What Do You Get When You Cross a tiger with an iguana?

No, not a furry, striped lizard with big paws and a fierce disposition.

Reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite's penchant for imaginary, mutant animals such as the “Liger,” Volkswagen of America Inc. launches a competent cross/utility vehicle with an engine as fierce as a tiger and a cabin as quiet as a lizard.

The '09 Tiguan, now on sale, is a stylish, well-assembled, roomy, purposeful CUV that reinforces VW's edgy brand character, while injecting firm, European-style ride and handling into a segment not known for performance.

VW considers the Tiguan the “GTI of cross-over vehicles,” and the description fits. The only problem with the Tiguan is, like a tiger waiting patiently to pounce on its prey, it arrives very, very late to the CUV feeding frenzy.

If VW meets its target in selling 25,000 units annually, the Tiguan won't become the king of the jungle. In Ward's crowded midsize CUV segment, the Tiguan will be lost in a grouping of vehicles that sell in much higher volumes, namely the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.

From a numbers standpoint, the Tiguan will compete with also-rans such as the Kia Rondo and Mitsubishi Endeavor.

That's a shame because the Tiguan deserves to stand out, considering its powertrain. The turbocharged direct-injection gasoline 2.0L TSI DOHC 4-cyl. takes a back seat to no engine. Fueled with premium, it produces 200 hp between 5,100 and 6,000 rpm and 207 lb.-ft. (280 Nm) of torque between 1,700 and 5,000 rpm, virtually eliminating turbo lag.

The identical engine in 2008 earned a Ward's 10 Best Engines award for the third year in a row, evaluated in the Audi A3.

Through the twisty foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the TSI 2.0L is eager to please, no matter how steep the grade, and makes for a ride that is spirited and confident, without whining under heavy load. Even better, a diesel Tiguan may be in the U.S. product playbook.

The CR-V might be the gold standard in the sector based on volume, but few buyers expect their CR-Vs — or any other 4-cyl. CUV — to devour concrete the way the Tiguan does. And it does so stealthily, as extra damping limits engine noise.

Reinforcing Tiguan's sporty disposition is something else rarely found in CUVs of any stripe: a crisp-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, standard on base front-wheel-drive models.

The standard gearbox on the upper two trim levels, whether in FWD or 4Motion all-wheel-drive dress, is a 6-speed auto with Tiptronic manual shifting.

Each transmission performs equally well, although the automatic manages better mileage during a test drive (24.3 mpg [9.6 L/100 km]) in a 4Motion model, compared with 21.7 mpg (10.8 L/100 km) in the lighter FWD model with the 3-pedal configuration, according to the on-board trip computer.

Independent MacPherson struts stabilize the front, while a 4-link independent suspension with coil springs, telescopic shocks and stabilizer bar anchor the rear.

When the Tiguan flirts with gravel or uneven pavement, the vehicle's speed-sensitive electro-mechanical power steering pulls off a nifty trick by employing advanced electronics to absorb bumps in the road. The system allows the vehicle to stay flat and stable, without conveying any annoying vibrations to the driver.

The sheetmetal expresses VW's well-established understated styling cues. Its conservative design suggests the Tiguan, which resembles its bigger brother, the Touareg, does not intend to stand out too much from the CUV pack.

Inside, the Tiguan is relatively predictable, upholding VW's reputation for quality materials, clever styling and first-rate fit and finish. Seats are comfortable, donning sturdy cloth for the lower two trim levels and leather in the top trim.

The second-row bench seats accommodate three, although three adults would be cramped. The second row also slides forward and back 6.3 ins. (16 cm).

VW assembles the Tiguan in Wolfsburg, Germany, making it hard to sell in the U.S. profitably, due to the weak dollar.

Tiguan pricing starts at $23,200, a cheeky $2,500 above the Ohio-built CR-V. A fully loaded Tiguan will run north of $33,000, some $5,000 more than the top-of-the-line CR-V.

That explains the modest sales targets. To sweeten the pot, VW is offering free routine maintenance, including oil changes, on all '09 Volkswagens for three years or 36,000 miles (57,934 km).

Despite the spiff, the Tiguan remains a limited-audience CUV, targeted squarely at a unique breed of driver who needs a dash of functionality while still craving a dynamic, European ride. The Tiguan might be late to the CUV party, but it arrives well-composed and fashionably dressed — unlike Napoleon Dynamite.

As for the unusual name, it's not that bad. Be grateful VW isn't launching the MuttSnail or the BeagleVark.

[+]PROS/CONS[-]
> Engine 2nd to none > Must wait for diesel
> European handling > Mutant animal name
> 6-speed manual > Weak $ hurts pricing

'09 Volkswagen Tiguan S

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle

Engine: 2.0L TSI DOHC I-4; iron block/ aluminum head

Power (SAE net): 200 hp @ 5,100-6,000 rpm

Torque: 207 lb.-ft. (280 Nm) @ 1,700-5,000 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 102.5 ins. (260 cm)

Overall length: 174.3 ins. (443 cm)

Curb Weight: 3,397 lbs. (1,541 kg)

Base Price: $23,200

Fuel economy: 18/25 mpg (13/9.4 L/100 km) for FWD automatic

Competition: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Saturn Vue, BMW X3, Mazda CX-7

VW Considering Routan for Upcoming North American Plant
subscribers.WardsAuto.com/ar/vw_routan_plant