Compact SUV comparison

words - Sean Poppitt
words - Mike McCarthy
When versatility and practicality are at the top of the shopping list, look no further than the compact SUV set. We've done the hard yards with eight contenders over 1000km of dirt, sand and bitumen

SUV Megatest

Wheels Magazine
September, 2008

» Honda CR-V Sport
» Subaru Forester X
» Jeep Patriot CRD Sport
» Suzuki Grand Vitara DDiS
» Mitsubishi Outlander LS
» Toyota RAV4 CV
» Nissan X-TRAIL ST
» VW Tiguan 103TDI

Rising petrol prices are doing more than just driving buyers away from large cars - the pinch at the pump is diversifying the whole market. While the downsizing trend continues strongly, and sales of our traditional big sellers like Commodore and Falcon slip, not all buyers are willing to sacrifice space and practicality for frugality. People are increasingly turning to the compact SUV set to find that blend of functionality without the thirst.

So far in 2008, compact SUVs have accounted for 46,873 sales, or 8.6 percent of the total market. These cars matter. Compared to last year, sales have risen by five percentage points and with no respite on the price of crude likely, it's a number that's only going to continue growing.

Sales-wise, the big guns are all represented here. Top dog is Toyota's RAV4, claiming 7684 sales (or 16.4 percent of this segment) thus far this year, followed by the Forester (6910), CR-V (6159), X-Trail (4989) and Outlander (4552). For this test we elected for a mix of diesel and petrol four-cylinder contenders, and opted for base-spec models where possible, with prices ranging from around $32,000 up to $38K (not including options). We didn't include any Korean entrants, as they either failed to meet the size/powertrain/pricing parameters, or fell short on ability.

In general terms, soft-roaders offer roughly the performance of a petrol 2.0-litre small sedan or hatch (or their diesel equivalent), but offer considerably more in the way of flexibility and practicality.

Then, of course, there's the perceived off-road benefit of SUVs. Despite what the TV commercials would have you believe, don't expect Landcruiser-like abilities. Instead, stick to sandy beaches and dusty trails and most of these vehicles can back up the marketing hype.

So we lined up eight contenders of varying breeds and credentials, and devised a 1000km round trip that would take in the broadest possible mix of driving conditions. We started with the obligatory hours of pushing buttons, testing seat mechanisms and noting specifications, then filed into the choking crawl of Sydney's rush hour traffic, before piling on some highway kays on the run up to Newcastle. The slippery, deceptive sands of Stockton beach was our next stop (with only two boggings, both courtesy of Poppitt), putting our contenders' off-road credentials to the ultimate test. Most passed, though one failed miserably...

The next day took in plenty of typically long, flowing rural Australian roads, the perfect place to assess ride and NVH as well as radio reception and seat comfort. It concluded in a memorable overnight stop in a typically loud and hilarious Aussie country pub (a big g'day to all our new mates at the Globe Hotel in Rylstone).

The third and final day included plenty more rural highway kilometres, plus a long, snaking gravel section (perfect for ESP assessment) and a tight, technical tarmac hill climb.

The last time we brought you a soft-roader megatest was July 2006, where we proclaimed the class lacked a standout winner. No vehicle offered the blend of abilities we hoped for. Has the game moved on in 2008? Here's a hint: yes...

» 8th: Suzuki Grand Vitara DDiS
Mike McCarthy

Real off-road ability, but about as refined as an outback pub.

It's hardly surprising the Grand Vitara DDiS rates pretty highly with the specialist 4x4 publications. The gamey little diesel and full-time AWD system provides off-road-enthusiast levels of go-anywhere capability.

However, it has to be said that in an urban soft-roader context, the topographically dexterous Suzi's character verges on agricultural.

Now, we've enjoyed petrol Grand Vitaras on earlier occasions, while noting that the automatic versions may be preferable for driveline refinement. Unfortunately, that option isn't available with the diesel, despite this Renault-sourced plonker accentuating the manual drivetrain's seemingly endemic snatchiness. In all-too-usual low-speed/light-throttle driving, the transmission's bang-crash spasms and kangaroo-hopping reactions are just about untenable.

