The Volkswagen Touareg is a luxury sport-utility with a rare blend of highway composure, refinement, and impressive off-highway capability. Touareg offers a choice of a V6 gas engine or V6 diesel.
Notable options include a touch-screen navigation system that comes with a multi-function color display, a choice of two upgraded stereos, and active Bi-Xenon headlights. Walnut interior trim and Bluetooth connectivity are standard on 2010 Touareg models. The V8-powered version is no longer available.
The Touareg offers five-passenger seating. Like the Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz ML, the Touareg eschews a third row of seats for five-passenger space in a compact package.
The V6 diesel TDI engine is aimed more at economy than performance, and is emissions-certified in all 50 states; in cities where the air is really bad the TDI's exhaust will be less toxic than the air going in. All Touareg models use a six-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive.
Protected by a rigid structure and full suite of airbags and electronic safety systems, the Touareg cabin is inviting, involving, and efficient. There are more thoughtful touches than you'll notice at first glance, yet the learning curve is quick, the controls not daunting, and comfort remains high even after hours on the road, or off it.
Touareg is a genuinely capable four-wheel-drive vehicle. It takes to trails like you wouldn't believe. Its combination of clearance angles, gearing, fording depth and suspension travel compares to that of the recognized benchmark vehicles in the class, none of which offer a 25-mpg diesel.
Back on the highway the Touareg has a Teutonic feel, with smoothness imparted by precision and not softness. It cruises effortlessly regardless of road condition, and belies its heft on winding roads. A sports car it isn't, but you could make a dynamic argument for an inclement weather Grand Touring vehicle.
If you like the Volkswagen Touareg but need a third row of seats at the expanse of some off-road capability, check out the Audi Q7; it uses a stretched version of the same basic structure.
Touareg was launched as a 2003 model and revised for 2008. For 2010, there are no major changes. An all-new Touareg will be launched as a 2011 model.
Volkswagen family heritage is clearly evident in the Touareg, from the face of lights and split-frame grille that mirrors Eos and Passat to the large chrome circular logos.
The 112-inch wheelbase permits good occupant space and an overall length of less than 16 feet keeps the wheels near the corners. This creates both a muscular stance, with the glass areas rising out of strong shoulders, and maintains the approach and departure angles and clearance necessary for real 4WD use. Unlike virtually every other 4WD SUV and pickup, the Touareg's approach and departure angles are identical, meaning that regardless of which direction you encounter an obstacle, if the leading edge clears it so will the trailing edge. Large wheelwells do not have tacked on fender flares, instead using gracefully curved sheetmetal to house the large wheels and tires.
Touareg is essentially void of superfluous trim. The strip along the lower doors minimizes paint damage, a chrome strip protects the top of the rear bumper, and the signal mirrors transmit intentions to vehicles alongside. Finally, taillights are easy to see and cleanly integrated to avoid being subject to damage on tight trails or crowded market lots.
The entire structure is quite stiff. With a Touareg balanced on just two opposite corner wheels, the hood, hatch, and doors can all be opened and closed with no more than normal effort, an unusual feat. Even the glass section of the hatch, which opens separately and self-latches into the main hatch when it is lifted, is accessible.
While the Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, and Audi Q7 share some development background, the differences are so significant they can hardly be labeled competitors. The Q7, which uses the same engines and transmission as a Touareg, shares fewer than 15 percent of its parts with Touareg.
Opening a Touareg door makes a good first impression, as the door itself conveys that feeling of pinpoint-balanced heft and quality and the cabin only reinforces the notion. Few things here appear little or lightweight, from the big T-handle shifter in a wide console to the fairly large steering wheel suitable for a long-distance cruising yacht.
Materials appear first-rate as does assembly; even after days of trail twisting and pavement pounding we heard no squeaks, rattles or wind whistles. The VR6's V-tex upholstery makes a fair rendition of synthetic leather. Genuine leather comes with the Luxury and Lux Limited packages; it's called Cricket though it chirps and squeaks only if you're wearing leather as well. Even the lower door panels are done in soft-touch material. Dull hard plastic is very hard to find in this car. Leather wrappers for steering wheel and shifter are standard. With leather upholstery also come leather door pulls and very comfortable armrests. Silver-tinted trim is standard but all the aluminum accents pieces are real aluminum, and all models now feature some real walnut panels on the dash and console as well.
With a wide range of power adjustment, seat heaters and a big padded headrest, it's easy to sit for hours yet not restrained, so you can put your head out the window to see exactly where the near-side rocks and obstacles are or where your toll coin landed.
Rear seats are fixed at a good backrest angle balancing comfort and vision, and outboard riders enjoy big, cushy headrests and adjustable height shoulder belts just as front riders do.
