Nowhere does Volkswagen's technological research and development show up more than in its Touareg SUV. In VW's extensive lineup, only the Phaeton premium luxury sedan boasts more high-tech comfort and convenience goodies. But the Touareg has most of those, and it trumps the Phaeton with a dual-range permanent four-wheel-drive system, standard on all models, and an available air suspension system that changes ground clearance depending on speed and driver demand, providing 11.8 inches of clearance under 12mph. Besides the now-common (for luxury cars) ABS, traction control, and electronic stability systems, sophisticated off-road-oriented systems assist the driver in negotiating tricky terrain.
The Touareg retains Volkswagen styling. It has the look of a larger, brawnier Passat wagon, as opposed to the action-figure movie-prop looks of the. Powerful enough to tow 7,700 pounds, the Touareg also offers plenty of cargo space with a split, fold-flat rear seat. The MSRP of our test vehicle was $44,260 base. Add $7,600 for the Premium Plus package, $600 for electronic parking assist, another $600 for the Winter package, $550 for the rear differential lock, and $615 for destination and delivery, and that's $54,225 worth of go-almost-anywhere Volkswagen--expensive, but very competitive with the top luxury SUVs.
Usable and well-appointed space
The interior styling, with comfortable leather upholstery and tasteful burled wood, brushed aluminum, and chrome trim, echoes that of an understated German luxury vehicle. Instrumentation is complete and well designed, and the dual-zone climate-control system heats or cools quickly. There is plenty of space for five people and lots of cargo. Both front seats provide the comfort expected in a vehicle of this caliber, and they're 12-way power adjustable, with six-level seat heaters and three memory positions.
The steering wheel is power adjustable for both tilt and reach, and the outside mirrors fold to the body with a flick of a switch--useful whether traversing tight off-road trails or getting into a small garage. Rear-seat room is reasonable. The Winter package adds heating to the rear outboard seats and the steering wheel, and a ski pass-through and sack to the rear seat. Some luxury SUVs forget utility--not the Touareg. Its rear-seat cushions flip up so that the 60/40 split seat backs fold flat, making a long and not-too-high load floor. A removable cargo shade hides things in the cargo area from view when the rear seats are in normal position.
Buttons on the multifunction steering wheel control the audio system, the cruise control, and the multifunction display between the speedometer and the tachometer. The pricey but comprehensive Premium Plus package contains all of the technology that moves the Touareg to premium level: a DVD-based navigation system; a 12-channel, 11-speaker, 375-watt audio system with a remote CD changer in the side of the cargo area; bi-xenon headlights with washers; upgraded leather upholstery; and variable-height air suspension.
Context-sensitive buttons on the sides of the LCD screen provide control over the navigation system. General system and audio functions are controlled by hard-coded buttons below the screen and by two rotary knobs. You'll need to peruse the manual, as some function icons are self-explanatory and some are not. If desired, the nav system will announce directions, but you can't program it by voice. One particularly interesting feature is the ability to enter GPS coordinates for navigation off road or out of the map's marked area.
Unfortunately, back in civilization, the map does not display road names, and it takes a long time to load. There is also an informative screen that displays latitude, longitude, and altitude as determined by GPS. That's not too unusual, but it also shows the direction in which the front wheels are pointing. This is not only useful in technical off-roading, it's handy for making sure the wheels are straight when parking or backing up in tight quarters.
Over roads and rocks
Being German, VW designed the Touareg with high-speed autobahn travel in mind, using a unibody structure and a fully independent suspension with double wishbones in front and a multilink system in the rear. But it was also designed for serious off-road use. In standard trim it provides 8.3 inches of ground clearance. With the air suspension, the standard level is 8.7 inches, automatically lowered to 7.3 at speed for stability. It can be raised to 9.6 inches at speeds up to 43mph or 11.8 inches under 12mph.