And if that doesn't wipe the shine from the DDiS experience, the indulgent consumption and mediocre performance may do so. Obviously the Grand Vitara's relatively leisurely pace isn't unexpected or critical, given that the engine is this group's smallest and least powerful.

To its credit, the DDiS cites more torque than any of the (about a half-litre larger) petrol models gathered here. But because that big stick is delivered over a fairly short burst, via fairly low gear ratios, the Suzi's accelerative response isn't exactly punchy, and even then it's hungry for gearshift after gearshift. Like comparable diesels, the DDiS won't reach 120km/h in third gear.

Unlike comparable diesels, the DDiS isn't notably thrifty on fuel. In fact, for our 1000km of allsorts driving, from beach to dirt to freeway and a bit of the 'burbs, the Grand Vitara diesel's consumption averaged near enough the same as the (larger) petrol models; with diesel fuel at least 20 cents per litre costlier.

So, snatchy driveline and unseemly thirst do the DDiS no favours. Which is a great shame because in other respects the Grand Vitara is still an appealing package for anyone seeking a seriously functional compact 4WD model that's well made, well equipped and well presented. But on the basis of this test, you'd have to remain open to the petrol versions, and with automatic transmission at that.

Price: $34,990/As tested $35,290*
Engine: In-line 4, sohc, 8v turbo-diesel
Layout: Front engine (north-south), 4WD
Capacity: 1.870 litres
Power: 95kW @ 3750rpm
Torque: 300Nm @ 2000rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Weight: 1612kg
Fuel/capacity: diesel/66 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.5L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

*Including metallic paint

For: Serious four-wheel-drive capability; decent equipment levels
Against: Driveline snatch; modest performance; immodest thirst

» 7th: Nissan X-TRAIL ST
Sean Poppitt

A roomy and clever interior, but X doesn't mark the spot.

The X-TRAIL is at its most attractive sitting static in a showroom ... and I'm not talking about its brick-on-wheels styling. Instead, absorb the extensive list of standard features and safety kit (including six airbags, ABS and ESP), note the high-tech 'All-Mode' AWD system, appreciate the roomy interior and reasonable $33,990 price tag and, on paper, the Nissan scores highly. Then you drive it.

Beyond pure numbers and specs, the X-TRAIL offers an insipid driving experience. The engine is coarse and tyre roar is a constant companion; the steering is slack and the ride is stiff, fidgety and under damped (although this improves with four people on board). Overall dynamics can only be described as adequate at best. And while razor-sharp handling shouldn't be a priority in this class, effective ESP certainly should be, but this particular safety system isn't very well tuned (for either dirt or tarmac), intervening rather randomly and sapping confidence.

Moving through the rest of the car proves a hit-and-miss affair. The thoughtfully designed interior boasts plenty of kid-friendly ideas and numerous storage nooks and crannies, and the excellent storage system hidden under the false floor of the huge boot scores bonus points, but it's all been bolted together using brittle plastics that would look more at home on a Toys-R-Us reject shelf.

The Nissan was, however, the only vehicle on test to offer hill descent control, and its 2.5-litre four is an honest toiler. The slick CVT tranny proved a highlight, contributing to a relatively frugal 10.6L/100km average, while also offering crisp shifts in manual mode and helping the X-TRAIL to take honours down the drag strip (handy when you take on that CR-V at the lights on the way to work).

But in the final reckoning, a few clever ideas and a slick tranny can't save an otherwise average effort.

Price: $33,990/As tested $33,990
Engine: In-line 4, dohc, 16v
Layout: Front engine (east-west), PAWD
Capacity: 2.488 litres
Power: 125kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 226Nm @ 4400rpm
Transmission: CVT
Weight: 1555kg
Fuel/capacity: 95 octane/65 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.6L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

For: Showroom appeal; plenty of standard features; clever interior
Against: Ride, steering and dynamics adequate at best; low-rent interior quality

» 6th: Jeep Patriot CRD Sport
Sean Poppitt

A slice of Americana that fails to integrate Down Under.

If driving dynamics were the only thing that counted here, the Jeep would make a reasonable case for itself. In most other areas, unfortunately, it falls short.

