If someone were to suggest a while back that Volkswagen would soon be producing a Mercedes-Benz S-Class-caliber luxury sedan and a Range Rover-challenging sport/utility vehicle, he might not have been taken seriously.
Volkswagen became one of Europe's leading industrial operations by producing millions of popularly priced, high-quality products for the masses. Volkswagens weren't cars you aspired to; they were what you drove until you could pony up the coin for the German car you really wanted: a BMW, Mercedes, or Porsche.
That was then. This is now.
For its part, the new Touareg (say tour-egg) fits right in among its luxury-SUV competitors, within a few inches of wheelbase, length, width, and height of the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Volvo XC90, Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus LX 470, and Range Rover. In a world filled with SUVs, why should buyers give the Touareg a second look? Well, this Volkswagen presents an interesting mix of attributes: velvety engines, stunning interiors borrowed from the car side of the ledger, and serious four-wheel drive and suspension underpinnings emanating from the truck side. Best of all, feature for feature, the Touareg is less costly than its esteemed German competitors.
One of the ways Volkswagen beat the bean counters was by sharing the design and development costs of the Touareg's basic structure with the Porsche Cayenne SUV. Arguably, if you had to team up with a car company to produce a new, high-quality product, you could do far worse than pick Porsche, which has enjoyed longstanding success engineering and developing vehicles for a substantial number of other automakers.
Cartoonish name notwithstanding, the Touareg is a solid extension of the VW line. Designers saw no need to shock buyers into noticing the new Vee Dub, a la Aztek, Element, or Hummer H2. The Touareg's design is refreshingly free of tomfoolery. It has the Volkswagen "corporate" face, not unlike a taller version of the Passat or upcoming Phaeton, with proportions akin to BMW's SUV. And Passat-like looks seem a wise choice: If the Passat were a car company, it would outsell Audi or Infiniti in the U.S.
Open the driver's door, and you settle into a substantial, supportive chair with the expected higher SUV H-point and elevated view of the surrounding landscape. Yet, step-in height is no more challenging than an average minivan due to the Touareg's unit-body construction (which eliminates the space-robbing ladder frame rails) and resulting lower floor. Spread-out room is generous, but only for five. Buyers seeking seven-passenger accommodations will have to look elsewhere.
For the past decade or so, the Volkswagen Group has emerged as a benchmark among competing automakers in terms of interior layout and perceived quality. This leadership is evident in the Touareg, which enjoys an Audi-like richness in the materials, colors, textures, and presentation of the cabin environment. Even in the most basic V-6 guise, the Touareg never feels anything less than premium-grade inside. A symbiotic confluence of wood tones, aluminum, and leather trim complements switchgear that's logically arrayed and satisfying to operate. There's a lot going on here, with all the necessary mechanisms to operate the multizone climate control, audio, navigation, 4WD modes, damping and ride-height systems of a fully optioned Touareg, but the effect is engaging rather than suffocating. Volkswagen manages to hide scores of control buttons and dials in plain sight, and it does so elegantly by making them an integral part of the interior design.
A benefit of hatching from the halls of a large car company is access to deep and varied parts bins. This is reflected in the Touareg's extensive engine lineup, which includes three gas engines and one turbodiesel. Anchoring the line is a 3.2-liter V-6 similar to the unit supplied in the Phaeton luxury sedan, but it's been specially adapted for off-road use. It features a baffled sump and modified oil-pump intake to ensure sufficient oil pressure on steep inclines. Closely related to the VR6 performer we've seen in the Golf GTI and Jetta GLI, the Touareg's V-6 is a four-valve/cylinder double-overhead-cammer with a narrow cylinder bank vee-angle of just 15 degrees. Though not endowed with overwhelming performance in the 4900-pound Touareg application, the 3.2-liter V-6 is surprisingly responsive and flexible, both in town and out on the highway. The U.S.-specification Touareg's standard six-speed automatic takes a lot of credit here, too, with a half-dozen ratios mixing and matching engine rpm and road loads to good effect.
