9
0-60 7.7 6.6 8.2
0-70 10.2 8.8 10.6
0-80 13.2 11.8 13.9
0-90 16.9 15.4 17.8
Passing, 45-65 mph 4.3 sec 3.6 sec 4.3 sec
Quarter mile 15.8 sec @ 86.7 mph 15.1 sec @ 89.0 mph 16.2 sec @ 85.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 119 ft 127 ft 124 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.81 g (avg) 0.78 g (avg) 0.81 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.1 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) 28.1 sec @ 0.60 g (avg) 28.1 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 1950 rpm 2250 rpm 2250 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $28,650 $28,860 $33,630
Price as tested $33,725 $30,660 $37,230
Stability/traction control Yes/yes Yes/yes Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Fuel capacity 18.2 gal 16.9 gal 16.8 gal
EPA city/hwy econ 16/22 mpg 19/24 mpg 18/24 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.06 lb/mile 0.93 lb/mile 0.96 lb/mile
MT fuel economy 17.0 mpg 19.6 mpg 19.5 mpg
Recommended fuel Unleaded premium Unleaded premium Unleaded premium

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