BY SETSHABA MASHIGO

Performance SUVs can indeed be fun, but largely in ways that don’t involve lateral G-forces. Most entertain with ungodly amounts of power or by belching out sounds that are measured with a seismograph rather than a decibel meter. Sadists will find joy in heaving them through corners, but really, they’d much rather avoid any steering angle altogether.

Then I caught myself grinning hard while pedaling the new VW Tiguan R through a tight back road. I had to begin rethinking my preconceptions about the driving enthusiasts’ heathen.

The Tiguan R doesn’t just handle well, no. It goads you into throwing it into bends like very few other SUVs do. The secret lies in the platform it is built upon, which is borrowed from the Mk8 Golf R. This means that the Tiguan R gets the Mk8’s 235kW EA888 Evo 4 turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive system featuring the new Magna torque-vectoring rear differential – arguably the star of the show.

Being able to comfortably carry four passengers and all their luggage with room to spare naturally means the larger Tiguan R is heavier than its hatchback sibling. However, this is only by a surprising 100kg, or equivalent to one adult passenger.

Volkswagen’s penchant for subdued styling that follows a consistent line throughout the ages lends itself particularly well to the Tiguan R’s positioning as the “grown-up Golf R“. It’s a very classically attractive car with synergy between every panel. A lack of differentiation between the full fat R model and the lesser R-Line is a juicy bone of contention however. Only very astute car fans will spot the blue painted brake calipers and quad exhaust pipes to tell it apart from the run-of-the-mill cars. On one hand, this might leave you feeling a bit short-changed, but this Q-car status means that you will leave many a boy racer in shock every time you put your foot down and turn them into a small speck in your mirrors.

The Tiguan R’s interior follows a similar simple and functional design philosophy as the exterior, but the elegance and premium feel reach as far as the brushed aluminium door sills. Flashes of ambient lighting, a panoramic sunroof (which is standard in the R) and splashes of blue stitching stop the Tiguan’s interior just short of looking dreary. Various touch-points feel more like those you’d expect in a Polo rather than in a one million Rand premium car.

Suffice to say, the interior of the Tiguan R is a low-point of the package especially when compared to those of its peers like the X1. That said, a generous amount of standard interior features such as heated front seats, Harman Kardon sound system and a gesture controlled infotainment screen cover some lost ground.

Does the driving experience hinted at in the beginning go the distance? The effortless power and torque of the venerable 2.0-litre TSI resembles that of an engine with at least an extra cylinder or two, particularly when driving normally in the Eco driving mode. Pulling off, stop-go traffic, steep hills and overtaking are taken care of with minimal exertion by the engine and DSG gearbox. Hit the R button on the steering wheel and engage one of the sportier modes and the car perks up. Rather than rattle your teeth, the Tiguan R simply becomes more poised and gives you a little more information about what the four corners of the car are up to.

This brings me to one of the most impressive aspect of VAG products that I’ve become familiar with – although its steering feel by no means sets your hair on fire, the Tiguan’s steering weighting is amongst the best you will find in any modern car. This extends to the superb calibration of the brake pedal, which is not only evident when driving hard, but is also easy to modulate for smooth normal driving. Nothing I’ve mentioned so far would be a particular surprise to VW faithfuls.

The torque-vectoring rear differential however, that opens up an entirely new world of dynamic capability. It turns the Tiguan R, a 1.7 tonne SUV, into a genuinely nimble machine. Push the car to the limit and where you’d expect heavy understeer in old Haldex cars, let alone one with enough ground clearance to scale a pavement, the nose tucks in with barely a squeal from the front tyres. Push it past the limit and the rear of the car can be brought around with the lift of the throttle like a little hot hatch. It’s truly amazing to experience!

Overall, the Tiguan R is a stellar take on the compact performance SUV formula. But at just over one million Rand, the uninspiring interior leaves me feeling a bit cold. Despite the faultless dynamics, normal drivers might only ever exploit them 10% of the time at most, and left feeling unspectacular the rest of the time. Unless the incoming BMW X1 M35i or Mercedes-Benz GLA 35 AMG are unable to offer a sexier package at a comparable price range, the Tiguan R is almost the perfect small fast family hauler for the money.

QUICK STATS

VOLKSWAGEN TIGUAN R

ENGINE: 2.0-litre TSI, turbocharged petrol

POWER: 235kW at 4 500rpm

TORQUE: 400Nm at 2 100rpm

GEARBOX: 7-speed double clutch automatic

DRIVE: 4WD

0 – 100KM/H: 5.2 seconds

TOP SPEED: 250km/h

AVERAGE FUEL CONSUMPTION: 12.1 litres per 100km

FUEL TANK SIZE: 58 litres

RANGE: 480km

CO2 e: 201 g/km

PRICE STANDARD: R1 014 900

NATURAL RIVALS: BMW X1 M35, Land Rover Discovery Sport P300e, Mercedes-AMG GLA 35

PRICE RIVALS: BMW X3 sDrive 20i, Mercedes-Benz C200 Avantgarde, Volkswagen Amarok PanAmericana, Volvo S90 B5

MAINTENANCE PLAN: 5-year/100 000km, roadside assistance

BADDIE INDEX: 4/5

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