After decades of bringing almost every class of car, from the humble economical Bug through the van to the near-luxury Passat W8, Volkswagen will finally bring an SUV to the U.S. This places VW somewhere between fashionably late and very late to the party, but the Touareg may be worth the wait.

The number of people who've owned a VW, have a good friend with one, or have a sentimental story about one probably ranks right up there with full-size-pickup sales, and VW is hoping these Volkswagen fans shop for SUVs at VW dealerships. Because of that, the Touareg is designed to be recognizable, friendly, and competent. Any notion that this SUV is economical as a Bug should be immediately removed from your psyche.

As they did years before, VW and Porsche worked together on this project, making the Touareg a sibling to the Cayenne. The rigid body structure and track-inspired brakes are much the same, but the vehicles share little dynamic tuning and no engines.

A cursory glance under a Touareg shows the fully independent suspension is not responsible for much weight; neither are the aluminum engines. Most of the 5000 pounds (5300 for the more extensively equipped V-8) comes from the steel structure, safety equipment, and amenities.

However, the weight is put to good use, with a structure so stiff you can park it on two opposing wheels with enough clearance to crawl underneath, and the doors and rear hatch can still open and close easily. In motion, such extension causes no creaks, groans, or buzzes inside, and the multilayered door sealing keeps out fine dust and 20-inch-deep water.

The other benefit of chassis stiffness is freedom for suspension tuning and a solid baseline to begin with. A fork-like strut, which straddles the driveshaft, upper and lower A-arms, anti-roll bar, and rack-and-pinion steering, works with a subframe and large strut retainer to control the front. In the rear, a similar theme is used, except the strut is a conventional design and the upper control arm is replaced by two single pieces and track rods.

The standard springs are well-balanced steel coils that provide ride comfort on or off highway, decent handling, and 9.5-inch ground clearance. Air suspension is a $2300 option and gives 6.4-12-inch clearance. This system uses a quiet underhood compressor and a multitude of valves, sensors, and switches to control ride height, automatically or manually. The Touareg's ground clearance drops at speeds most Americans won't cruise at and retains ride comfort up to that point. The air system includes adjustable shock damping in three settings, just in case you don't like how it's set by the Touareg. Wheels are 17 inch on the V-6 and 18 inch on the V-8, and 19-inch wheels are optional on the V-8.

Any vehicle developed in conjunction with Porsche will have good brakes; the Touareg has four-piston vented Brembo 13.2-inch discs in back and six-piston 14.0-inch units in front. As the VW rep says, "It's not that hard to call Brembo," and, as a result, the Touareg has so much braking in reserve that you could take European delivery and never have to worry about stopping. A drum-in-hat parking brake proved capable of holding a 35-percent slope in neutral.

All Touaregs have 4XMotion four-wheel drive with a 50/50 torque split, a center differential lock as standard equipment, and an optional rear lock; unless you make a habit of driving through sloppy mud, you'll probably never need both. Shift-on-the-fly low-range is 2.66:1 with a crawl ratio of 50:1, superior to most new 4x4s. Electronic driving aids include ABS with brake assist and off-road programming that will lock the front wheels to build a wedge of material ahead of them, the best way to slow on soft surfaces. Also on board are traction control, stability control, hill-decline assist, and hillclimb assist. Like most of the Touareg's systems, they're designed to make progress as simple as possible, but can be overridden if you have a preference.

With fully independent suspension, the Touareg has little in the way of articulation, but does offer decent travel. However, with its stubby body overhangs, approach and departure angle are equal at 28 degrees (with coil springs) or better (up to 33 degrees with air suspension), breakover is 22 degrees or better, and lateral stability is 35 degrees or better (in motion). That translates into running Hell's Revenge at Moab scuff-free, even with the 255/55R18 tires at street pressures. On the highway, the Touareg handles with ease and sticks quite well, though the 50/50 drive split makes steering not as crisp as some (X5), but better than most.

