T-I-G-U-A-N.

Word from Volkswagen AG headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, says that’s the name of the so-called Baby Touareg – a smaller, Golf-based version of the auto maker’s rugged cross/utility vehicle scheduled for production in 2008.

What do U.S. dealers think of the designation? They are, uh, speechless.

“T-I-G? U-A-N?…Wow,” says Long Nguyen, sales manager of Volkswagen Pasadena, in Pasadena, CA. “It sounds like ‘iguana.’”

Pronounced TIG-won, the name is derived from the words “tiger” and “iguana.”

K.C. Chang, fleet manager at Volkswagen Pasedena, one of the largest VW dealerships in the U.S., is disbelieving when Ward’s informs him of Wolfsburg’s decision.

“No. Say that…T-I-G-U-A-N?…No,” Chang says.

The name was chosen in voting by more than 350,000 readers of Germany’s AutoBild group of motoring magazines in 10 countries.

Of the five names on the ballot, it was the “clear winner,” VW says.

“This unique event is demonstrative of how Volkswagen is opening up,” Wolfgang Bernhard, chairman of the brand’s management board, says in a statement released by the auto maker. “We made a clear appeal to the market. The positive reaction shows that this is the right approach.”

Chang wishes VW had approached his customers.

“We’re one of the largest markets in the world,” he says of California. “You’ve got to name it something that people can pronounce right away and remember right away…What are the other names?”

Nanuk. Namib. Rockton and Samun.

“Samun? I guess they picked the best out of the five,” Chang says.

At other dealerships contacted by Ward’s, the news usually was greeted by a short pause. Then another. Then resignation.

“Tiguan…OK…Huh…Tiguan,” says Mitch Noyes, sales rep, Roger Jobs Volkswagen, Bellingham, WA. “Holy smokes…Alright. I’ve got to think, to some marketing guru somewhere, it sounded like a good idea. But as a dumb car salesman, I don’t think any of those names are effective.”

Might it hurt sales?

“I can’t imagine that it’s going to help,” Noyes says. “But I don’t imagine that it’s going to hinder things, either. It’s not a name that conjures up anything in particular.”

The emerging controversy comes as VW is expanding its lineup, a strategy it hopes will reverse a disturbing trend that saw its U.S. sales decline 12.5% last year compared with 2004.

So far, on the strength of its redesigned Passat and Jetta passenger cars, and the buzz generated by a new GTI, things are looking up.

Through June, VW’s U.S. sales rose 20% over year-ago. And the market has yet to feel the impact of the Rabbit’s resurrection in the form of a rebadged Golf and the Eos hardtop convertible.

Next year, however, the pace of VW’s product introduction slows in preparation for an anticipated sales breakthrough in 2007 when the auto maker introduces a Chrysler-based minivan – and the Tiguan.

Dealers note that VW encountered consumer confusion when it introduced the Touareg in 2003. Its name means, roughly, “free folk” and refers to a nomadic tribe that wanders the Sahara.

“It’s one of those things you can use to break the ice,” says Kevin Russell, senior sales rep at DeLon Volkswagen in Salem, OR. “You would say, ‘It’s TOUR-egg. Like an egg on tour. Ha ha ha!’ Then you get ’em from there.”

But he and his counterparts in California and Washington welcome a product to compete with the likes of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s CR-V.

“Something that size, I think it will take off pretty good,” Russell says.

Still, the name Tiguan gnaws away at him.

“Say that one more time?…the Tiguan. Hmm…(sigh). Is that the only choice?”

The Tiguan is inspired by the Concept-A off-road vehicle that debuted at this year’s Geneva auto show. The hatchback-style concept is powered by a 1.4L twin-turbocharged CNG engine and features suicide doors and 20-in. alloy wheels.

It is unclear whether the Tiguan, known internally as the Marrakesh during its development, will be marketed as such in North America.

“Marrakesh – that’s a mouthful, too,” says Nguyen.

Says Noyes: “I think of the song by Crosby, Still and Nash. Is it the name of a train?”

It is. The song is called “Marrakesh Express.”

“I don’t think that would be any better,” Noyes laments. “I guess, gosh darnit, you run out of names sooner or later with all the cars on the road.”

The Tiguan will be assembled at VW’s Wolfsburg plant. Workers there agreed to radical changes in their work schedules, a cost-cutting move that kept the auto maker from moving the program to its plant in Portugal where labor is cheaper.

– with Peter Homola in Vienna

emayne@wardsauto.com