Late to the sport/utility battle, Volkswagen joins the fray with a powerful ally: Porsche. The two German automakers conspired to create a pair of refined, performance-oriented SUVs, sharing development costs, engineering resources, and production efficiencies. The result, two vehicles certain to shake up the establishment and put a sharp emphasis on the sport part of the equation.

Although agreeing not to display the vehicles at a major auto show until Paris in the fall, Porsche got the jump by revealing a large Cayenne picture at its Geneva press conference, then making images available to the clamoring media. Volkswagen dragged its heals a bit, allowing its partner to revel in the limelight, before releasing these few images of the Touareg.

Seen as a key new vehicle, the Touareg joins the large Phaeton luxury sedan in pushing the Volkswagen image and its average selling price up. This premium position enables to the unibody Touareg to package a high level of standard equipment and offer sophisticated componentry that will distinguish the new player from the mainstream.

Electronically controlled permanent four-wheel drive, double-wishbone suspension, and available air suspension with electronically regulated shock absorbers promise good road manners. Likewise, anti-lock disc brakes, TCS (traction control system), ESP (electronic stabilization program), EBC (engine braking control), and HBA (hydraulic brake assist system) are all fitted as standard equipment ensuring foul-weather preparedness. Beyond being ready to tackle an occasional blizzard, the Touareg packs true off-road credentials with three locking differentials standard, along with low range and up to 12 inches of ground clearance.

Powerplants will range from a 3.2-liter/220-horsepower V-6 up to a twin-turbocharged 5.0-liter/313-horsepower diesel V-10 with an impressive 553 lb-ft of torque and 7000-pound tow capacity. Initial U.S. offerings will include the VR6 and a 4.2-liter V-8, though a diesel option may be considered in the future. Both U.S.-bound gasoline engines will be fitted with six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic and possibly steering wheel paddles on the top model.

Drawing its name from a resourceful Saharan people, known as knights of the desert, the Touareg will go on sale in Germany in the fall after an expected unveiling at the Paris Motor Show. For North America, the Touareg will likely appear at the Detroit show and go on sale as a 2004 model, with prices starting in the mid to upper $30s.