Initial Touareg choices will be VW's narrow-angle four-valve 3.2-liter V-6 with 220 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque, and an Audi-derived five-valve 4.2-liter V-8 with 310 horsepower and 302 lb-ft of torque. The sole transmission offered is a six-speed, wide-ratio automatic; combined with the vehicle's 4.56 axles, the Touareg is built to rev quickly. VW claims 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds for the V-8 and low 9s for the V-6, and we find those believable. At altitude or pulling a trailer, the V-6 will be working hard, but big coolers are standard and European engines are accustomed to revving for hours, so we don't anticipate any problems.

Towing capacity is 7716 pounds, a figure accurate when the Touareg is loaded to GVWR. There's good and bad news for real power hounds, as the V-10 twin-turbocharged diesel engine will be brought over in early 2004 but in limited quantities: The Europeans want as many of these turbodiesels as they can get for use in Touaregs and Phaetons sold in Europe. If you get one, plan on more than 300 horsepower and 550-plus lb-ft of torque through the six-speed auto, enough to run 0-60 in the low 6s, which could peel the graphics right off your boat and blow by virtually any diesel pickup.

To keep the dimensions suitable for trail use, the Touareg won't be offered with seven seats or in a long-wheelbase version. As is, there's plenty of room for four passengers and a good amount of room for five average-size people. Cargo space is likewise good because of its height, and folding the rear seats will increase that nicely, but this process takes three steps.

The instrument panel houses a large tach and speedo with smaller fuel, water, and oil-temperature gauges and volt indicators. The center stack includes the sound system, dual-zone climate control, a handy rechargeable lighter-size flashlight, and an optional navigation system with off-road mode that displays elevation, steering angle, compass, and both "bread crumbs" and waypoint routing options. Two upgrades are offered for sound; you also can pop for dual-zone climate control for rear-seat passengers on the V-8.

Factored into the $35,000 base price are automatic lights and perimeter lighting, foglights, heated power mirrors with reverse tilt-down and synchronized adjustment, roof rack, tire-pressure monitor (from within the tire, not through each ABS sensor) that includes the spare on V8X models, alloy wheels, heated washer nozzles, hatch-closing assist, independent hatch window, rain-sensing wipers, cruise, floormats, five power outlets, genuine walnut trim, 10-speaker CD system, six airbags, heated front seats, tilt/telescoping wheel, and four-year/50,000-mile roadside assistance. That's a chunk of equipment for the money, although we wonder if VW realizes what roadside assistance might imply with a 4WD.

The V-8 also includes more chrome trim, power-folding auto-dimming exterior mirrors, power front seats with memory, and leather. Options include Bi-Xenon headlamps, park assist, 300- or 400-watt sound systems, and for V-8s only, passenger seat memory, heated rear seats, and heated steering wheel.

Although a fully loaded price of more than $50,000 may not be recognizable by some VW faithful, the Touareg's tapered snout with four projector lenses and big chrome emblem will be. And it sure beats touring Baja by Microbus.

A First-Timer's Tale
by Al Vinikour

All right, I admit it. I've driven thousands of hours in hundreds of sport/utility vehicles and light trucks--but I've never been off-roading. All that changed this week, and now I'm hooked.

To showcase its all-new Touareg, Volkswagen hosted several waves of auto journalists in Utah for two days of driving impressions. The first day consisted of driving on Interstate highways and curvy mountain roads. You can learn a lot about a vehicle by meandering on pavement; however, you can learn a lot more about a vehicle--and yourself--by driving on a mountain trail.

On day two, we entered the scenic town of Moab for the morning's off-road drive. Since I was new at this, I deferred to my colleague, a veteran auto writer from Minnesota, who took the first rotation behind the wheel. I got in the back seat, because Ralf Weber, a VW Touareg Project Manager, was riding shotgun.

The vehicle immediately showed the driving course--and us--who was boss. From the looks of it, VW loaded the Touareg with enough technology to challenge the Lunar Rover for king-of-the-hill honors.

