Can "sporty" and "crossover" live happily ever after in one vehicle?

2011 Kia Sportage SX vs. Volkswagen Tiguan Highline 4Motion(Photo: John LeBlanc)

Note: Sportage EX shown

Listen up, class: Today's subject is the evolution of the car; a self-propelled vehicle that originated roughly 125 years ago in Germany, popularized by Henry Ford during the beginning of the 20th century that arguably stands as one of the most significant (for better or worse) human inventions of all time.

Now, up until the last quarter-century, the evolution of the overall form of the car had pretty much remained the same - two or four doors and a cargo hold in the shape of a trunk or a wagon/hatchback rear opening. Starting in the 1980s, the form of the automobile rapidly changed. All of a sudden, customers were offered cars of varying shapes and configurations they wouldn't have ever considered before, like minivans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. This development culminated in the fusion of car and SUV to take the form of so-called crossover utility vehicles.

Today, our daily transportation continues to evolve. Witness these two offerings: the Volkswagen Tiguan Highline 4Motion and the new Kia Sportage SX, a pair of crossovers sold under the fun-to-drive banner. Of course, MSN Autos must ask: Which one is the better buy?

Gallery: 2011 Kia Sportage SX vs. Volkswagen Tiguan Highline

Second place: 2011 Volkswagen Tiguan Highline 4Motion

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan Highline 4Motion(Photo: John LeBlanc)

You don't have to be a genetic engineer to suss out the DNA sources of Volkswagen's compact Tiguan crossover. Introduced in 2009, VW describes its Tiguan as "50 per cent car, 50 per cent SUV, 100 per cent fun!" Like many in its class, the Tig is essentially a blend of compact hatchback (in this case, the German automaker's familiar Golf) with a taller body and the availability of all-wheel-drive.

The five-passenger VW is available in front-wheel drive for as little as $27,875. Yet to match the new topline Sportage SX in features, you'll need to jump up to the top-level all-wheel drive Tiguan Highline 4Motion, which starts at $37,775, plus, in our tester's case, a $3,225 technology package (navigation; Dynaudio 300-watt audio system/30-gig hard drive; rearview camera) and $1,700 sport package (18-inch alloy wheels/tires; bi-Xenon headlights; sport suspension).

While the Golf can come with a multitude of power sources, all Tiguans are powered by the Golf GTI's turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0L four-cylinder engine. Using VW's small car heritage as a starting point, it's no surprise the Tiguan betters the Sportage in its quality of interior materials and refinement in the ride and handling departments.

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan Highline interior(Photo: John LeBlanc)

From the Tiguan's driver seat, the crossover is a virtual facsimile of the Golf's well-crafted and ergonomically sound interior - even if you do sit a bit taller in the saddle. All of the driver touchpoints - steering wheel, shifter, and pedals - are well-placed for spirited driving. Compared to the Kia, the VW's interior feels more upscale with richer materials used throughout.

From a ride and handling standpoint, the Tiguan really does drive like a taller GTI. Its German engineering is most obvious in the small crossover's steering. It offers more feel than the Kia, and initially bites into corners with more verve. Both of these sporty crossovers wear low-profile tires with tall 18-inch wheels, but the Tiguan's ride is more compliant than the Sportage's and is just as controlled with little body roll in sharp corners. Although both vehicles have six gears in their respective automatic gearboxes, we found VW's Tiptronic more willing to downshift than the slower-to-react Kia 'box.

Related Autos links:
Research a Volkswagen Tiguan
Compare the Tiguan Highline to rivals

2011 Volkswagen Tiguan Highline(Photo: John LeBlanc)

However, as good as the Tiguan is to drive, VW hasn't done enough to make it all that more practical than a GTI. Though its dimensions are similar to its Korean rival, compared to the likes of the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, the Tiguan is about a forearm's length shorter, and the lack of interior room makes it suffer significantly.

The Tiguan offers traction at all four wheels, something GTI owners will have to wait for until the estimated $40,000 Golf R shows up. But the Tig is not that much roomier than the Golf, which defeats the point in paying extra for the perceived practical values of any crossover.

Buy this car if ... you want Teutonic-quality interior furnishings and ergonomics; you want sports-compact-like steering, ride and handling.

Don't buy this car if ... you need some utility in your CUV.