You can't miss the irony: The company whose beloved Beetle became the basis for many of the first off-road vehicles is one of the last to bring a modern sport/utility to market. But it's been worth the wait. The all-new 2004 Volkswagen Touareg is no Bug-based dune buggy. Stylishly designed, masterfully executed, and supremely capable, the Touareg topped a competitive field to be named the 2004 Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year.

In creating its new sport/ute, VW had a specific driving mission in mind: anything. The Touareg deftly blends such carlike virtues as luxury amenities, a smooth ride, and precise handling with more traditional SUV qualities such as ample cargo space, exceptional ground clearance, serious four-wheel-drive off-road ability, and major towing. The result is a handsome SUV as adept at whisking four formally attired adults to the symphony as it is climbing boulders on the way to a remote campsite. Make that five adults in a pinch.

To pull off this challenging best-of-all-worlds balancing act, Volkswagen formed an alliance with Porsche. Not only did the Stuttgart-based sports-car maker need a sport/utility to expand its lineup, but Porsche's engineering arm could bring to bear all the experience it's gained developing cars and sport/utilities for other automakers.

The Touareg is thus based on an all-new unit-body platform shared with Porsche's new Cayenne. The two vehicles also share basic body structures (but no exterior sheetmetal), drivetrain bits, and suspension designs. The Touareg stretches just three inches longer than a Passat, although it stands nine inches taller and is considerably wider; it's also within a few inches of its German competitors, the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

While other automakers aimed for provocative styling that emphasizes a particular niche in the SUV market, VW sensibly arrived at a look that might be best described as a tall Passat wagon on protein powder. From the start of our multiweek test, the Touareg's notebook began filling up with enthusiastic styling reviews. "Fresh, contemporary, adult," wrote one editor. "Handsome design--a purposeful look," noted another. To our collective eyes, the VW is also a more visually compelling package than its structural sibling, the Cayenne.

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.

The Touareg's stiff, unitized body structure (good enough also to wear a Porsche badge) is key to a squeak- and rattle-free driving experience. To this substantial foundation, Volkswagen mounts an all-independent suspension worthy of any German luxury car. Base springs are steel, while an air-suspension setup is optional. Said one editor, "The Touareg is remarkably steady, solid, and calm on the highway and long mountain straights. It could be a sportwagon to rival the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class sedans on the autobahn." Another added, "Great handling stick without exacting a ride penalty." On Motor Trend's 600-foot slalom, the air-suspension-equipped Touareg V8 zigged and zagged through the cones at a respectable 59.4 mph, better than two-thirds of the SUVs in this year's competition.

The most outstanding aspect of the Touareg's pneumatic suspension is its adjustability. Shock damping can be adjusted with the turn of a knob on the center console. Ride height is equally easy to adjust, with five settings available--from 6.3 inches of ground clearance for acquiring or discharging passengers or cargo, 8.7 inches during standard 'burb trawling, and 7.5 inches for low-profile high-speed aerodynamics, to 9.4 or 11.8 inches for clearing off-road obstacles. Raved one editor, "Adjustable suspension ought to be offered in every upmarket SUV. It makes the vehicle a multiple-personality driver."

Without any adjustments, the Touareg can effectively mimic a luxury sedan. Opening the door is akin to entering a reading room at a gentlemen's lodge. The seats are firm and supportive. Rich-looking leather (standard on the V8 model) and real walnut trim are complemented by dashes of aluminum. The detailing is impeccable. Materials, fit, and finish are the richest yet seen in a Volkswagen. Numerous compartments for cell-phones, garage-door openers, sunglasses, and the like abound. Cupholders in the front console use spring-loaded fingers to keep beverages secured. Dual-zone climate control is standard; optional is a four-zone system that adds temperature, flow, and directional control for rear-seat passengers. Turn on the lights at night, and the dash, console, and door panels come alive with a galaxy of red light from backlit switchgear, bathed in places by soothing blue hues. VW's design quality is the envy of the industry, and it shows in the Touareg.

Speaking of quality, we're aware that some Volkswagen products have received below-average reviews in long-term reliability studies (from the J.D. Power three-year survey, in particular). But from where we're standing, it appears VW has pulled out all the stops to make the Touareg a quality product. (We're adding a Touareg to our long-term test fleet and will be reporting on its durability.)


Our staff unanimously praised the artful design and high quality of the Touareg's interior. When you think about it, the Touareg is a natural development from the company that brought us the Microbus and the mud-puddle-hopping Thing.

Volkswagen's sport/utility is packed with standard active-safety systems. Huge anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes are equipped with electronic brake force distribution and Brake Assist. ASR traction control and ESP dynamic stability control can cut power and apply individual brakes to keep the Touareg on its intended course. Hill Rollback Control keeps the SUV from rolling back on a steep incline by locking the transmission, while Hill Descent Control helps keep downhill speed out of the white-knuckle range by limiting engine torque and modulating the brakes. If all else fails, the Touareg features multistage dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags, and head curtain airbags for both seat rows.