Hop into the front seat and you're confronted with great slabs of hard, grey plastics, fiddly buttons, a speedo more confusing than the emissions trading scheme, and all packed into a dash that seems to stretch on forever before it meets the windscreen.

It's a shoddy piece of packaging, with both driver and front passenger crammed in like sardines, with high-silled windows and thick A-pillars contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere and restricting outward vision. Then you clamber into the back and find a seat barely deserving of the name - the cushion is flat and unyielding.

So, now that we've established interior quality and packaging are not the Patriot's strong suit, we'll move on to the positives. A sharp sticker price of $33,990 (with a strong 60 percent three-year resale rating) scores you ESP and six airbags, while both the 60/40-split rear seats and the front passenger seat fold flat for an expansive and flexible luggage area if you're not carting kids. If the rug-rats are on board, the Patriot's cloth trim is both stain and odour resistant.

The Patriot borrows its 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine and six-speed gearbox from VW and it's a grunty, agreeable powerplant (although still inferior to the VW application) that makes easy work of thick sand or dusty trails. On our off-road excursions, the Jeep was second only to the Suzuki in ability. But as you can see from the photograph below, it can't overcome stupidity, and we managed to bury it up to its axles on the soft sand of Stockton beach, near Newcastle on NSW's north coast.

Back on the bitumen, the Jeep proved a mixed bag. Ride quality is supple enough and the fundamental chassis balance is acceptable, but body control is patchy and the steering suffers rack-rattle, kick-back, and is vaguer than Ozzy Osborne.

Yes, the Patriot is reasonably practical, versatile and it can actually venture off-road. But in every other respect, mediocrity prevails.

Price: $33,990/As tested $34,290*
Engine: In-line 4, dohc, 16v turbo-diesel
Layout: Front engine (east-west), AWD
Capacity: 1.968 litres
Power: 103kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 310Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1570kg
Fuel/capacity: diesel/51 litres
Fuel consumption: 8.5L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

*Includes metallic paint

For: Strong off-road ability; excellent VW-sourced drivetrain
Against: Almost everything else; steering, interior quality, packaging ...

» 5th: Toyota RAV4 CV
Mike McCarthy

Former SUV benchmark can't live with fully loaded, newer rivals.

In our July 2006 SUV mega-test, the then-new, third-generation RAV4 was awarded joint winner. Physically larger and significantly heavier than its predecessor, the RAV4 won recognition as a good effort, brimming with sophistication and space, but marked down for being bland and a little too Camry-like in personality.

Two years on, the RAV4 no longer stands out through sheer size. Most rivals are younger and have grown to much the same scale as the RAV4. And many are more fully featured than the CV.

RAV's mid-range Cruiser is buxomly equipped, of course, but at a $5500 premium that places it on the perimeter of this group's orbit.

Shamefully, the CV edition doesn't get electronic stability control, even as an option. Moreover, only front airbags are provided, with front-side and curtain 'bags optional. And the RAV still lacks a safety stay or gas strut (like the Grand Vitara's, for example) to hold the heavy barn-door tailgate open against road camber.

The RAV cabin really is roomy in all directions. And although rear passengers don't get the most inviting bench of the bunch, since the cushion is unsupportively flat, they are pampered with generous fore-aft and backrest-rake adjustability. The front pews are comfortably hospitable all round, and the driver's adds seat-height and two-way wheel adjustment.

All four doors have excellent hand grips to supplement the overhead grabs. The fifth door carries a full-size spare wheel and opens to one of this group's largest boots; though why Toyota keeps the seat-folded cargo capacity secret is a mystery.

In performance, the RAV4 is a competent mid-fielder. Could do better, but the averagely lusty engine is often impeded (like similarly compromised rivals) by the four-speed auto's limitations. However, the consumption is quite reasonable considering the RAV's size, mass and transmission.

Like the ride, handling, steering and brakes, the part-time AWD system is up to the task and does what's expected of it. But while competence is all very well, the RAV4 driving experience offers no more than that because it lacks involvement and doesn't offer any palpable sense of occasion.

