The Volkswagen Touareg can tackle the most rugged of terrain yet cruise down the highway in luxurious comfort. And a properly equipped Touareg is rated to tow up to 7,700 pounds.
Touareg was redesigned and re-engineered for the 2011 model year, so changes for 2012 are limited to new equipment packages and additional features. Most significantly, navigation is no longer standard on the 2012 Touareg, but in exchange the base price has been reduced by almost $1,500. The base 2012 Volkswagen Touareg VR6 Sport comes with a new audio system.
The 2012 Volkswagen Touareg offers a choice of gas, diesel or hybrid power, an 8-speed automatic, and a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system designed to handle true off-road use or improve stability on ice.
The hybrid gas-electric version continues to headline the Touareg lineup. It's both the most powerful and the most expensive Touareg you can buy. The Hybrid couples a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 engine to an electric motor to give the Touareg an effective 380 horsepower, with an EPA-estimated 20/24 mpg City/Highway (21 miles per gallon in the federal government's Combined city/highway fuel economy calculations). The Hybrid requires Premium gasoline, however.
Least expensive and, in our view, most fun to drive is the Touareg VR6 FSI Sport, which uses a 280-hp V6 engine EPA-rated at 16/23 mpg City/Highway (21 mpg Combined). It runs on Premium gasoline.
The Touareg V6 TDI Clean Diesel features a turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel with 225 horsepower that's EPA-rated 19/28 mpg (22 mpg Combined).
This second-generation Touareg does not look much different from earlier versions because the styling revisions are subtle, but in fact it was completely redesigned for 2011. Compared to its predecessor, the latest Touareg is longer and wider and only fractionally taller, giving it a stronger presence. A longer wheelbase provides greater stability, while a greater overall length allows more room inside the cabin. The use of new materials and other adjustments have removed nearly 450 pounds from the vehicle.
Touareg seats five, with just two rows of seating. No third-row seat is available. (If you need a third row, check out the related Audi Q7, which is longer.) The Touareg cabin is trimmed handsomely. The second-row seat slides fore and aft to balance legroom and cargo space. A giant panoramic sunroof is available.
We found the Touareg comfortable and competent underway. The Touareg Sport is the most fun to drive of the various trim levels (and the least expensive), with responsive turn-in and good balance through energetic direction changes, all whilst tempering a driver's enthusiasm with clear reminders the Touareg is, after all, an SUV weighing more than 5,000 pounds.
The Touareg Hybrid handles the added weight of the battery pack better than most hybrid SUVs, with a smooth ride and only the barest hint of a slower response to steering due to the placement of that added weight mostly behind the rear wheels.
The 2012 Touareg lineup offers a full range of options in the SUV market, from the traditional to the green. The Lux and Executive trim levels are the most plush, featuring luxurious textures and accents.
Styling changes on the second-generation 2011-12 Touareg, relative to the first-generation 2003-10 models, are subtle but significant, ensuring continuity in design cues. It looks like a Touareg, but sufficiently tweaked to invite recognition as different.
The changes to the front end are little more than updates to a readily recognized design. Upper and lower grille openings get the horizontal chrome bars previously confined to the upper section. Housings for the compound, projector beam headlights and strings of LED running lights are squared off to achieve consistency with the styling motif of the latest Volkswagen Golf and Jetta. More dramatic body sculpting below the headlights emphasizes the more sharply outlined and pronounced arches over the front wheelwells.
Side perspective shows softer, more rounded lower door panels than the severely straight-edge indent carved into the pre-2011 models. Following suit, the beltline (the bottom edge of the side windows) sweeps slightly upward as it nears the C-pillar (the vertical section of the body behind the rearmost side window), which itself is wider than previously. The tires tend to be overwhelmed by the wheel openings, although this can be advantageous for the rare occasions a Touareg will be asked to explore anything less refined than the dirt lot at the hardware store. Pull-to-open door handles allow decent grip access, although not for seriously gloved hands.
Taillights have a bit of a raised eyebrow look, little changed from earlier models. The backlight (the rear window glass) isn't quite as rectangular as on the first generation. VW has decided to make one liftgate for all of the Touareg's world markets, so the license place recess is almost double the width it used to be, which seems to reduce the perceived mass of the Touareg's back end. The dual exhausts on all three models are decked out with stylized chrome tips.
The Volkswagen Touareg shares its basic platform with the Porsche Cayenne and the Audi Q7. The Q7 rides on a longer wheelbase.