Could VW's new SUV be improved? Sure. Some buyers might wish for the flexibility of a third-row seat. We've noted some unpleasant wind noise from the roof rack at high speeds; throttle pedal travel seems unnaturally long; and the optional navigation system doesn't include street names on the maps (an updated system with names will be introduced next year). Power output from the standard V-6 is adequate, but no more.

Such quibbles are minor. In the final analysis, the Touareg is a dazzling new SUV, a versatile and competent player that'll meet or exceed the expectations of soft roaders and hard-core SUV truckers alike. The Touareg is a fine value, too: With base prices starting at $34,900 for the V6 and $40,700 for the V8, the modern and up-to-date Touareg is priced thousands less than its counterparts from BMW and Mercedes--and tens of thousands less than the Porsche Cayenne.

When you think about it, the Touareg is a natural development from the company that brought us one of the original multipurpose vehicles, the Microbus, and the mud-puddle-hopping Thing. The idea of a sport/utility from Volkswagen makes perfect sense. We'll go even further and declare that the 2004 Volkswagen Touareg is a spectacularly appealing SUV and earns its place as Motor Trend's Sport/Utility of the Year.

The Sport/Utility Coattails Effect
Volkswagen's first-ever sport/utility arrives at an important juncture for the automaker. VW has been losing sales over the past year due to the aging of its Jetta, Golf, Passat, and New Beetle. Adding the Touareg helps Volkswagen retain customers who'd otherwise have shopped elsewhere. Planned annual volume for the Touareg is in the 35,000 range, roughly 10 percent of VW's North American sales. In recent years, sport/utility sales have turned the tide at Lexus (RX 300), Acura (MDX), and Volvo (XC90)--all past Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year winners--and we have every reason to believe the Touareg will do the same for VW.--Ron Sessions

  2004 Volkswagen Touareg V6 2004 Volkswagen Touareg V8
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 4wd Front engine, 4wd
Engine type 15° V-6, iron block/alum heads, LEV 90° V-8, iron block/alum heads, LEV
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 5 valves/cyl
Displacement, ci/cc 194.6 / 3189 251.8 / 4127
Bore x stroke, in/mm 3.31x3.78 / 84.0x95.9 3.33x3.66 / 84.5x93.0
Compression ratio 11.3:1 11.0:1
Max horsepower @ rpm 220 @ 5400 310 @ 6200
Max torque @ rpm 225 @ 3200 302 @ 3000
Redline, rpm 6500 6500
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/manumatic 6-speed automatic w/manumatic
Drive system 4Xmotion permanent 4wd w/low range (2.66:1) and locking center/rear diffs 4Xmotion permanent 4wd w/low range (2.66:1) and locking center/rear diffs
Axle/final-drive ratio 4.56:1 / 3.15:1 4.56:1 / 3.15:1
Suspension, front; rear Upper/lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; four-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar Upper/lower control arms, air springs, anti-roll bar; four-link, air springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes, f;r 13.0-in vented discs; 13.0-in vented discs, ABS, EBD, BA 13.0-in vented discs; 13.0-in vented discs, ABS, EBD, BA
Wheels 17 x 7.5, aluminum 18 x 8.0, aluminum
Traction/stability control ASR, ESP ASR, ESP
Tires 255/60R17 H
Dunlop Grand Trek ST 8000 M+S
255/55R18 V
Continental 4X4 Contact M+S
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in 112.4 112.4
Track, f/r, in 65.2 / 65.7 65.2 / 65.7
Length, in 187.2 187.2
Width, in 75.9 75.9
Height, in 68.0 68.0-71.1
Seating capacity 5 5
Legroom, f/r, in 41.3 / 35.6 41.3 / 35.6
Shoulder room, f/r, in 57.7 / 57.4 57.7 / 57.4
Headroom, f/r, in 38.7 / 38.3 38.7 / 38.3
Cargo capacity, cu ft 31.0 / 71.0 (seats up/down) 31.0 / 71.0 (seats up/down)
Ground clearance, in 8.3 8.7-11.8
Apprch/dep angle, deg 28 / 28 28-33 / 28-33
Fording depth, in 19.7 22.8
Curb weight, lb 5086 5300
Weight dist, f/r, % 52/48 54/46
Max payload, lb 1400 1250
Max towing cap, lb 7716 7716
Fuel capacity, gal 26.4 26.4
Turning circle, ft 38.1 38.1
TEST DATA
0-60 mph 10.8 7.9
1/4 mile, sec @ mph 17.57 @ 78.90 15.55 @ 88.83
Top speed, mph 122 130
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 132 126
600-ft slalom, mph 57.4 59.4
200-ft skidpad, g 0.75 0.76
Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph 2100 2150
CONSUMER INFO
On sale in U.S. Currently Currently
Base price $34,900 $40,700
Price, as tested $41,365 $49,915
Airbags Dual front, front side, front and rear head curtain Dual front, front side, front and rear head curtain
EPA mph, city/hwy 15/20 14/18
Range, miles, city/hwy 396/528 370/475
Basic warranty 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/60,000 miles 5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Recommended fuel Premium unleaded Premium unleaded
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