Price: $33,990/As tested $35,040*
Engine: In-line 4, dohc, 16v
Layout: Front engine (east-west), PAWD
Capacity: 2.362 litres
Power: 125kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 224Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Weight: 1590kg
Fuel/capacity: 91 octane/60 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.9L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

*Curtain/front/side airbags, metallic paint

For: Simple; roomy; well built; competent on- and off-road; well equipped
Against: No ESP; 4-speed auto; flat rear seat; optional side/curtain airbags

» 4th: Honda CR-V Sport
Sean Poppitt

Capable and car-like, but refinement and ESP flaws can't be ignored.

Regularly commanding more than 1000 sales a month and a spot in the country's Top 20 sellers cements Honda's CR-V as one of the most popular soft-roaders on sale, and it's easy to see why.

It's certainly one of the most car-like contenders from a dynamics standpoint, offering crisp turn-in (although no real steering feel), good grip levels and genuinely lively and composed handling. The dash-mounted gearlever (which is both ergonomically excellent and space-efficient) slides between cogs with Honda's trademark precision, and while the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine lacks bottom-end torque (218Nm is always going to feel lean with 1580kg to haul), the engine is sweetly tractable and will rev strongly right through to 6800rpm. But be prepared to spend plenty of time at the 5800rpm power peak if you want to hustle the CR-V along.

The Honda also offers an excellent interior, offering comfort, quality, space and practicality. The front and rear seats are cushy and supportive, with plenty of hip- and head-room for rear-seat passengers. Up front, the well-designed, high-quality dash offers myriad storage spaces and some clever features that show Honda put a lot of thought into making the CR-V as family-friendly as possible. A convex mirror situated above the rear-view mirror means you can keep an eye on the kids in the back without turning your head from the road.

The previous-gen CR-V's annoying side-hinged tailgate has been replaced by a top-hinged door, with the spare wheel relocated under the floor. The cargo compartment offers a folding cover that can be installed at two different heights and the easy-to-use 40/20/40-split rear seat means flexible cargo capacity, with a full 2064 litres available with the rears folded flat.

If, at this point, you're wondering how the CR-V didn't even make the podium, let me explain. Ride comfort is borderline for this class of vehicle (an inevitable trade-off for the CR-V's dynamic abilities), proving brittle over busted urban tarmac, while road noise on coarse-chip surfaces is intrusive.

And sand is not the CR-V's friend. The on-demand AWD system simply can't distribute power quickly enough. The front wheels slip and spin and dig the car into a hole before the rears decide to join the party.

But the Honda's major flaw is its ESP. Late-acting and somewhat unpredictable on dirt, for a family-orientated vehicle it's a real concern. Sorry Honda, the ride's over.

Price: $37,490/As tested $37,490
Engine: In-line 4, dohc, 16v
Layout: Front engine (east-west), PAWD
Capacity: 2.354 litres
Power: 125kW @ 5800rpm
Torque: 218Nm @ 4200rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1580kg
Fuel/capacity: 91 octane/58 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.7L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

For: Superb quality; spacious and clever interior; good on-road dynamics
Against: Ride lacks compliance; off-road ability; road noise; ESP effectiveness

» 3rd: Mitsusbishi Outlander LS
Sean Poppitt

A few rough edges don't diminish the appeal of this all-rounder.

If you're thinking compact SUV, practicality and versatility are surely paramount on your must-have list. Whether it's swallowing all the necessary gear for a weekend away with friends, or hauling all the trappings of your brood, seats that bend and fold in various ways, a boot that can swallow more than just your spare undies, plus plenty of handy storage cubbies are all mandatory items. The Outlander ticks all of these boxes, and despite some interior quality and dynamic issues, offers a breadth of talent that ensured a share of the silverware. (Coincidentally, the previous-gen Outlander finished third when we last brought you a soft-roader mega-test in July 2006.)

You could never call the Outlander cutting-edge inside. Sure, the overall cabin design is modern; stylish, even, according to some testers, but there's a cheapness of execution that can't be ignored. Hard, brittle plastics, flimsy door pockets, rattly seats and a notchy five-speed manual gearbox combine with an all-aluminium, twin-cam 2.4-litre engine that becomes coarse in the upper rev limits and a cabin that is extremely sensitive to road surface. If the road is smooth hotmix, the cabin is quiet. If the road is coarse-chip, the cabin is raucous.

