We had high hopes for the Volkswagen Touareg when it arrived here. After all, this all-terrain machine was co-developed alongside the Porsche Cayenne, leaving no doubt VW was serious about becoming a major player in the SUV market. The results were impressive, so much so that we awarded VW's first effort in this category with our 2004 Sport/Utility of the Year and a few months later took one into our long-term test fleet for scrupulous evaluation.
At launch, the Touareg was offered with two gas engines and one diesel V-10 (emission requirements have since canceled the super torquey diesel option). It's available with a low-range transfer case, locking differentials, and driver-adjustable air suspension to adjust ground clearance. All this plus attractive styling, premium interior materials, and a sizeable cargo area quickly put the Touareg on the top of many SUV-crazed shopper's lists.
The real-life practicality of any moderate-size SUV means it doesn't spend much time sitting idle in our parking structure, and the same held true for our Touareg. Lots of commuting and weekend errand running easily revealed its strong points and a few weaker ones. Just about everyone who drove it complained about the abrupt throttle tip-in and that the transmission hung onto a gear too long when upshifting. Hesitations during downshifts were common, and the electronic assist brakes proved difficult to modulate. An intrusive all-wheel-drive system, unrefined drive-by-wire system, and non-linear brakes further made it difficult to drive smoothly around town, in spite of the big 'ute's 310 horsepower and 5300-pound curb weight.
We're also baffled as to why the nav system doesn't display street names on the screen. The map is colorful and features helpful graphics, but the lack of street names makes it difficult to use for getting around unfamiliar neighborhoods.
Once up to cruising speeds, however, the hiccups disappeared, and the Touareg became responsive and smooth. The V-8 has plenty of firepower to spare. Highway miles click off with ease, and the Touareg feels stable and solid at near triple-digit speeds. The interior is a comfortable place for five, and road noise is minimal.