Storage units are average in number and include a few useful touches. The bins at dash top center are deeper than average, and will not eject contents at quick starts or on steep climbs. With the Luxury Packages the center armrest slides fore-and-aft, has two stowage compartments, and the lid is articulated so it doesn't flip back and pinch a center rear rider's knees.
Apart from always-on headlights/daytime running lamps that will bring bugs with you to camp, the Touareg gives the driver full control choices. Air suspension, where fitted, and the four-wheel-drive system are switched by rotary dials behind the shifter, with Park Assist defeat, ESP, and seat heaters ahead of it. Climate control can be full automatic, or to any combination of outlet vents you choose. The transmission has two automatic shift modes, plus manual mode if you prefer to time your own. Column stalk controls are typical in layout, including the rear wiper, and fuel door and hatch releases are lift-up buttons near the door map pocket that are impossible to trigger accidentally.
The dominant tachometer and speedometer, and smaller numbered ancillary gauges that include both coolant and oil temperature (a better indicator of how hard the engine is working) all have flat faces with anti-reflective coating. Digital displays show miles/trip to right and time/date to left, with a redundant clock over the mirror where everyone can see it.
The Touareg's latest navigation system uses a touch-screen, and it works very well in any map view. While the systems in some other German brands have recently been upgraded for more intuitive operation also, the Touareg's is still very competitive. Night drives reveal excellent illumination of all instruments and switchgear.
Big outside mirrors provide generous views both near and far, yet are low enough relative to the seating position the driver can look over them rather than having to peer around them. Wiper and washer coverage is excellent at each end, there's plenty of glass area to avoid claustrophobia or blind spots, xenon headlamps follow the road supplanted by cornering lights and fog lamps for wide-angle lower speeds.
Accessed by full hatch or just the glass upper section, the cargo space features flat sides and floor for easy loading and a chrome skid-guard at the aft edge for sliding heavy or rough items in and out. Volume amounts to 31 cubic feet, not best-in-class but better than many and it's well-configured space: The split rear seat folds, the cushion tilts forward, the backrest down, for 71 cubic feet. But you have to remove the outboard headrests first. Four tie-down points secure the cargo. A partition for larger objects or pets is available. The cover is nice and high with 21 inches of space below it, there are two 12-volt and one 115-volt power points up high, lights are both sides of the opening, and you do not have to lie in the mud or snow to secure a flat tire underneath.
With either engine, the Volkswagen Touareg has its own set of distinct driving characteristics, yet both feel of-a-piece solidly built and engineered to a point where all the moving parts seem light and balanced, with that rigid platform and luxury features responsible for the weight. One must remember this is a three-ton 4WD able to traverse far more than the typical owner's nerves will permit, and it will not change directions nor stop like a sports car half its weight. VW organizes adventures in Moab to show customers exactly what a Touareg will do. We've attended some of those adventures and came away impressed with its capability.
With short gearing in the six-speed automatic transmission, the gasoline VR6 engine's 280 horsepower moves the 5,100-pound Touareg better than you'd expect. Torque is rated at 265 pound-feet from 2500 to 5000 rpm, delivering sufficient midrange power for daily tasks and keeping up if not leading the pack. Towing the maximum rated load over 7,000 pounds or driving at high altitudes will use all it can deliver, which it will do without complaint. The narrow-angle V engine looks and feels more like an inline six-cylinder engine, smooth and stress-free to redline. EPA fuel economy estimates are 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway.
The six-speed automatic knows this isn't a big engine and where the power lies, and it quickly shifts to the appropriate gear. Sport mode quickens shift response for more enthusiastic driving styles. Under normal circumstances in Auto mode the 4XMotion four-wheel-drive system (which differs from the 4Motion used in all-wheel-drive VW cars) is transparent to the driver; you select alternate modes seeking specific changes in traction in gearing according to terrain, such as engaging low-range for slow-speed rock crawling or very steep hills. Both uphill starts and severe descents can be helped with electronic systems, as only experienced four-wheelers could do any better.
Electronic aids include antilock brakes that will form sort of a chock in front of the tires on soft surfaces. This means shorter stopping distances on gravel roads, mud, snow, sand. This is a great feature because standard ABS greatly lengthens stopping distances on gravel roads. The electronic stability control system is tied into a rollover sensor, side curtain airbags and steering systems, so they can all work as a team.
Volkswagen says the standard suspension is tuned for comfort, but don't mistake that for anything soft or wallowy. Since it rolls on 17-inch wheels and tires designed for all surfaces, the comfort spec is logical, and endows the V6's with a gentler ride than some bigger-rimmed competitors. It responds accurately to driver input, though not as quickly as vehicles like the BMW X5 which haven't the off-road prowess, and the quick steering will execute a U-turn in less space than many mid-sized sedans, an important trait in urban areas and tight off-highway trails. The 17-inch tire spec is best if you frequent poor and potholed roads as the tires will absorb most of the impact, or if you do a lot of winter mountain or icy road travel because the 17-inch tires are snow-chain compatible.
