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The Two Times Volkswagen Lied To Us Via Tiguan Taillights

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I have a soft spot for Volkswagens, mostly the air-cooled ones, but I have owned more than my share of water-cooled VWs, too. I had an ’82 Rabbit convertible that was a 90 horsepower little fun-basket, a Passat wagon with an oil pan made of something with the same bending strength as Passover matzoh, and most recently, a Tiguan that’s proven to be kind of a time bomb. Despite all the issues I’ve had with my more recent liquid-cooled VWs, I’m still pretty forgiving. Even Dieselgate, one of the largest corporate betrayals of trust in recent memory, feels largely forgotten. But I think the one thing I can’t totally forgive Volkswagen for is how they made Tiguan taillights into tailliars, not once, but twice. Allow me to expose this deception for you.

The more recent example of Tiguanian taillight deception is one I’ve discussed before, referenced in a certain taillight-focused bit of crime fiction. I’m talking about the 2012 facelift of the first-gen Tiguan, where a lot of the look was reconciled with VW’s then-current design language and the changes included a new grille and new lighting, front and rear.

At the rear the new taillights looked like this:

Okay, nothing seems too weird there, right? Well, I’m sorry to break this to you, but that taillight is lying to you. Here’s why:

Yes, much like those famous Chevy Vega lying rear amber indicators, the amber section there is not the turn indicator; rather, the red section just blinks, and the amber bit sits there, inert and deceptive. This is because the rules for American-market cars dictate that a rear turn indicator must have at least 7.75 square inches of area to illuminate; in Europe, the size is much smaller.

So, the indicator area was designed for European regulations, which was too small for American regs, so instead of, you know, actually doing anything about this, VW just thought, screw it, and made the tail/brake light area flash (like a ’74 AMC Gremlin did) and left the lens in place, with its deceptive patch of amber.

Okay, we can all see how this kinda sucks, but I’m sure we can also understand the fundamental motivation: it was cheap. VW didn’t care enough to spend money on a new lens, so it just did the absolute minimum theyit could get away with and called it a day.

The other deceptive Tiguan taillight is actually far more confusing because I can find no rational motivation for it at all. The light I’m talking about was the original Tiguan taillight, pre-facelift, used from 2007 to 2011. It looked like this:

Now, I know what you’re thinking (because your COVID vaccine tracks that and sends your thoughts to me via text messages). You’re thinking, “Jayjay, you jackass, you miserable simpleton, what’s wrong with those taillights? They clear and bold and vivid, with red rings for brake and tail, and inner sections for turn indication (on the outside, with an amber bulb) and reverse on the inner ovoid shape! What could be more perfect?”

Well, friend, I’m here to let you know that the Tiguan has lied to you, again, though technically this one was the earlier time.

Still, lies!

That reverse lamp is not a reverse lamp: it’s just some bit of silvery reflective plastic. The real reverse lamps are down in the bumper here:

Now, here’s the real question: why? 

Yes, why? Why would VW have made this decision? What would they stand to gain? I don’t get it.

I mean, they’re not the first to fake a reverse lamp, but the last time that happened with any degree of regularity was in the Dawn of Reverse Lamps — 1950s America. Then, it wasn’t that uncommon to see cars that offered optional reverse lamps and would sometimes plug the holes of buyers too cheap to care what was behind them at night with little, usually shiny filler panels like on the 1955 Ford Thunderbird:

See how The left one has a real reverse lamp lens, and the right one just has a ribbed aluminum panel to fill the hole? This sort of false reverse lamp makes more sense, because at the time it was an option, and you needed a way to deal with its absence.

But on the Tiguan, a car from over half a century later, a reverse lamp was mandatory. VW had to include at least one, so why the hell would the company design a taillight unit with places for reverse lamps, but then instead install fake ones, only to make a whole other set of them in the rear bumper?

You might think it’s because of regulations about lights being visible if the tailgate is open, since the location of the false reverse lamps are in the tailgate. But the problem there is that there’s no requirement for reverse lamps to remain visible with the tailgate open, in Europe or America!

Look, here’s a US-market Toyota RAV4:

As you can see, the reverse lamp is on the tailgate, and there’s a billion of those things on the road, breaking no lighting laws.