When it was my turn to drive, I was a bit apprehensive. I'd already experienced things I'd never been subjected to in a moving vehicle. I always thought rockclimbing was done with a pickax and boots, not a 21/2-ton SUV. I also learned how slowly events occur when off-roading. It's not a race against the clock, but a race against body damage, one foot at a time. At times, all I could see was blue sky; other times, all I witnessed were rocks in front and below us. Add to this corridors of rock so narrow our vehicle's clearance was measured in inches rather than feet. Fortunately, a competent vehicle and a proficient spotter is a powerful combination. When it came time for our next driver change, I was reluctant to switch, but I returned to my rear seat and awaited my next turn at the wheel, which came about an hour later.

While eating, we were introduced to an interesting man named Dan Mick, who leads off-road tours through the Moab area. He told some great stories. Then, just about the time I was starting to feel like an off-road veteran, Dan sprung the news on us that the morning's trail was but a warm-up for the afternoon's planned route. It was then he told us the name of our upcoming route: the infamous Hell's Revenge.

For the next four hours, we slowly (and I do mean slowly) navigated the dangerous but survivable trail that loves to devour metal. We regularly climbed obstacles I certainly wouldn't walk and would even feel nervous flying over. There were several driver's changes throughout our delightful afternoon at Hell's Revenge, which normally would have afforded me the opportunity to wander and sightsee; however, it was so fascinating to watch the vehicles navigate the brutal terrain I didn't take advantage of any break time.

Eventually, we emerged at the other end of Hell's Revenge, which meant we had survived--about the best most men and machines can hope for. I'm sure I'll return to try a new trail, most likely in a different vehicle. By then, I should be more experienced in putting SUVs through their paces.

2004 Volkswagen Touareg
General
Body style4-door SUV
EPA size classSpecial purposev
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 4WD
AirbagsFront/front side/side curtain
Powertrain
Engine type15o V-6 (90o V-8)
Bore x stroke, in 3.31x3.78 (3.33x3.66)
Displacement, cu in/L 195/3.2 (252/4.2)
Compression ratio 11.3:1 (11.0:1)
Valve gearDOHC 4 valve/cyl, VVT (5 valve/cyl)
Fuel inductionSFI
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 220 @ 5400-6400 (310 @ 6200)
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 225 @ 3200 (302 @ 3000-4000)
Transmission type 6-speed auto
1st 4.15:1
2nd 2.37:1
3rd 1.56:1
4th 1.16:1
5th 0.89:1
6th 0.69:1
Axle ratio 4.56:1
Final-drive ratio 3.15:1
Low-range ratio 2.66:1
Crawl ratio (1st gear x axle gears x low range) 50.3:1
Recommended fuel Premium unleaded
Dimensions/Capacities
Wheelbase, in 112.4
Length, in 187.2
Width, in 75.9
Height, in 68.0
Track, f/r, in 65.2/65.7
Headroom, f/r, in 38.7/38.3
Legroom, f/r, in 41.3/35.6
Shoulder room, f/r, in 57.7/57.4
Cargo volume, seat up/down, cu ft 31/71
Ground clearance 8.3 (6.4-12)*
Approach/departure angle, deg 28/28, (33/33)*
Breakover angle, deg 22 (27)*
Base curb weight, lb 5086 (5300)
Weight distribution f/r, % 52/48 (53/47)
Max payload capacity, lb 1400 (1250)
Max GVWR, lb 6486 (6550)
Max GCWR, lb 14,200
Towing capacity, lb 7716
Fuel capacity, gal 26.4
Chassis
Suspension, f/r Ind, A-arm, strut, coil spring, anti-roll bar/ind, five-link,coil spring, anti-roll bar
Steering type Rack and pinion
Steering ratio 14.7:1
Turns, lock to lock 2.9
Turning circle, ft 38.1
Brakes, f/r 14.0-inch vented disc, ABS/13.2-inch vented disc, ABS
Wheels 17x7.5 alloy (18x8.0 alloy)
Tires 255/60HR17 (255/55VR18)
Performance
Acceleration, 0-60, sec 9.4 (7.6)
Top speed, mph 122 (130)
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy) 15/20 (14/18)
Price
Base price $35,515 ($41,315) * with air suspension
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