Ordering the Luxury Package upgrades the Touareg to 19-inch wheels and low-profile tires, giving crisper response to turn and brake commands and a moderate increase in maximum cornering grip. As with virtually every other wheeled device, you'll pay a price in ride softness with the 19-inch wheels and notice things like lane divider dots; and it will be a bit louder because of a stiffer sidewall and a hair more road noise. None of these issues is severe, and a Touareg remains as quiet inside as any other genuine 4WD. Drivers who prefer something softer and have no interest in off-road capability might be better served by a Lexus RX, a far less adventurous vehicle.
An air suspension system is optional for diesel Touaregs. This system replaces the steel coil spring at each corner with an air spring, and adds Continuous Damping Control (CDC), which puts a computer in charge of the shock absorbers which in turn control the air springs. Many luxury marques, including Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi employ similar systems. Three damping settings are offered on CDC: Comfort, Sport, and Auto. They do exactly as you'd think, giving a soft ride on Comfort, a firmer more responsive ride on Sport, or leave it on Auto and let the system immediately match condition to need. And since the system adjusts faster than you can turn the switch, Auto is ideal for virtually any driving.
The other primary advantage of the air suspension is adjustable height, a 5.5-inch difference in six settings, four of which the driver controls. The suspension automatically lowers the Touareg one inch at 87 mph for better stability and aerodynamics, and another 0.4-inch at 118 mph. The Standard mode sets the ground clearance at 8.7 inches, 0.4 more than the standard suspension. The Load setting kneels the car as low as possible (6.3 inches clearance), good for shorter or less-ambulatory passengers, heavy cargo lifting, and parking garages with low ceilings. The Off-Road setting, good to 43 mph, adds an inch of clearance (about 9.7 inches), and Xtra level raises the Touareg as high as it will go, to 11.8 inches clearance. Xtra is rated for 12 mph, though in reality you'd use it only at 2-3 mph or less since it limits any suspension travel and makes the Touareg bob like a low-rider. The higher modes increase the water fording depth as well as approach, departure and breakover angles critical in off-road travel where a degree or an inch can often make the difference.
A TDI with 17-inch wheels, and locking rear differential and air suspension options is arguably the best trail Touareg configuration: excellent torque and driving range, compliant tires with better rim protection and lots of suspension travel. It's a good bang for the buck in that regard as the only luxury utilities that come close in off-road performance cost more.
The TDI diesel is a 3.0-liter V6, closely related to an engine that serves in multiple VW's and Audis overseas. It produces 225 horsepower at 3500-4000 rpm, and 406 pound-feet of torque at 1750-2250, which means it should actually out-perform the gasoline V6 in many lower-speed situations. Since the TDI always starts in first gear (some automatics start in second to save fuel) boost comes up quickly and the TDI is off cleanly, reaching 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. This is more than enough for any travel up to its electronically limited top speed of 130 mph, and unmatched given the Touareg's 4WD ability and EPA ratings of 17/25. Over a winding, up-and-down course that included equal miles interstate cruising and urban plodding our trip computer showed 24.9 mpg; with the 26.4 gallon fuel tank we were still waiting for the fuel gauge to move.
The TDI provides a relaxed drive. Where the VR6 might downshift twice to merge from a transition ramp or pass slower traffic, the TDI just hunkers down and goes, the wave of torque carrying the way. At 75 mph the engine is turning about 2300 rpm, so at any highway speed you will have that full 407 lb-ft of torque available.
But the best things about the TDI are the non-issues. It's so clean the tailpipes are still steel-colored after use, has much lower C02 emissions, and uses much of the same technology that garnered VW's Jetta TDI the Green Car of the Year award. It makes a different sound outside but not more noise, and inside your passengers will never know. With a 450-mile cruising range in the city, finding fuel is never a problem (better than 1 in 6 fuel stations have it), it starts very quickly in the cold (the cold-start system reaches 1800 degrees inside the engine within two seconds) and it requires no changes to driving or ownership habits.
The Volkswagen Touareg mixes trail-worthy ability, excellent road manners, and a feature-laden five-seat cabin into a compact package to find favor with urban warriors, outdoor adventurers, suburban sybarites and everyone else who'd like to be one. The array of engines and suspensions permit any buyer personality to design a Touareg they like, the better to appreciate everything you won't notice in a short test-drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale test drove Touareg models at Moab, Utah, Los Angeles, and Germany.