Other off-roading opportunities included an exploration of California's Anza Borrego state park where we had numerous occasions to exercise the Touareg's low-range gears and locking differentials. When the trail conditions turned nasty, low range could be selected and the center and rear diffs could be locked all at the turn of a few center console-mounted knobs.

The Touareg's interior features a center stack with a sea of buttons that operate the radio, HVAC, and nav system. Although some of us felt these buttons confused rather then helped, most considered them a suitable addition to one of the most stylish and trendsetting interiors in this segment. The integration of wood, metal, and premium plastics adds up to the perfect example of what a luxury SUV's interior should look like. Unfortunately, some of the interior plastics (particularly around the door grabs) began to lose their rubberized finish, resulting in replacement under warranty.

Whereas other recent Sport/Utility of the Year winners have featured groundbreaking methods for collapsing their second-row seats, the Touareg's second row features the old-school, flip-and-fold method that at times was almost impossible to complete without breaking a sweat. It also requires the headrests to be removed before folding. Volkswagen could take a look at Volvo and Land Rover here.

The Touareg's on-road grip is impressive for an SUV of this size and capability, but that roadholding comes at a price, as we learned when the tires on our Touareg needed replacing at 14,000 miles.

Volkswagen deserves applause for delivering an SUV that can just as easily climb a slippery rocky slope as it can make record time to and from the outlet malls, looking good inside and out while doing it. As with most heavy trucks this size, agility and gas mileage aren't strong points. On the whole, though, this was a good, hard-working year for VW's first-ever sport/utility, and we're certain the second generation will address our issues.