The Touareg has the muscle to back up its strong, refined looks, too. All models in the lineup--V6, V8, and the upcoming turbodiesel V10--are equipped with Volkswagen's 4XMotion four-wheel drive. The system automatically apportions drive torque between the front and rear wheels based on available traction. Unlike many "softroader" SUV competitors, the Touareg's 4x4 system has low range and a standard locking center differential for slow-going over the rough stuff. Both low and high ranges can be selected on the fly, and an optional locking rear differential is available. Commented one staffer, "The Touareg is a dream off-road; it never feels like it's working hard. And it's smooth on rough ground."

The Touareg's V-6 engine is an evolution of the narrow-angle VR6 that powers high-performance variants of the Golf and the Jetta. While it offers adequate output (220 horsepower) for its 3.2-liter displacement, some of its enthusiasm is sapped by the Touareg's 2.5 tons. A run from 0 to 60 mph requires 10.8 seconds. On the plus side, the engine's broad torque band (thanks in part to variable valve timing) and the flexibility offered by a standard six-speed automatic transmission make effortless work of around-town driving.

Type-A personalities will be drawn to the Touareg V8, which features a 310-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 borrowed from Audi's A8 and A6. A Touareg so equipped can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds--quicker than an Audi allroad quattro--all the while making sweet, throaty pipe music. "You gotta love the V-8 warble and rasp," quipped one editor. Another said, "Rumble with response--a great combo." The six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manumatic control dances well with the crisp power curve of the V-8. It almost feels like a manual transmission, holding gears when necessary and downshifting for engine braking on deceleration.

VW is saving the biggest Touareg gun for next year, when it'll introduce a 5.0-liter V-10 turbodiesel with 553 pound-feet of earth-rotating torque--more than a Dodge Viper's. Thanks to the flexibility of the six-speed automatic and the solidity of the body structure, all Touaregs--V6, V8, and V10 turbodiesel--are capable of towing up to 7716 pounds, substantially more than the Mercedes M-Class, BMW X5, or last year's Motor Trend Sport/Utility of Year, the Volvo XC90.

Opening the door is akin to entering a reading room at a gentlemen's lodge. The seats are firm and supportive. Rich-looking leather and real walnut trim are complemented by dashes of aluminum. The optional nav system (top of page) confuses with some functions, but has a few tricks that really help when off-roading.