Volkswagen's Touareg proved its off-road chops last year in the DARPA Grand Challenge, where it won first place by negotiating a 132-mile desert course without the aid of a driver. Our review car, a 2007 Volkswagen Touareg with a V-6 engine, didn't have a robotic driving system; its high-tech accoutrements included mediocre navigation and stereo systems.
The Touareg is a comfortable ride, and Volkswagen gives the interior a luxury feel with leather seats and quality materials all around. It seats five and has a small cargo area, making it a practical vehicle for many uses. Similar to crossover vehicles, which are all the rage, the driving position has an SUV's height, but the suspension and handling are much more carlike. The Touareg presents a very refined look, which seems at odds with its off-road gear, which includes differential locking and off-road navigation.
With leather seats, nice fabric on the headliner, wood accents around the shifter, and four-zone climate control, the Touareg doesn't seem like the kind of vehicle that would be scrabbling through the backcountry. This refinement is offset by a meaty shifter, while the plastic around the electronics on the center stack looks a little cheap.
The interface for navigation and the stereo work reasonably well, with 9 function buttons along the bottom of the LCD; 2 knobs for volume, tuning, and selection; and 10 soft buttons on either side of the LCD. It's a little cluttered, and drivers will have to spend some time learning what the icons next to the various soft buttons mean. There is, fortunately, a Back button, that lets the driver back out of a menu. Along with cruise control buttons, the steering wheel includes buttons for volume control and for cycling through the various information screens available from a display between the tachometer and the speedometer, a nice touch. This instrument cluster screen shows information such as route guidance, range, and fuel economy.
The best thing about the Touareg's stereo (the premium version in our test car) is its sound quality, pumped out of 11 speakers around the cabin. The sound fills the capacious interior well, and the clarity, while not the best we've ever heard, is good. But we were very disappointed by the six-CD changer, hidden behind a panel in the cargo area. Beyond the access problem, the changer doesn't read MP3 CDs, although an iPod adapter is available.
The navigation system in the Touareg works all right, offering good route guidance and an easily read map. It's fairly easy to enter destinations, but the points-of-interest database is marred because only a couple of categories are available. Drivers can choose categories only for gas stations and parking. Restaurants, shopping centers, and other directory entries can't be chosen by category. Neither does the system include individual retail stores. The navigation system suffers from a slow processor, which causes maps to take a few seconds to redraw and route recalculation times to take longer than we would expect.
Because the Touareg is meant to be taken off-road, the navigation system adds some interesting functionality. First is the location screen, which shows latitude and longitude, elevation, and a compass. This screen is useful when the car is off of its DVD-based maps. Second is the off-road tour function, which lets the driver save a series of coordinate-based waypoints along a route. Once a tour is saved, the navigation system can help the driver retrace the route, even if there are no roads.
Volkswagen doesn't make Bluetooth cell phone integration available on the Touareg, a bit of a surprise given its other upscale appointments. The four-zone climate control is a nice touch, and the heated rear seats are something we haven't seen before. Both front seats get 12-way power adjustment, and the steering wheel position is power adjustable, as well.
Six speeds and a low range
Our test car came with a 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which is good for 276 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque. Other engines available on the Touareg are a 4.2-liter V-8 and a 5.0-liter diesel V-10. The V-6 didn't deliver particularly fast starts, a problem for maneuvering into traffic from a stop, but had adequate power once underway. This engine is mated to a six-speed automatic, a high point in the power train, which shifted smoothly and found the right gears for the current driving situation. The transmission offers good choices for the driver, with Drive, Sport, and manual selection modes.