LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- Zipping through wiggly canyons on the Ortega Highway, California 74, which runs across the Santa Ana Mountains from the Pacific Coast at San Juan Capistrano up to Lake Elsinore, a pavement-hugging compact-size crossover utility vehicle handles like a sporty car with all mechanical systems working in concert to produce superior handling traits honed to a hard edge.
Fact is, Volkswagen's Tiguan, an agile and downright gutsy CUV which bears a peculiar name, has attitude.
The sleek five-door hatchback wagon, with seats for five in a well-stocked cabin, has a tight structure and precise mechanical components derived from German engineering, plus the muscle of a high-tech turbo-charged four-cylinder engine.
And Tiguan issues of 2012 look buff and tough due to edgy new body styling, with upgrades to the passenger compartment and improvements to fuel economy numbers.
But let's get past that funny name: The moniker, chosen by German consumers in a public vote, is a mixing of animal names for "tiger" and "iguana," taking the "ti-" off of "ti-ger" and the "guan" out of "i-guan-a."
The shell of Tiguan '12 scores a new prow design with the horizontal twin-blade grille tucking between restyled polycarbonate headlight clusters on front corners containing U-shaped bands of LED daytime running lamps. A smooth wrap of body-colored fascia runs below the grille housing a broad air intake port with honeycomb surface and a corner-illuminating foglamp pinned at each end, then a gray panel resembling a skid-plate lipping up at the bottom.
Tiguan's profile shows a stubby prow rising to the raked windshield with arching roofline capped by twin roof rails, the waistline rising above chiseled flanks and bulging squared-off wheel arches clad in protective plastic surrounds.
The blunt rump has two-part taillight assemblies on rear corners and a body-colored bumper punctuated by twin chrome-tipped exhaust pipes.
Platform for Tiguan comes from the subcompact Golf with front-wheel-drive orientation or optional 4Motion electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system and Golf GTI's turbo-charged four-cylinder engine.
This turbo plant manages to nix the customary lag in timing for launch -- that annoying lull of a second or more after pushing the accelerator while the turbocharger spools up before spitting out boosted torque to turn the wheels.
As a result, a Tiguan outfitted with the turbo in-line-four -- labeled Tiguan 2.0T -- leaps immediately off the line for a run up the gear ladder.
The four-pack -- with turbocharger and intercooler applied plus VW's FSI (fuel straight injection) technology -- produces 200 hp at 5100 rpm and torque of 207 lb-ft at only 1700 rpm.
All of the turbo muscle is manipulated through a good-feel manual six-speed transmission or the optional six-speed electronic automatic with Tiptronic shift-it-yourself controls.
Tiguan 2.0T editions of 2012 employ low-rolling-resistance tires along with revamped gear ratios for the automatic transmission plus a few other tricks to elevate Tiguan's EPA fuel economy figures.
The numbers definitely rise -- 22 miles per gallon (mpg) for stop-and-go city driving and 27 mpg on the highway in front-wheel-drive format with the automatic transmission.
Crank the sport steering wheel an inch or two to the right or left and Tiguan cuts with direct action, changing to the next lane with quick precision, thanks to a rack and pinion unit with electric power boost that increases assistance during low-speed maneuvers but decreases the boost as speed rises on the road.
Roll over pavement expansion creases and the sports-tuned independent suspension -- MacPherson strut architecture up front with lower control arms and telescopic damping and a multi-link arrangement in back also with telescopic damping -- blips the standard 16-inch (or optional 18-inch or even 19-inch) all-season tires in exacting up-down motions which mimic the firm ride quality of a sporty car.
Brakes on Tiguan 2.0T consist of large discs (12.3-inch ventilated in front, 11.3-inch solid at the rear) tied to smart electronic controls.
Each edition stocks an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic braking assist (EBA), plus VW's anti-slip regulation (ASR) throttle checker and electronic differential locking (EDL) that modulates engine torque on front wheels to maximize tire grip. All of these acronyms are included as control components of the electronic stabilization program (ESP).
Volkswagen segments the CUV into three trims for 2012 with Tiguan 2.0T S, upgraded SE and top-model SEL.
Standard gear for the price-leader Tiguan 2.0T S includes 16-inch steel wheels, power exterior mirrors with heat elements, outside temperature display, trip computer, climatic air conditioning, cloth seat upholstery with manual adjustments for front seats and a folding rear seatback split 60/40 with recline and center armrest, variable intermittent windshield wipers front and rear, cruise control, power windows and an audio kit with AM/FM/CD and Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
Volkswagen's price chart for 2012 begins at $22,840 for Tiguan 2.0T S FWD with a manual transmission or $24,340 with the electronic automatic and $26,295 for 4Motion AWD.
Deluxe Tiguan 2.0T SEL with the automatic transmission tallies to $33,975 in FWD or $35,930 for AWD.