Considering how most U.S. luxury SUV buyers equip their rigs, we suspect the 4.2-liter/310-horsepower V-8 will be the most popular Touareg engine choice in the land of cheap premium unleaded. This four-cam four-valve/cylinder engine has been satisfying Audi A8 and A6 4.2 buyers for years, and it should perform admirably in the 1000-pound-heavier Touareg. There's something undeniably substantial about the sound and immediate torque of a V-8.
If eight cans aren't enough, be patient. A 6.0-liter/420-horsepower W-12 engine from the Phaeton will join the Touareg line for '04. But the most colorful egg in the Touareg's basket, a 4.9-liter V-10 turbodiesel, will likely be kept from U.S. shores due to North America's lack of low-sulfur diesel fuel and California's stringent particulate-emission regulations. It's a shame U.S. buyers won't get to experience the quiet operation, impressive fuel economy, and rip-roaring torque (553 lb-ft; more than a Dodge Viper's) European Touareg buyers will enjoy.
The Touareg's standard six-speed automatic features adaptive memory that adjusts shift points to the driver's habits. Tiptronic manumatic control on the console-mounted shifter is standard on all models, and paddle-style rockers on the back side of the steering wheel are an available option.
A new four-wheel-drive system for the Touareg, not to be confused with the 4Motion all-wheel-drive setup that's been in VW cars for a few years, is 4XMotion. This heavy-duty full-time system incorporates a two-speed transfer case with a lockable center differential. An optional locking rear differential is available, as well. If unlocked, normal power distribution is 50/50 front to rear, but up to 100 percent of the drive force can be transferred to one axle as needed via a continuously adjustable multidisc clutch in the center differential. The driver can override the system manually by depressing the lock button on the console. The two-speed transfer case offers low-range-gear reduction for pulling power up steep slopes, extremely slow going, and engine braking off-pavement.
Dual wishbones front and rear give surprisingly athletic precision and ride on rubber-mounted subframes in keeping with luxury expectations. The upper arms are aluminum to shave unsprung weight. Buyers can choose between steel springs or air suspension (standard on the V-8). The air suspension not only provides semi-active damping control, but also gives automatic load leveling and adjustable ride height. If left to its own devices, the system lowers ground clearance from the default setting of 8.5 inches to 7.5 at 78 mph and down to 7.1 inches at 112 mph. Ride height can be set manually to six different settings (including the three just described) via a rotary switch on the right side of the center console. The Touareg can be dropped almost to "the deck" to 6.3 inches ground clearance for loading and moved around the loading area as long as speed doesn't creep over 3 mph.
For off-pavement operation, the driver can choose the off-road level that raises the Touareg's clearance to 9.4 inches, which can be maintained as long as speed stays below 43.5 mph. And for really tough going, there's the X'tra level, which puts 11.8 inches of sunshine between the earth and the Touareg's most tender parts. This full-stretch mode can be maintained below speeds of 12.4 mph.
Want more off-road tech? Hill-Start control keeps the Touareg from drifting back on hills when the footbrake is released. This electronic system is activated automatically when the vehicle is stopped in first or reverse gear with the engine running and the foot or parking brake engaged. And an Automatic Downhill Assistant helps the Touareg keep a constant speed downhill. It's activated when the vehicle is on a downhill grade greater than 20 percent, speed is under 12.4 mph, the Touareg's electronic stability program is on, and the driver stays off the throttle.
Central to the Touareg's weekend-warrior-design criterion is the ability to tackle off-pavement with the best. As a result, Volkswagen's SUV can climb 45-degree grades and traverse equally angled side slopes. We tried it and actually had fun doing so. Thanks to sealed halfshafts, triple door seals, raised engine air intake, and waterproof lights and electrical connectors, the Touareg can ford water up to 19.6 inches with steel springs or 22.8 inches with air suspension. We tried this, too, and managed to keep our pants dry and the engine lit.
The new Touareg may be stretching the bounds of what people are used to paying for a Volkswagen-branded product, but it truly embodies high value relative to its luxury-SUV competition. It's smooth, solid, comfortable, and as off-road capable as they come. And, we think, a rather good egg, at that.