Look at the characteristics of the most popular vehicles in the U.S., and the two key attributes that will stand out to you are size and price, as Americans understandably look for cars that hit the sweet spot of roominess and affordability.
In recent years, the compact crossover class has exploded for precisely those reasons. At prices well below $30,000, buyers can find well-equipped vehicles with comfortable seating for five passengers and ample cargo.
But one of those compact crossovers – the Volkswagen Tiguan – has in recent years excelled in neither area. Smaller yet more expensive than a Ford Escape, Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, the Tiguan tried to provide a luxury experience at a discount – the sporty performance and outstanding build quality of an Audi, for prices closer to a Honda. But that sales pitch never really worked. While some buyers appreciated the Volkswagen's unique niche, the heart of the market remained elsewhere.
So, for 2018, Volkswagen took the Tiguan mainstream. It's now among the roomiest compact crossovers, rather than among the most cramped – even fitting in a small third-row seat. The 2018 Tiguan also gets better gas mileage despite its recent growth spurt, and sees only a modest price increase, to a base price of $26,095 decently equipped.
Based on a brief preview drive, the 2018 Tiguan remains among the livelier compact crossovers to drive. With clean, sober, boxy styling, it doesn't have an exuberant personality. But while it has respectable responsiveness and composure on par with a CR-V and better than a RAV4, acceleration from the Volkswagen's 184-horsepower 2.0-liter engine isn't exactly outstanding and gas mileage still significantly trails most competitors at 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving with all-wheel-drive. But the 2018 Tiguan does take regular fuel, which compares favorably against the 2017 model, which required more expensive premium gasoline.
The interior of the Tiguan isn't luxurious, but it is spacious, practical and user-friendly. The third-row seat is cramped, but usable in an emergency, so if you don't expect to keep it folded down most of the time, Volkswagen will steer you toward its outstanding full-size Atlas.
With prices remaining on the high side and gas mileage remaining a disappointment, the redesigned Tiguan hasn't quite mastered the mainstream. But now that it's more spacious and pleasant to drive, it is a more worthwhile contender.
Buyers dismayed by the Tiguan's transformation, meanwhile, can still buy last year's model as the Tiguan Limited at a significant discount, starting at $22,860. At that price, it's a sporty, luxurious alternative to just-the-basics subcompact crossovers like the Honda HR-V and Nissan Rogue Sport. However, consumers who are considering the older model should keep in mind that aging vehicle's poor gas mileage, premium fuel requirement and weak crash-test performance.
Once the staple of entry-level luxury, compact sports sedans have begun to shed buyers to premium crossovers. Not only do crossovers offer greater utility than sedans, but such vehicles are cheaper to manufacture because luxury crossover customers more willingly accept vehicles derived from humble mainstream models.
Lexus, for example, sells the IS as its least expensive sedan. Built with a sophisticated rear-wheel-drive layout that's designed for balanced high-speed handling and efficient management of high-performance engines, the IS 300 and IS 350 are designed to take on the esteemed BMW 3 Series. The IS also flaunts eye-catching exterior styling, with edgy details that were highlighted quite nicely by the test car's Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint job.
Contrast that to the base Lexus crossover, the NX.
While the NX shares some exterior styling details with the IS sedan, it is, mechanically speaking, a luxury version of the Toyota RAV4. The NX is still pleasant to drive and even feels a bit on the sporty side for a crossover. But there remains a pretty substantial gulf between these two Lexus vehicles on the road.
Of course, as many automakers have found, crossover utility does often carry the day among today's entry-luxury buyers. The Honda CR-V-based Acura RDX, the Mini-based BMW X1, and the Ford Escape-based Lincoln MKC also testify to this trend. If you're not dead set on a car with outstanding driving dynamics, it's easy to find a crossover with a smooth, quiet ride; a well-finished interior; lots of premium features; and high-end styling.
But even if you do choose the sedan, you should know that the IS has some drawbacks. While the base model – the IS 300 – comes with a relatively fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, the V6 the all-wheel-drive model (which we tested) comes equipped with is neither overwhelmingly powerful nor economical, as it comes rated by the EPA at only 21 mpg in mixed driving. The IS 350 model, however, comes upgraded with a more potent V6. The IS also suffers from a dated dashboard with fussy controls and an arguably downscale appearance.
By nicely balancing a smooth ride, agile handling, a decently roomy interior for four adults and slick exterior styling, the IS isn't without appeal. Pricing, which starts at $39,205, also compares favorably against European competitors.
However, shop the IS carefully against the more modern Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, along with the more economical Infiniti Q50.