This cost-cutting sits at odds alongside more sophisticated features like the aluminium roof (designed to both cut weight and improve handling) and high-tech, 'on-the-fly' AWD system. Thrown into the sandbox and the Outlander proved as capable as any of our group bar the Suzuki and Jeep, although trekking across dusty trails revealed that the 2WD mode is prone to some hairy lift-off oversteer behaviour. Switching back to 4WD mode improves matters no end.

That jinking, high-speed dirt section also revealed an ESP system a cut above most soft-roaders. It's not as subtly effective as, say, Ford's FG Falcon, but offers a comforting safety net nonetheless.

On-road dynamics also drew nods of approval, with reasonably keen turn-in, good grip levels and a lively, playful chassis. Almost too playful sometimes, with the rear end skipping around a little over larger bumps and divots. Not alarmingly so, but enough to remind you that the combination of a tall centre of gravity, plenty of bodyroll and tyres designed for both dirt and bitumen, can bite the foot that feeds in too much throttle.

So dynamically Mitsu's wagon did enough to ensure a strong finish in our 1000km mega-test, but its bronze-medal performance was cemented by the more pragmatic aspects that will keep buyers smiling for years. Functionality was obviously chief among the design team's goals, evidenced by plenty of storage bins and compartments for things like wallets, sunglasses, drink bottles and CDs, including proper storage bins in the rear doors, and map pockets. Like the front pews, the rear seat is too flat and hard to be labelled cushy, but there's plenty of knee, toe and headroom for all occupants and the cabin is both airy and spacious.

The Outlander is the only vehicle here to offer an automatic fold feature for the rear seats. The 60/40 split-fold set-up can be tumbled forward at the touch of a button located in the boot, meaning no heavy seats to wrestle with.

To access the cargo bay, you'll need to open the split-tailgate boot, another feature that drew universal praise. The upper section lifts via the handle if you're loading something smaller, while the lower-lip drops via a lever. The bottom section is the ideal height for dumping the shopping while you strap in the kids, and also makes a handy seat.

At $31,490, the base-spec LS was one of the cheapest SUVs on test, and this was reflected by the 16-inch steelies and no standard side or curtain airbags. (They're an $850 option surely worth ticking.)

So, despite some shortcomings which can't be ignored, the Outlander proved itself to be one of the most practical soft-roaders going. A deserved bronze medal.

Price: $31,490/As tested $31,490
Engine: In-line 4, dohc, 16v
Layout: Front engine (east-west), PAWD
Capacity: 2.359 litres
Power: 125kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 226Nm @ 4100rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Weight: 1560kg
Fuel/capacity: 91 octane/60 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.5L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ???? (Euro)

For: Interior practicality and versatility; capable AWD system; dynamics
Against: Interior quality not class-leading; NVH issues; notchy manual shift

» 2nd: Subaru Forester X
Mike McCarthy

Sharp chassis shines, but overall, lacks the glitter for gold.

Missed it ... by that much. After a see-sawing 1000km argument over this test's top spot, the Forester must settle for a close second.

If the test's outcome were called into question, the answer boils down to the Forester's slightly woosy engine, its four-speed automatic and the cabin's unimaginative presentation.

On the other hand, there's no question that the Forester is a well-designed, well-engineered, well-built and very functional package. The Subaru's street (and soft-road) cred is reflected in its being among the class leaders for unwavering popularity and subsequent value retention.

And that's as true of the entry-level X model as of its costlier siblings. At $30,490, or two grand more for the automatic, the X represents real value. Far from a stripped-out poverty pack, the X has standard remote central locking, air-con, two-way adjustable multi-function wheel, driver's seat height adjustment, Datadot security, cargo cover and the full complement of airbags and major driving safety aids. Metallic paint inflicts no extra charge.

Visually, there are no rude giveaways to the X's first-rung status, for its steel wheels aren't an eyesore, unlike the cheapo plastic covers on the Outlander LS and X-Trail ST's steelies. Had the within-budget $33,990/$35,990 (manual/auto) XS Forester made this contest, we'd have found alloy wheels, climate control, six-stack CD player and front fog lights among other such upgrades. But even without the extra sweeteners, the base model Forester holds it own in this company.

