What Weren't They Thinking?
Marc K. Stengel, Sat, 31 May 2008 08:00:00 PDT
For the Frenchman, it had better be cheese. For the British, beef. Cabbage, I think, for the Germans. And for us Yanks? Why, SUVs, of course! And the more of 'em the better.
Now that crude oil is inching towards $140 per barrel and the pump price of regular flirts with $4.00 per gallon, some might say the bloom is a bit off the rose where SUVs are concerned. Clearly, however, that's not what BMW and Volkswagen are thinking. With the near-simultaneous spring debuts of the BMW X6 "sport activity coupe " and the VW Tiguan SUV, this pair of German automakers is out to blitz North America with a shock-and-awe campaign of sport, utility and performance. It's a bold but not so silly move: The fun and enjoyment inspired by both of these vehicles may well be the alternatives we need right now to the hair shirts we're wearing and the self-loathing we're feeling about our present transportation woes.
True to type, BMW has devised a virtually new form of automobile dedicated to the serious driving enthusiast. The X6 looks like nothing else on the road, performs like nothing else on the road. It seems to be saying, "If you want a real SUV, look elsewhere. " "If you want to be a greenie-meanie, shop elsewhere. " "If you're afraid of expressing yourself, hide elsewhere." On the other hand, for extroverts who know how to drive and who like to stay busy, the X6 provides a gorgeous new transportation alternative.
For one thing, the X6 is an amazingly nimble and responsive vehicle. Powered by either a twin-turbo inline-six (designated xDrive35i) or a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 (xDrive50i), the X6 is all about superior engine performance. Both engines, rated 300 horsepower and 400 hp, respectively, rev brilliantly fast, with torque curves that reach their maximum at low rpm and stay there almost to redline. By means of BMW's unique xDrive all-wheel-drive system, torque is split both fore and aft and right and left as individual tires seek traction. What's more, an exotic planetary gear set-up at each rear wheel allows the X6 to over or understeer as required by either road conditions or driver technique or a combination of both.
Balancing power and handling through complex computerized mechanicals is what the X6 is all about. Along backroad twisties, on rain-slick highways, on commuter runs or cross country jaunts, the X6 has a knack for tailoring a driver's skills and preferences to the demands of the road at any given moment. Yet far from an "automatic driving" experience, the X6 coaxes from drivers their best technique-then flatters them for it with precise, responsive handling.
Within the X6's speed-bubble exterior is a four-person cockpit of exceptional comfort and intimacy. By foregoing a typical SUV's five-seat capacity, BMW creates rear seating that is sumptuous for once. And despite the coupe like silhouette, four-door access makes entry and exit a pleasure for all. Or rather, for all who get to enjoy what's likely to be a rare and privileged encounter out in the wild with BMW's extravagant X6.
Apart from its name, the real mystery surrounding the Tiguan is what took VW so long? The GTI platform has seemed to beg for an SUV treatment for years now, and finally there is one; although what's so tiger-like and iguana-like about it is anyone's guess. (The official story is that a German "pick-a-name" write-in contest resulted in a tie between the feline and the reptile; "so split the baby in half," Solomon said.)
Here's what's spot-on about the Tiguan: you can procure one for just $23,200. It'll be a front-wheel-drive model with a six-speed manual transmission and entry-level amenities, but it will have perky performance from a 2.0-liter turbo-four; offer standard four-wheel independent suspension, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control; and provide flexible cargo capacity from 24 to 56 cubic feet. In other words, the base-model Tiguan represents an affordable yet upscale alternative to the likes of Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4 and Ford's Escape.
Ah, but when you add VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, you're up to around $29,000. Then, tack on all available amenities, and the top-of-the-line Tiguan enters territory where a $33,000 sticker is a distinct disadvantage. For a vehicle costing $10,000 less, 19 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway is pretty competitive. But for a compact SUV priced in the mid-$30,000 range, 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway seem a bit unambitious.
Volkswagen's chief accomplishment with the Tiguan is to have exploited the well earned respect enthusiasts hold for its GTI sport-sedan. Although Tiguan is a bit heavier, its additional heft actually tames the GTI's occasional skittishness. But the spunky handling remains, as does the palpable impression of solid German craftsmanship. Volkswagen may have origins as a "people's car," but it seems a premium brand by now.
With a tow capacity of 2,200 pounds and all that flip-and-fold cargo space-to say nothing about the possibility of a trendy roof rack overhead-Tiguan sports plenty enough credentials to attract the cost-conscious active-lifestyle set. But its price escalates in a hurry, particularly if one's lifestyle activities require all-wheel-drive. A more expensive Tiguan isn't any less capable, of course-quite the opposite. But it may be one that has some customers wondering, "Is it the tiger that's costing me, or the iguana?"