There's very little not to like about the Touareg's creature comforts and accommodations. Everything is where it should be, works the way it should, some of it remarkably well, and for the most part shows commendable attention to details not only in fit and finish, but also in the extent of the capabilities given certain features.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, with adequate bolsters. The current Touareg interior offers as much room for people as the the Mercedes-Benz M350 and BMW X5. The Touareg has at least a half-inch more front-seat headroom than the Mercedes or BMW, and fractionally more front-seat legroom as well.
Climate controls are properly sized and positioned, as are the primary switches that bring up the touch-screen's icons for the sound and navigation systems' layers of options and functions. The keyless, push-button start stop feature seems overdone. We are not fans of keyless start-stop systems because we've seen them cause confusion, undue stress and dead batteries. When the dash-mounted slot for the key fob will start the engine in the normal way by twisting the fob like any regular key, why ask for future troubles by putting a push button in the center console? Here, it's optional, and we recommend avoiding it. The navigation system is superb, with a remarkably quick adaptation to course changes.
The new-for-2012 standard sound system is controlled through an 8-inch touch screen and includes a 6CD player with MP3 playback. Add navigation and the screen displays maps in high-definition 3D. The Nav system also adds a 60GB hard drive with 18GB available to upload media. Located in the glovebox is access for an iPod device or auxiliary input, SD cards and a DVD drive.
Trim materials are high quality. Tolerances between panels, coverings and metal or wood insets are tight and consistent. The faux leather seating upholstery is more comfortable than the real cowhide, though, being both more pliable and because it's perforated, less likely to be clammy in winter and sticky in summer. The six inches of fore and aft travel in the rear seat is hugely welcome, with one caveat: with the seat at its rearmost setting, the proximity of the rear wheelwell compels occupants to be very careful to avoid dirtying their backside when climbing in and out.
We found the panoramic sunroof a mixed bag. It blessed occupants with magnificent views of Nice's mountainous surrounds but failed miserably in blocking the heat of the afternoon Mediterranean sun.
Rear-seat legroom leads the class, topping 40 inches with the seat all the way back. Rear-seat headroom splits the difference with the Mercedes and the BMW. Rear seats aren't quite as cushy and sit a little higher than the fronts, although the front head restraints block any forward visibility that higher positioning might have added.
The new Touareg disappoints, however, when it's called upon to haul stuff. Maximum cargo space, with the rear seat folded flat (64 cubic feet), not only trails the Mercedes (71.0) and the BMW (75.2) by at least 7 cubic feet, but falls 7 cubic feet short of the 2010 Touareg; this despite the 2011-12 model casting a shadow that's about an inch larger in all directions than its predecessor.
Each of the three Touareg versions has its own personality and will appeal to drivers with distinct tastes when shopping for an SUV.
The VR6 FSI is the most fun to drive. It's the lightest, by more than 250 pounds versus the next heaviest, the TDI. This makes the VR6 the most responsive to quick steering inputs, taking a set in the suspension more readily and tracking more confidently through corners than its heavier siblings. Comfort-wise on long stretches of straight road, it's the equal of the other two in terms of smooth ride and insulation from pavement seams and potholes. The VR6 is rated at 280 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.
The VR6 is the least fuel-efficient, however, earning EPA ratings of 16/23 City/Highway mpg, or a Combined rating of 19 mpg over a test route's mix of urban, suburban and rural roads. It's the least advanced technologically, though its 3.6-liter gasoline-fueled, multi-valve, electronically managed, narrow-angle V6 isn't exactly Stone Age. The VR6 FSI comes with an 8-speed automatic transmission, which isn't Stone Age, either.
The 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, standard on all models, loses the previous generation's low-range transfer case in favor of a Torsen limited slip rear differential, this mostly with an eye to saving weight, and recognizing that Touareg drivers aren't the type to tackle the rock-strewn tracks and streams of the Rubicon Trail in California's Sierra wilderness. So the previous-generation model is a bit more capable off road.
The V6 TDI Clean Diesel is arguably the slickest of the three. It's a diesel, for one thing, and one that's legal in all 50 states, including California. This is thanks to a technology also used by Mercedes-Benz in its oil burners and comprising a special catalytic converter and injectors that spray a synthetic urea-based solution into the exhaust to cut NOx emissions sufficiently to meet that state's and federal standards. Diesel engines are known more for their torque, which is the ability to get an object moving, than for their horsepower, generally more important for keeping an object moving.