The auto X is generally on the pace for performance too, though tends to understate itself because the engine feels less lively than its power and torque numbers suggest. Despite being the lightest vehicle here, and with the best power-to-weight ratio, the Forester emulates most Japanese contemporaries in sacrificing mid-range grunt for top-end elation. Although the big flat-four is resiliently tractable through the low and medium revs, it's only from about 4000rpm upwards that responsiveness really kicks in.

Unfortunately, the four-speed automatic is a cog or two short of what's needed to more readily access the upper reaches of the engine's alacrity. The drag-strip numbers illustrate how the Subaru trails the heavier but otherwise closely comparable Toyota RAV4 automatic, which the Forester only just pips for fuel economy.

Moderately demanding off-road driving is within the automatic's grasp, even though it lacks its manual sibling's bonus low-range gearing. Help comes from the user-friendly AWD system, good ground clearance and conducive cross-over angles. Such attributes make the Forester one of the better SUV choices for tackling sand, slippery stuff and other off-road challenges.

It's no dummy on bitumen and unsealed roads, either. The Forester's amenable ride takes the sting out of rough or bumpy surfaces, and does so fairly quietly. Equally pleasingly, the ride's comforting absorbency isn't at the cost of body control - the Forester doesn't turn floaty over undulations and isn't wantonly rolly through corners.

Although degrees of understeer are evident whenever changing direction, the Forester noses into turns self-assuredly and the consistently well-balanced handling is very benign. Playful, someone said.

Since the brakes are fine (powerful, with nicely progressive pedal), the only discord is served by the steering which, although neither too heavy or excessively light in its weighting, is stodgily uncommunicative. Except when powering through bumpy corners, where the steering loads up and is rocked by bullying kickback. Even then, however, the Forester doesn't put a wheel wrong.

The accommodations are essentially free from clangers, too. Granted, the interior trim and bland tones mightn't be relished by all tastes, but the same can't be said for the Forester's relatively low cowl and better-than-average forward view, its legible instruments, functional centre stack, supportive front buckets, amply roomy and hospitable rear bench, plus the usefully capacious boot.

All things considered, Forester takes a solid silver.

Price: $30,490/As tested $32,490*
Engine: Flat 4-cyl, sohc, 16v
Layout: Front engine (north-south), AWD
Capacity: 2.457 litres
Power: 126W @ 6000rpm
Torque: 229Nm @ 4400rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Weight: 1490kg
Fuel/capacity: 95 octane/65 litres
Fuel consumption: 10.7L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ????? (Aus)

*Including auto transmission

For: Nicely balanced handling qualities; capable off-road; good package
Against: Four-speed auto; bland interior; poor radio range; six-monthly services

» 1st: VW Tiguan 103TDI
Mike McCarthy

A classic case of 'last in, best dressed' ... and most talented.

Our July 2006 SUV mega-test concluded by saying "... the soft-roader category still awaits the arrival of a standout contender." Well, judging by the new Volkswagen Tiguan, the wait is over. At a stroke the German giant puts the segment-dominating Japanese and Korean makes on notice to lift their game and takes gold in the process.

Not that it's a complete whitewash. But for most people, the few bloopers such as the corpulent turning circle, space-saver spare wheel and on-or-off electro-mechanical parking brake are unlikely to dim the Wolfsburg SUV's manifold attractions.

The $35,990 turbo-diesel 103TDI manual (featured here) takes the middle ground, while six-speed automation adds $2300. Petrol Tiguans aren't scheduled for Oz until October, whereupon the 125TSI will cost $33,990 and $36,290 for the manual and automatic respectively. At $42,990, the more powerful, auto-only 147TSI is the daddy.

The Tiguan wastes no opportunity in making a good first impression. Most beholders see its purposefully clean styling as a touch crisper and classier than the visually fussier Oriental opposition. Accolades continue on closer inspection.

Together with the group's shortest wheelbase and second shortest length overall (albeit by millimetres), the averagely tall Tiguan is one of the widest models here. It's also heaviest of the eight, and feels to be among the most rigid in the body over bumpy and uneven roads.