And, if we look at these Vauxhall Insignia Estates, we can see that the generation that had all the lights move with the tailgate only had to have auxiliary brake/tail and turn lamps mounted on the inside, and the later Insignia kept the brake/tail/turns on the body, with just the reverse lamps illuminating the heavens with the tailgate open.

So, again, I reiterate: VW DID NOT HAVE TO DO THIS.

Just take a moment and think about the sheer madness of these first-gen Tiguan taillights. Imagine a conversation with the lighting designer and some VW product planner:

SCENE: Interior, VW lighting design studio. Lighting designers at advanced computer workstations, lovingly attended to by skimpily-clad Lighting Division interns.

TIGUAN PRODUCT PLANNER: So, tell me about these taillights you designed for our new compact crossover!

LIGHTING DESIGNER: You’re going to love them! Look at these evocative ovoid shapes! The dazzling clarity of the plastics, the grid-like light diffusers, the subtle amber bulb! It’s my triumph! My masterwork!

TPP: Yes, yes, I see. It is achingly beautiful.

LD: And here’s the best part! See this, right here, this whitish/silvery ovoid?

TPP: The reverse lamp?

LD: Ha ha ha ha! You fool! No! It’s not a reverse lamp at all! I have deceived you! The true reverse lamps are down here, inset into the bumper, along with some redundant reflectors! They’ll cost more to build, install, wire, everything, everything, everything! And I didn’t have to do it! I chose to, do you see?

TPP: But…why? If you wanted them in the bumper, why the false reverse lamp in the main light unit? I don’t understand?

LD: NOBODY UNDERSTANDS BUT ME! ME! (Lighting Designer then throws smoke bomb and runs off, never to be seen again)


So, fundamentally, I do not understand these lights. The later update is a liar of a lamp, sure, but at least the motivation is understandable: cheapness. The original lamp, however, defies all logic. Even if we just accept that the style desired for the light required that inner clear ovoid, that doesn’t explain why didn’t they just make it the actual reverse lamp.

I can’t with all this, I just can’t. How can I maintain the illusion of the basic competency of the adults that run the world when this is the sort of thing produced by one of the world’s largest automakers, from a country renowned for its technical rationality? The very existence of these Tiguan taillights should make any rational human question the very fabric of organized society.

God help us all.

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53 Responses

  1. Jason: I beg you to do a break down on the Mini Cooper Clubman taillights. these deceptive Fuckers (Decepti-Fucks?). They have ENORMOUS tailight assemblies at a normal height but the damned BRAKE lights AND signals are only in the bumper! I get irate every time that i see one of these monstrosities.

    1. My ’20 Bolt has the tiny turn signals in the bumper also. According the the Federal Government they are legal because they are more than 15″ off the ground. I have big red LED combination taillights and stoplights higher up but they don’t work as directions signals. In the ’22 Bolt the upper lights are no longer stoplights. Stopping and turning notification is handled by the tiny lights in the bumper. Thanks GM, (I’m sorry, its “gm” now.)

    2. I was just following one of these on the highway in poor visibility. I have the same question. I thought, could the bulbs be out? But then I remembered they were probably LED. I should probably just have rear ended it… /s

      1. The European (or at least Irish) Land Cruiser is worse. The normal looking rear light cluster does nothing. Everything takes place in the lower bumper light, which is often not visible in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

        1. That’s a quirk of some regulatory requirements – in Japan and other markets the regular rear clusters function normally, but some regions require both rear clusters to be visible from wider angles on both sides so additional lights are fitted to the rear bumper – often this happens on Japanese 4x4s with an option for a tailgate mounted spare tyre.

      2. Also add in the previous gen Silverado LED lights that had the two right angled lights in them. They functioned as brake and tail lights as well as indicators whilst the majority of the light housing didn’t illuminate at all.

    3. Agree. It’s like Mini took the normal cooper taillights, rotated them 90 degrees inward, and called it a day. Then there’s the bizzaro design. For a while they looked almost like a union jack, then they went with something similar to a UFO crop circle. WTF.

    4. Yeah, the F55 Clubman taillight assemblies move with the door, so they would be an infraction on the U.S. mandate about the taillights visible when the rear doors / hatch is open — thus the brake lights actually in the bumper (at least in the U.S.?) The R55 Clubman, on the other hand, does not have this issues as the taillight assembles are affixed to the body, and the rear doors have cutouts for the taillights, so no bumper brake shenanigans required. The R55 is also a 3-door passenger vehicle; one being a suicide door. So, by all accounts, is far superior to the F55 Clubman.

