We had high hopes for the Volkswagen Touareg when it arrived here. After all, this all-terrain machine was codeveloped 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 Motor Trend's 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 had canceled the torque monster, but now it's been reported VW will be bringing it back). It's available with a low-range transfer case, locking differentials, and driver-controllable 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 setup, touchy drive-by-wire system, and non-linear brakes further made it difficult to drive smoothly around town. 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-kind of the whole point behind having a nav system to begin with.
Once up to cruising speeds, however, the hiccups disappear, and the Touareg is responsive and smooth. Not surprisingly, with 310 horsepower and a 5400-pound wet weight, highway miles click off with ease, and the Touareg feels stable and solid (even at near triple-digit speeds). We found the interior a comfortable place for five, and road noise is minimal.
On many occasions, the ski addicts on staff pointed the Touareg toward the slopes at Mammoth Mountain, in Central California. One editor even decided to explore an unplowed, snow-covered road only to find himself stuck 100 yards from the highway. The VW's stock tires were clearly not up to this icy job, and it took several hours of shoveling to put the Touareg back on the road. Remember, 5400 pounds. In fairness to the Touareg, this was more a case of errant judgment than vehicle weakness.