THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Two crossovers display station wagon talents

By Clifford Atiyeh
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2012
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If it were up to me, this entire story would steer you away from crossovers and persuade you to drive a station wagon. However, by the looks of the station wagon segment—less than 2 percent of market share—that’s not what you want to read.

Right now, I’m driving a Volvo XC70, a station wagon that Volvo stealthily calls a crossover, and it just makes sense. It’s comfortable, has all-wheel-drive, and seats five. The wagon’s long, tube shape easily swallows up cargo, more than the beefy Jeep Grand Cherokee or the similarly sized Nissan Murano. The Subaru Outback, another fine wagon, swallows up more space than the Honda CR-V for the same price.

Fashion, however, has demanded higher ground clearance and the silly pretense of “adventure” and “active lifestyles” that go with it. So while I don’t swoon for the two crossovers gathered here today, the Honda CR-V and Volkswagen Tiguan, they do impersonate station wagons rather well, and sometimes, can match their space and utility. Let’s have a look.

Honda CR-V

You don’t need to look far to spot a CR-V on the street. Since 1997, this jacked-up Civic has been a coast-to-coast hit across cities and suburbs. Besides the wide-eyed front and Volvo-inspired tail lamps, the latest CR-V really knows how to pack it in. With the rear seats folded, there’s an astounding 70.9 cubic feet of cargo space, above anything in its class and topping even the Acura TSX wagon we reviewed last winter. That it swallows almost as much as the Volvo XC70 while being 10 inches shorter is a marvelous feat.

Inside, our loaded all-wheel-drive EX-L tester was very plush for $30,825, with ruffled leather seats heated front and rear (with a driver’s armrest), navigation, moonroof, and USB/Bluetooth connections. The dash is simple and attractive, and while the plastics are a significant cut above the Civic, they’re still hard and unpleasant to touch. The dual LCD screens are more like dueling screens, in that they show audio information in two entirely different layouts. Basic information like input and song titles are relayed to the smaller top screen, but if you’d like to see a full track list on your iPod or pump up the bass, you have to wade through the crude graphics of the bigger screen. The map graphics aren’t rendered well, either.

But if you can handle conflict, you’ll like the rest of the car. Headroom and legroom, front and rear, are quite good. The suspension is finely balanced between comfort and agility, with moderate body roll. The steering, like most Hondas, offers good feel with its fuel-saving electric assist, which tends to wipe out noise from traditional hydraulic systems. I also wasn’t expecting the CR-V, on relatively modest 17-inch tires, to handle as well as it did. The 2.4-liter 185-horsepower four-cylinder is more than enough for a commute, and it’s quite fun to rev to its high 7,000-rpm redline. The fivespeed automatic is carryover and is hardly noticeable, like any good transmission should be.

Fuel economy, at 22 city, 30 mpg highway, is improved from 2011. I averaged 22.4 mpg. This is a very competent crossover that hits all the basics and scores high on room and overall driving performance. If Honda can redo the poor LCD displays and pay more attention to the surface textures on the doors and dash—which it will need following the debut of the 2013 Ford Escape, another bestseller—the CR-V will keep its crown.

Volkswagen Tiguan No, I didn’t drive the obvious best-selling competitors, the Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape (of which Ford sold a record quartermillion last year). Both are outdated and will receive a complete redesign this year (the Ford taking a dramatic, tech-savvy turn; Toyota remains to be seen). How about a Volkswagen? The base Tiguan starts under $24,000, right alongside the CR-V, and even comes with a manual transmission. Push the options hard like our SEL (all-wheel- drive, navigation, xenon headlamps, panoramic sunroof) and the price creeps to $35,815, a few thousand dearer than a fully loaded CR-V.

There are a few reasons why. The fit and finish are markedly better, with a one-piece soft-touch dashboard top, genuine aluminum trim, and higher quality switchgear that is entirely illuminated at night. The doors slam with a thick, reassuring thud, and the infotainment display (just one!) is much easier to use with clearer graphics. The CR-V, anywhere you touch, doesn’t feel nearly as substantial.

Despite dating to 2007, the Tiguan’s design still looks fresh with its restyled front end and LED running lamps. It’s an unadorned, almost tailored shape that has aged well. The CR-V, by contrast, wears lots of styling elements that don’t all necessarily blend together. Driving the Tiguan, you feel like you’re in a less-expensive Audi. The steering is weighted perfectly, although it’s slightly slower to respond than the CRV. Grip is impressive, and body roll is very tightly controlled.

After that, the Tiguan falls apart. The beautiful 19-inch wheels on the SEL produce a ride that would make a heavy duty pickup feel like cotton candy. It’s intolerable. On anything other than a perfect road—which in New England, is everything—harsh shudders echo throughout the cabin and your body is constantly tossed about. Either the springs are too stiff or the tire sidewalls too thin, but it doesn’t work. Neither does the 6-speed automatic, which picks the wrong gears at all the wrong times. To improve fuel economy, Volkswagen reprogrammed the transmission to bog the four-cylinder engine, keeping it at absurdly low revs. At 30 mph, the Tiguan is in sixth gear, which not only causes an uncomfortable rumble in your eardrum, it makes it impossible to accelerate smoothly without the gearbox downshifting at every tap of the throttle. There was no reward, either. I averaged 19 mpg.

The last Tiguan I drove, about two years ago, wore smaller tires and shifted easily, making the most of the sprightly 200-horsepower turbocharged engine. It was a joy to drive with about equal fuel economy. Unless you shop for a 2011 or earlier Tiguan, the CR-V is the better choice. You could also buy a Jetta wagon, but before this story gets ugly, I’ll stop right here.

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at clifford.atiyeh@live.com.

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