Yellowstone in a Base Tiguan: The Glory of Less

When you really think about it, Yellowstone National Park is just a fence. And yet, without frills or luxuries, it still manages to inspire poetry and attract people from around the world. So often that “less is more” attitude is the secret to making something better. Take, for example, this article. And that’s kind of why Yellowstone the perfect place to drive VW’s new Tiguan in base spec.

Generally, when I get a press car to review, it’s just about as stuffed with features as is possible. Which makes sense: carmakers want to put their best foot forward. But features, like frills at a national attraction, can be distracting. Disney World is okay, I guess, but it appeals to kids and those have terrible taste. Yellowstone, by contrast, is simple and can invoke life-changing moments of unexpected poetry and contemplation, two things that have never happened in Florida, much less at Disney World.

So what’s left of the Tiguan when you strip away all the unnecessary? As is the case with most VWs these days, the answer can be expressed as M, Q, and B. The platform is under just about everything Volkswagen, Skoda, and SEAT make these days and the $60 billion dollar chassis will be around for some time, so its excellence is more than just a triviality. No matter what is asked of it, though, MQB keeps on delivering excellent performance.

The chassis performs admirably under the Atlas, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s more than up to the task of supporting the Tiguan. What exactly does MQB do, though? Well, it isn’t quite a chassis, like I said before. Volkswagen calls it a matrix, but they’re German engineers and few things are less intelligible than a German engineer. So what does MQB mean in English? Rather than being a chassis, per se, it’s more like a system that allows many cars to work with a given set of engines.

It’s helpful to think about VW’s electric platform, MEB. All you need for that is a solid place for the batteries and the motors–organized like a skateboard. Build it well and it’s a spine that can form the backbone of any number of cars. If it’s strong enough nearly every other proportion can be stretched until the materials fail (you probably want to stop before then, though).

MQB does the same thing, but it isn’t flat, so the skateboard analogy would feel tortured. The only metric that has to stay the same from car to car is the distance from the front axle to the pedals. Wheelbase, overhangs, and height can all change after that. You can even mess with the ride height to a certain extent, as the Golf Alltrack proves. So, even though we journalists are fond of saying that the Atlas and the Polo are the same, they can actually change pretty substantially and require chassis tuning. That said, VW has made a big deal of making its SUVs car-like (because apparently, people want to drive cars but not buy them), so MQB-based vehicles tend to be pretty similar.

John Muir once argued that the American wild is proof that “the world, though made is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation.” It might seem like an overreach to compare a chassis to the poetry of John Muir, but that’s never stopped me before. The thing about MQB is that it probably seemed like similar overreaching ambition to base an American-wild-conquering SUV on the same platform that was also designed for Europe’s tiniest medieval cities, but that didn’t stop VW. And the result works, with MQB remaking itself every time it gets glued to a different car.

Even through Yellowstone’s twistiest sections, up a Rockie that would put the Touge to shame, the car doesn’t disappoint. Sure, it’s no GTI, but the roads hardly feel wasted on the SUV. As you climb, moving from a tight left-hander to long sweeping right-hander, a funny thing happens: a quiet comes over you, a familiar pumping beats against your rib cage, and a little smile forms on the corner of your lip. It may not be fast (even though it makes 184 hp, it really ain’t fast), but, crucially, it’s neither numb nor dumb. The front wheels grab at corners and draw you through up the Yellowstone’s mountains and when you get high enough to find snow on the road, you don’t have to worry.

Even in this FWD version, with a competent set of tires, the Tiguan has as sure a grip of the road as a songbird has of a telephone wire. Anyone who tells you that you need AWD to be safe is either selling you something or has bought what the former is selling. In the words of my good friend’s father “all four wheel drive does is get you farther into the ditch.” And with seven standard gears, a more than satisfactory traction control system, and a reasonable sense of self-preservation, you have nothing to fear.

And though I wasn’t given any help by the VW’s new active safety features, namely front assist et al., I was perfectly capable of avoiding the rampant wildlife that you find in Yellowstone. The park is funny kind of place, where you can feel totally alone until suddenly you’re in the middle of a traffic jam caused by bison with a surprisingly strong sense of lane discipline. So it’s important to be confident in the car you’re driving because the road really does present you with some surprises. With brakes that you can leap on safely and the agility of its smaller chassis-mates, I’m confident the Tiguan would pass Sweden’s moose test with flying colors.

Look, obviously amenities are nice. Even Yellowstone has a hotel or two, some gas stations, and signs to let you know what you’re looking at, but the point is that they’re all there to highlight underlying excellence, not to hide humid swamp full of deadly venoms. Similarly, anything you’ll add to the Tiguan will make an excellent car better. It’s like Yellowstone, not Disney. And that’s a good thing.