Volkswagen Touareg turns into an award winner for VW

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Volkswagen owners, like Porsche and Buick owners who desire to become part of the sport utility family of drivers no longer have to abandon their beloved nameplate.

Earlier this year the odd-named Touareg (pronounced "tour-regg") joined the exploding ranks of luxury-level car-based SUVs. Most people by now have probably seen or at least heard about the new mid-sized VW sport utility that derives its name from a nomadic tribe in the Sahara Desert. 

And conceptually the last place you would expect a car-based sport utility is on the rocky slopes and deep crevasses of an off-road trail known as Hell’s Revenge here in Moab, Utah, one of America’s most beautiful and rugged national parks.

First off let it be known that the Touareg is one of the nicest, most comfortable and drivable on-road sport utilities we have ever tested. It is smooth and luxurious and is finely designed. It has about everything that someone who will never go off-road could possibly want from and SUV.

In recognition of that and its true off-road prowess the

Touareg received one of the industry’s most prestigious awards a few weeks ago when it was named Sport Utility of the Year by Motor Trend magazine. Volkswagen earned the award by doing its homework. 

Volkswagen was in need of a new product, and the Touareg fits the bill. It should give its aging car lineup a boost until new products arrive in a couple of years.

Coming late to the SUV fray has provided Volkswagen with a huge body of work from which to emulate. On the other hand, the Touareg is entering a crowded field of mid-sized SUVs priced from $35,000 to $50,000. The competition is fierce.

Introduced over the past 12 months in direct competition to the Touareg are the Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX35 and FX45, the Volvo XC90, the Chrysler Pacifica, the Buick Rainier, the Lexus GX70 and the BMW X3. Other products that have been on the market for awhile include the BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class, Acura MDX, Lincoln Aviator, Infiniti QX4 and Touareg’s development stable mate the Porsche Cayenne.

Porsche, as you might expect, took the high-performance, cutting-edge handling route for its Cayenne while Volkswagen took the more conventional avenue for the Touareg.

We quickly mention a couple of Porsche Cayenne facts just to illustrate how far out of the mainstream it resides. Imagine a turbocharged 450 horsepower and 0 to 60 in 5 seconds with a price tag of $95,000. 

The Touareg, which shares the same steel unibody chassis with the Porsche, certainly doesn’t share the same pricing structure. It comes in two configurations, a V-6 model starting at $35,515 and a V-8 edition beginning at $40,700. 

Prospective buyers will be awed in the showroom simply by slipping into the driver’s seat where they will experience an impeccably adorned interior that shouts luxury. Tasteful wood accents blend nicely with brushed aluminum trim and chrome instrument bezels to project an image of taste and quality. 

An impressive array of gauges and switchgear confront the customer who would be even more impressed if witnessed in the dark. Virtually every control from the doorlocks to the side mirror controls are awash in glowing red.

Touareg comes with a choice of powertrains; a 3.2-liter 24-valve V6 that produces 220-horsepower and 225 lb.-ft. of torque; or a 4.2-liter 40-valve V8 rated at 310-horsepower and 302 lb.-ft. of torque. Both engines are matched to a six-speed automatic with the manual gear Tiptronic system. There is also a ‘sport’ setting that stretches out the shift points allowing for higher revs and torque for quicker acceleration.

Note that Volkswagen is planning to introduce a 5.0-liter V-10 turbo diesel engine next year. 

The V-6 is adequate, certainly with an empty vehicle. Load up four adults and luggage and you may wish for a little more oomph in passing and merging situations particularly when you factor in the near-$40,000 sticker price.

If you were driving a $20,000 vehicle you might be more satisfied with the leisurely 0 to 60 times of 10.8 seconds as recorded by a major magazine. And if 220 horses sounds like it should be enough for sprightly performance in a mid-sized vehicle, you would be right in most cases.

But what hurts the Touareg’s performance is a massive curb weight of 5,086 pounds, about 1,000 pounds more than many of its competitors.

But the Volkswagen need not be a slowpoke, just opt for the bigger V-8. It’s capable of 0 to 60 in less than 8 seconds and a quarter mile in less than 16 seconds, both good times for an SUV capable of going off road.

One cautionary note, don’t expect sterling gas mileage. The V-6 is rated at 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, and the V-8 is rated 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway. Premium fuel is recommended. 

The most noteworthy of the standard equipment is an all-wheel drive system that provides a 50-50 torque split and an electronically controlled center differential that automatically transfers torque to the axle with the most grip. If more traction is needed, a couple turns of a knob engages a low-speed transfer case which locks the center differential. A locking rear differential is offered as an option.

The wonderfully amazing thing is as electronic systems in vehicles become more and more sophisticated and as technology becomes more refined we are finding more car based, unibody constructed vehicles able to do many of the things and go to many of the places that had been reserved for off-road ladder-frame truck chassis vehicles.

Putting that new found prowess of a sophisticated unibody to the test was the objective to our trip to Moab. And throughout our trek across the rugged Hell’s Revenge trail the Touareg proved every bit as capable as any off-road going truck.

Standard active safety features include big 13-inch four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control and dynamic stability control, emergency brake assist and hill descent control.

Convenience features standard on all Tuaregs include front heated seats, tire pressure monitor, dual-zone climate control, power glass sunroof and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

While the features are generally the same including a prodigious towing capacity of 7,716 pounds, the big difference between the two models is horsepower and torque.

Despite the large number of standard features, options can quickly run the price up. Perhaps one of the most desirable options at $2,300 is an air suspension system.

It’s an amazing feature that gives the Touareg another leg up on most sport utilities when it comes to negotiating tough terrain. Ride height can be adjusted in five increments from a car-like 6.3 inches while at rest to 9.4 or 11.8 inches to clear large obstacles. Standard ride height is 8.7 inches. The system also offers three suspension settings: comfort; auto and sport.

One of the least desirable options on the Touareg is its navigation system. The CD-based system is archaic compared to some now on the market. It’s hard to use and the mapping software included only a handful of roads when we drove it in eastern North Carolina although it did alright in Utah. You can save yourself $2,650 if you opt for using a good map.

The Touareg’s front seats are heavenly. They are wonderfully comfortable and the driving position is excellent.

Switchgear, including steering wheel controls for cruise and stereo, are right at hand.

The back seats, however, don’t quite live up to the comfort found in the front. We found them a bit on the hard side and there is no way to recline the seatbacks for long-trip comfort. Off-road the back seat is near impossible and riding there while on heavy terrain is not recommended unless you wrap a thick pillow around your head and hold on for dear life.

Volkswagen still insists on a two-step procedure to raise the rear seat cushion to create a flat cargo floor. Simply pulling the cushion up in a one-step motion would appear to be more user friendly. And the backseat headrests must be removed before the seatbacks fold flat.

Nitpicks aside, Volkswagen has designed and executed one of the most handsome and versatile sport utilities in the business. It is capable of playing the role of mom’s station wagon or dad’s rock climbing toy (or visa-versa) and doing a superb job at both.