      1. Loved my 2010 R55 Clubman S and its wacky lighting! Especially the fact that MINI bragged the rear brake/tailights were as small as NA regulations allowed but still included brake/tail/turn/reverse/fog. Oh and the numerous times I was told I had a reverse light out because the driver side lens had the rear fog instead, made me so happy 😀

        I was so disappointed seeing what MINI did to the F55 rear lights after all the effort that went into the R55.

  2. I have no reason to suspect this, but I wonder if the lower reverse lamp placement illuminated the area a backup cam sees better? But they had already ordered the lens covers and decided they had to stick with the design?

    It’s not a sound hypothesis, but at least it would sort of explain it.

  3. “…the Dawn of Reverse Lamps — 1950s America.”

    My first car, a ’59 Ford Custom 300 sedan, was even more deceptive in this regard than the ’55 Thunderbird shown above. Instead of an external replacement panel it had the reverse lamp housings and lenses as usual but in place of the reflector and bulb it just had a flat plate on the inside and, of course, no wiring. The result was externally indistinguishable from a pair of reverse lamps without the, you know, “lamp” part.

  4. In Ye Olde Times of non-LED lightbulbs, I owned the super cool Citroën XM, and it jusk looked so swell with 4 big red 1980ies style rear lights besides each other on the back. But the ones in the hatch kept popping due to the vibration from closing the hatch. Other lesser expensive cars just had red reflex panels besides the license plate (you COULD call those fake lights).
    So one positive thing about fake rear hatch lights is that you will not need to change the bulbs.

    Congratulations on your nes site, guys! Great job ????
    Hello from DK, far way ????

  5. My MK7 GTI inner headlight projectors are not headlights at all. The outer projectors are used for both high and low beams, and the inner projector just has a tiny dot that lights up for looks when you turn the headlight on.

  6. “American-market cars dictate that a rear turn indicator must have at least 7.75 square inches of area to illuminate”
    If this is true, then how does Tesla get away with a tiny strip of LEDs for both brake and turn signals? I saw a Model Y the other day and it was like 3 LEDs for the turn signal.

  7. This very article is proof that there are far too many auto enthusiasts and just downright common sense minded folks on the earth to allow cars to be built like white goods. I hear of auto manufacturers using focus groups to help guide them but how weighted are their suggestions vs the drive to pinch a penny here and there?

  8. My Honda HR-V taillights lie. The inner section on the tailgate looks like it has a bunch of lights in it but there’s nothing other than the backup lights. The JDM version (called the Vezel instead of HR-V) had much nicer looking taillights and the bit on the tailgate actually lights up with the parking lights. I’ve thought about getting a replica set that taps into the license plate lights (because Honda wired HR-V taillights different from the Vezel) but honestly, I don’t plan on keeping the car terribly long and I want to leave it as stock as possible for maximum resale value.

  9. I looked at the 07-11 Tiguan pic and thought of the 06-09 mk_v golf/rabbit. Also deceptive. The north American models have red turn signals and a blank space where euro models have an amber blinker. But the reverse lights are on the hatch, right where you expected them to be on the Tiguan.
    Now I’m down a “rabbit” hole researching how to make my ambears work! Thanks Jason! Old posts I found say get a socket from RadioShack, can I borrow your Way back machine? Grumbling, and growling….

  10. I had a 1965 Corvair for a while and I believe these had the opposite problem. They had tail lights that looked like quad tail lights from a Corvette, but the inner set were reverse lights with a thin red reflector encircling them, so when you hit the brakes you really only had single lights in the back.

    It was a really popular mod to remove the reverse lights entirely and put brake lights there instead so you got the quad look.

  11. VW added reverse lights as a separate light fixture on their ’67 models. When I bought my ’67 squareback with a popping head, I had to go through the full inspection (minimal as it is in California) to get it registered. I could not figure out how the reverse switch worked or even where it was located, so I punted.
    I welded up a couple of T’s and installed them in the holes in the bumper intended for the reverse lights.
    I figured if they weren’t there, they couldn’t inspect them! It worked and I got it registered. Shhh, don’t tell the DMV, I still haven’t installed them some 44 years later.

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