BOULDER, CO – 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.

Recalling Napoleon Dynamite and his affinity for mutant animals such as the “Liger,” Volkswagen of America Inc. brings to market a compact, 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 in VW showrooms, 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.

In this artsy, hippie-infested college town of fire jugglers, avant-garde jazz and high-altitude rock climbers, the quirkily named Tiguan is right at home, alongside the Touareg, Routan (the forthcoming minivan) and Passat in the VW lineup.

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 make a dent in whichever segment it is placed. There are seven vehicles in Ward’s small CUV sector, including the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Jeep Patriot, and all of them are bound to sell well beyond that threshold.

In Ward’s intensely 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, especially considering its powertrain.

The turbocharged direct-injection gasoline 2.0L TSI DOHC 4-cyl. takes a back seat to no engine in the segment. 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, with the same output, in January earned a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award for the third year in a row, evaluated in the equally impressive 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.

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, for that matter – to devour concrete the way the Tiguan does. And it does so stealthily, as extra damping of the engine bay keeps noise from permeating the cabin.

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

Each transmission performs equally well, although the automatic manages significantly 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 end, while a 4-link independent suspension with coil springs, telescopic shocks and stabilizer bar anchor the rear. The firm handling, enhanced by 4-wheel vented disc brakes, suggests a vehicle more suited for pavement than for off-roading. Body roll is minimal.

The Tiguan also aspires to compete with the more expensive BMW X3, a similarly sporty German CUV that rarely ventures into the muck.

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, enhanced by the happy-faced 2-bar chrome grille, sleek cat-eye headlamps and sporty 10-spoke aluminum alloy wheels.

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. That formula has worked well for others in the segment; it should work for the Tiguan, too.

’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
Compression ratio 9.6:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 102.5 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length 174.3 ins. (443 cm)
Overall width 71.2 ins. (181 cm)
Overall height 66.3 ins. (168 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, Land Rover LR2, Acura RDX
Pros Cons
Engine 2nd to none Must wait for diesel
European handling Mutant animal name
6-speed manual Weak $ hurts pricing

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

Displays and instrumentation are immediately recognizable from the VW parts bin, and that’s a good thing.

The second-row bench seats accommodate three, although three adults would be too cramped.

The second row also slides forward and back 6.3 ins. (16 cm). But the development team could have saved a few bucks by having a fixed second row, as the seats fold flat (in a 60/40 configuration) when storage is needed. And the second row will rarely slide forward because there’s no third row to access.

Bolstering safety are six standard airbags (front, side and head) and optional rear side thorax airbags, as well as standard electronic stability control.

Optional features include a clever, massive panoramic sunroof that extends over both rows of seats, lending an open-air feel, much like a convertible, as well as a Dynaudio 8-channel 300-watt stereo system.

Another option is a new navigation system, featuring a 6.5-in. (16.5-cm) high-resolution touch screen with a rear-view camera and integrated 30 GB hard drive (10 GB for nav, 20 GB for audio).

The Tiguan has been on sale since last year in the home market of Europe, where it is available with VW’s all-new 2.0L TDI turbodiesel. That engine first arrives in the U.S. this August in the Jetta, available in all 50 states. VW officials confirm they are considering the engine for U.S. Tiguans, as well.

Hats off to VW executives for gambling on diesel’s future in the U.S., given the hefty premium over regular unleaded in this volatile energy market. Still, diesel’s fuel efficiency is hard to resist.

VW assembles the Tiguan in Wolfsburg, Germany, making it awfully 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 CR-V, which is built in East Liberty, OH. 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). With synthetic oil, the Tiguan only needs an oil change every 10,000 miles (16,093 km), VW says.

Despite the inducement, 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.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com