Unsurprisingly, the Tiguan TDI isn't a high scorer in power-to-weight and standing-start acceleration, by petrol standards, anyway. Despite being plenty punchy when going through the gears, the performance really scores in rewardingly swift rolling response. And apart from not reaching 120km/h in third gear, Tiguan's lusty thrust simply blitzes the other turbo-diesel contenders.

For a turbo oiler, the 2.0-litre VW unit is uncommonly spirited as it surges past the 5000rpm redline before being quenched at five-four. It isn't just a rev addict, though, because there's real gumption on tap right through the range from just over 1500rpm.

Like all diesels, the TDI gets on the case in short, sharp bursts. Wham-bam and gimme another gear. Thankfully, there's six of 'em and the slick gearshift ensures they're as easy to run through as you could wish.

Should you not wish that, however, Volkswagen says the automatic is almost as brisk and little less economical. On test, the Tiguan romped home averaging low eights (litres per 100km), just ahead of the TDI-engine-sharing Patriot CRD, while the manual and automatic petrol rivals were still at the pumps satiating their low-to-high-tens thirst. Judging from the slightly firm but generally amenable ride quality, sure-footed handling, well-connected steering and consistently powerful (if slightly over-assisted) braking, there's no sense of SUV compromise in the Tiguan's chassis dynamics. Yet the VW demonstrably holds its own in off-road adventures, by dint of good ground clearance and short overhangs in concert with a proficient all-wheel-drive system.

In this instance (similar to the Forester) the centre-diff role is played by an electronically activated clutch pack that directs most torque to whichever end has the better adhesion. When grip differs significantly from wheel to wheel, the electronic diff lock (EDL) steps in to brake whichever wheel is spinning, so most torque is channelled where there's most grip.

For those who really enjoy a spot of soft-roading, the Tiguan's option list (surely the longest of any in this class) offers an upgrades pack that includes a compass, hill descent assistance, low tyre pressure indicator, and changes to the ABS, EDL and accelerator pedal settings.

Together with the well-equipped cabin's attractively fresh Euro-style accommodations, and the focus on first-class driving, the off-road technology option shows that rather than just playing catch-up, the Tiguan finally gives the compact SUV class a standout contender. It's convinced us and we're hard to please.

Price: $35,990/As tested $37,570*
Engine: In-line 4-cyl, dohc, 16v turbo-diesel
Layout: Front engine (east-west), AWD
Capacity: 1.968 litres
Power: 103kW @ 4200rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1630kg
Fuel/capacity: diesel/64 litres
Fuel consumption: 8.2L/100km (test average)
NCAP rating: ????? (Aus)

*Includes metallic paint/rear parking sensors

For: Responsive performance; frugal; slick dynamics; interior quality
Against: Electric parking brake, space-saver spare, ungainly turning circle

More research

Honda CR-V Sport -- Carsales Network road test: here
Jeep Patriot -- Wheels launch review: here
Mitsubishi Outlander LS -- Carsales Network road test: here
Nissan X-TRAIL ST, ST-L and Ti -- Carsales Network launch review: here
Subaru Forester X -- Wheels review: here
Suzuki Grand Vitara Diesel -- Carsales Network launch review: here
Toyota RAV4 CV -- Carsales Network news article: here
Volkswagen Tiguan -- Carsales Network launch review: here  » Visit Wheels magazine website


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Published : Tuesday, 7 October 2008
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Editorial prices shown are a "price guide" only, based on information provided to us by the manufacturer. Pricing current at the time of writing editorial. Pricing prior to editorial dated 25 May 2009 may refer to RRP. Due to Clarity on Pricing legislation, RRP for those editorials now means "price guide". When purchasing a car, always confirm the single figure price with the seller of an actual vehicle.

^ If the price does not contain the notation that it is "Drive Away No More to Pay", the price may not include additional costs, such as stamp duty and other government charges. Please confirm price and features with the seller of the vehicle.

Opinions expressed with editorial material are those of the writer and not necessarily Ltd. editorial staff and contributors attend overseas and local events as guests of car manufacturers and importers.

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