The V6 diesel in the 3.0-liter TDI (turbocharged, direct injection) puts out 406 pound-feet of torque, more than half again as much as the 3.6-liter FSI V6. It manages this on less fuel, with EPA ratings of 19/28 City/Highway, or 22 mpg Combined. That stump-pulling torque does a pretty decent job of motivating the 4,974 pounds the TDI carries around, at least as regards acceleration, which even so feels a tick or two slower than the VR6 FSI. Where the added heft makes itself felt most is with a hint of uncertainty of foot when the going gets twisty, a character trait all three Touaregs' unavoidably high center of gravity magnifies. Both engines have the advantage of being thoroughly debugged, in mechanics and electronics departments.
The V6 TSI Hybrid is the latest entry in the Touareg line and boasts the most sophisticated technology of the three models. The theory behind a hybrid is the internal combustion engine provides most of the motive power and during periods of low demand charges a battery that powers an electric motor that as configured in the Touareg does two things: one, it can be the sole power driving the vehicle at low speeds and under light loads, and two, it can boost the power of the combustion engine when the driver wants that to happen, like when accelerating to pass another vehicle or to merge into fast-moving traffic, like on a freeway. What VW has done with the Touareg Hybrid is combine a supercharged V6 with an electric motor in what's called a full parallel system that allows either power source individually to drive the vehicle and then both to join forces when necessary. What this has yielded is a engine/motor duo that when working together creates V8-like power but uses fuel at an EPA-estimated rate of 20/24 mpg City/Highway, or 21 mpg Combined, which is lower even than a non-supercharged V6 of larger displacement and roughly equal to a turbocharged diesel of equal displacement. Kind of the best, or at least the better, of both worlds, in theory, at least.
For the most part, theory equates with practice on the Touareg Hybrid. Because it will run on the electric motor alone, it starts moving immediately when the driver presses on the accelerator pedal. There's no momentary hesitation while the electronics start the engine before the vehicle can get moving. Also, with gentle pressure on the accelerator, the Touareg Hybrid can be coaxed up to speeds in excess of 25 mph before the V6 almost seamlessly lights off and takes over, easily pushing the Touareg along. That's handy in stop-and-go commuter traffic. The V6 can propel the Touareg at better than socially responsible speeds thanks to the supercharger, which pumps exponentially larger amounts of fuel and air into the engine's combustion chambers as the speed of the engine increases. For overtaking and freeway on-ramps, the motor is ready to kick in, again almost imperceptibly, to augment the engine's power as necessary. Optimizing the engine management system's computing power in the quest for maximum fuel economy, at any speed up to about 100 mph the Touareg Hybrid's engine will turn off when the driver stops pressing on the accelerator, which allows the vehicle to coast, or, as VW terms it, sail. It's a little unnerving the first few times it happens, but after a while, it can become an interesting kind of game, to see just how the engine's computer reads the load on the powertrain. Kudos to VW for fitting an 8-speed automatic, which drives like people expect, instead of the weirdness of the gearless continuously variable transmission, or CVT, used by makers of other hybrids.
Where the Touareg Hybrid suffers most is from the added pounds from all that technology and battery pack. At 5,135 pounds, the Hybrid tips the scales by more than 400 pounds heavier than the VR6 FSI. That's not to say the Hybrid lumbers through corners, but the front tires scrub more than those on the other two models when it enters a corner carrying a bit too much speed. It's also not as agile in transient response when pushed through a series of S-curves, a shortcoming to which the placement of the battery pack in the spare tire well no doubt contributes. This is a small point, given that few Touareg drivers fantasize about being race car drivers, but it does illustrate the compromises that hybrid technology exact.
All three Touaregs run quietly, with equal roadworthiness and little mechanical, road or wind noise invading the people compartment. Doors close with the traditional Germanic thunk.
Braking is solid and sure. Our Hybrid's brakes consistently grabbed abruptly the first few applications most often following a cold start, after which they functioned normally. The Hybrid uses regenerative brakes, which converts the energy generated during braking into electricity to help recharge the hybrid system's battery. The Hybrid stopped with certainty and free of drama every time, but the grabby behavior was irritating.
The Volkswagen Touareg was all-new for 2011 and essentially unchanged for 2012. The VR6 is the most fun to drive. The TDI Clean Diesel may be the most sensible. The Hybrid gives Germany's largest carmaker an entry into the hybrid market, what some observers see as the bridge to a future populated with a variety of powerplants running on various alternative fuels. But it's more than that, as it's also just as drivable and as capable as the two non-hybrid Touaregs, ready and willing to go anywhere, and if desired, as fast as, they can.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Nice, France.