A pair of beat-up Chuck Taylors with more miles on them than many decade-old cars make terrible hiking shoes, a thought that is stuck to the top of my skull like a passenger inside an elevator in freefall. I'm in the Austrian woods to drive the updated 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan. More importantly, I'm accelerating towards wet, spongy ground that is too much for me and my Chucks. I should have stayed inside the Tiguan. Unlike me, it doesn't seem to be having any problems.

The Wild Cherry Red Tiguan looks like a waxed metallic forest fire set amongst the mossy trees in what will be an off-limits section of a ski resort in another few months. For our press drive, the VW guys gave us a route that included several miles of dirt and gravel roads, but my co-driver and I decided we needed photography in a real off-road setting. A long, overgrown access road presented itself along the route and we couldn't pass it up.

The ground here is a combination of peat and bugs. It feels like ground-up Super Balls, and has no visual indication of just how solid it is. I find out firsthand while trying to get back down a 25-foot hill overlooking the parked Tiguan with my right hand filled with five pounds of dirt-hating camera. With every step my foot sinks three inches into the luxurious alpine sludge before coming to a semi-solid stop. This time, however, as I lift my left foot the ground gives way under my right. I slide heel first, and serene alpine cliffs and valleys normally echoing with yodels and cowbells are now filled with the sound of snapping twigs and a single prolonged and profane exclamation in English.

I ride it out for what seems like a good two minutes, still on one straight-legged heel, my other leg tucked up to my body. The arm holding the camera is out in front for maximum impact protection, while the other flails wildly around my torso in random figure eights in an effort to regain my balance. Sadly there was no video camera present, but I'm confident I looked like an ostrich trying to fly with just one wing. Eventually my death match with nature ended with another crushing victory for gravity. I hit the ground hip first with a big ska-voooosh. No injuries to me or the camera.

After brushing myself off and sifting through the forest floor for what was left of my pride, I got back in the Tiguan for more off-roading. Even over rocks and thick branches the ride is smooth and quiet with very little of the impact transmitted into the cabin. On the trails, steering feedback is there, but never rips at your hands. Although it wasn't put to what off-roaders would call a definitive test, the 4-motion all-wheel drive provided surefooted traction that 99% of buyers will never even test.

When the Tiguan was launched in 2008 the corporate ballyhoo touted it as the GTI of SUVs. It was a capable soft-roader, but true off-roading was never really a consideration. After almost five years and 700,000 units of experience, VW is still convinced that the vast majority of Tiguans will never see anything more than a dirt parking lot.

VW still insists on building the Tiguan as an off-road-capable vehicle. The Track and Sport model, as it's know in Europe, or the Only One We Get, as it will be known in the States, offers higher cut bumpers allowing greater approach angles and skid-plates under the drive train for protection. In the States, we will continue to get the 200-horspower 2.0-liter turbo. The low-end torque and smooth delivery make it a good choice for the smaller SUV. Our tester rolls itself along with a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-diesel, which won't be seen in our dealerships for another year or two. Our Tiguan was also fitted with a DSG and 4-motion all wheel drive. We get the 4-motion as an option, but likely won't see the DSG until it comes mated to the TDI. The DSG in the Tiguan fires off shifts and holds gears for descents, but because it doesn't "feel" like a traditional automatic, U.S. consumers aren't ready for it to replace the standard automatic.

VW has gone to great effort to improve the current six-speed torque convertor transmission for the U.S. market. With the use of taller gearing, a torque convertor that decouples during coasting, and a few other tweaks, the 2012 Tiguan now gets 15-percent better fuel mileage than the previous model. Sadly, none of the cars available was equipped with the reworked transmission, so it is difficult to comment on how well it works. We can say the Tiguan's interior is even quieter and more comfortable than the last version. It will take a trained eye to spot the differences, but the big standouts are a new steering wheel and a dark rhodium finish for the dash surrounds.

The seats are comfortable and supportive for a full day's drive. On some of the twistier mountain stretches between Munich and Kitzbuhel the seats provided lateral support completely unexpected in an SUV. The dash and door panel materials are traditional VW and definite cut above any of the competition in this price range.

VW really optimized the space inside the vehicle when it was first designed, and luckily that hasn't changed. While the footprint of the Tiguan doesn't seem much larger than a midsize sedan, the interior volume does, partly because the rear seats are slightly raised, allowing for more legroom. Those rear seats also adjust forward and backward, and recline. The rear bench is split 60/40 so it is possible to still carry a passenger or maybe even two with room for larger cargo. The front passenger seat also folds flat for even longer cargo. When the Tiguan was first designed, one of the criteria was to be able to fit the longest box from IKEA inside the vehicle. With the right side rear seat plus the front passenger seat folded, it is possible to get your Swedish Flat-Pack home and still have room for several cases of cinnamon rolls and lingonberry jam. For those less decoratively inclined, the long load area allows for things like surfboards or even ladders.

On the outside, the Tigaun now wears the Walter De Silva-designed corporate face. It gives the little SUV a more aggressive appearance and looks more upscale than before. Higher spec models will come equipped with the now-ubiquitous LED daytime running lights that look modern and require less energy than traditional incandescent lights. VW has also added a new 19-inch alloy wheel to top-level cars, along with lower-rolling-resistance tires. The taillights now have a more elongated shape and give the entire back end a more cohesive aesthetic.

This is only considered a mid-cycle refresh for the Tiguan, but it feels like more than that. The suspension feels better sorted, and the steering more precise. It does have the feeling of a hot hatch, just slowed down a bit by the added height. Its looks, while more sedate, are now much classier and upscale than before. Volkswagen says marketing data reveal that the average Tiguan driver is younger and has a higher income than its rivals' customers. It delivers soft road performance while still being enthusiastic on-road. It may not be the perfect vehicle for the hard-core outdoorsman, but it's far more capable than the average urbanite in canvas sneakers.


2012 Volkswagen Tiguan
BASE PRICE $25,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 4-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/200-hp/207-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 6-speed auto
CURB WEIGHT 3450-3650 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 102.5 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 174.5 x 71.2 x 67.0 in
0-60 MPH 0.0-0.0 sec (MT est, mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 18-23/26-29 mpg (est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 147-187/116-130 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.76-0.93 lb/mile (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall 2011
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