Hiding under the posh, civilized-looking SUV exterior and luxury interior lies a serious off-roader that can really handle the rocks. Even its navigation system handles off-road situations--though it's less skillful at finding city streets.
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 Hummer H3. 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.
The Touareg's information display includes this screen, showing compass, GPS coordinates, and wheel turn.
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.
The Touareg's center instrument display shows useful off-road info such as wheel turn and four-wheel-drive setting.
Additionally, the multimode Continuous Damping Control (CDC) system uses variable shock-absorber damping, controlled by a sensor system that detects the vertical-acceleration rates of the wheels and the body. In Automatic setting, it provides a moderately firm, well-controlled ride not unlike that of a premium German luxury sedan. Comfort mode is softer, in the American manner. Sport mode lowers the vehicle to its minimum ride height and firms the damping for better cornering. Ride comfort is still very good, making the Touareg one of the best-handling SUVs.
Volkswagen's 4XMotion full-time four-wheel-drive system is standard on all Touaregs. Torque distribution is 50/50 static, with torque automatically redistributed to the wheels that can best use it. Unlike many other luxury SUVs, the Touareg has a four-wheel-drive-low range for use in extreme off-road conditions. All safety systems--ABS, traction control, the ESP electronic-stability program, and the electronic differential lock (EDL)--work in four-low, although they may work a little differently than under normal conditions. Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist further help in tough conditions. You can lock both the center and rear differentials, the better to help extract a Touareg from loose dirt or sand. Note that four-low and the locking differentials are not meant for use on pavement.
All the four-wheeling equipment is of the modern variety, electronically controlled from inside the vehicle. While few Touareg owners will likely venture far off pavement, more will appreciate the Touareg V-8's 7,700-pound towing capacity (with trailer brakes). The four-wheel drive and the maneuvering aids can be as helpful backing a boat trailer down a steep and slippery dock as they would be in the North African desert where the vehicle's namesake tribe lives. Because of the positions of the intake and the exhausts and the construction of the drivetrain, the door, and the tailgate seals, a Touareg can ford still water up to 19.6 inches deep with the standard suspension, or 22.8 inches deep with the air suspension.
Controls below the shifter set the Touareg's four-wheel drive and suspension mode.
A 4.2-liter dual-overhead-cam 40-valve V-8 supplies power. It's essentially the same as the one in the V-8 Phaeton, but it's tuned differently and has a deeper oil pan for better oil circulation under extreme off-road conditions. Its 310 horsepower at 6,200rpm and 302 pound-feet of torque between 3,000rpm and 4,000rpm is enough to move the 5,300-pound Touareg from a standstill to 60mph in a claimed 7.6 seconds. Credit should also be given to the six-speed automatic with Tiptronic manual-shift mode and the fuzzy-logic-based adaptive shift control.
With the engine's strong, wide torque band, manual shift control is rarely necessary. The downside is fuel consumption. The Touareg's EPA rating is 14mpg city, 18mpg highway. We got 14.2mpg according to the multifunction gauge. But this is not unexpected for a heavy, powerful vehicle, and average for the class. Overall performance is considerably better than average. The Touareg V-8 is remarkably light on its feet for a vehicle in the 5,000-pound class.
Smart crash safety
The Touareg has the full suite of contemporary passive and active safety equipment. High-tensile steel is used in the structure around the passenger compartment, and the dual front, front seat-mounted side, and side-curtain air bags provide further occupant protection. If any air bag is deployed, the Touareg automatically unlocks all doors, disconnects engine electrical power, and turns off the fuel supply. The brakes are large four-wheel vented antilock discs.
All-speed traction control, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, and electronic stability control (ESP) are all standard on-road-oriented safety features; Hill Descent Assist and Hill Climbing Assist aid in off-road situations. The OnStar telematics system is available but not on vehicles equipped with the navigation system. The Touareg comes with a four-year or 50,000-mile warranty, with four years of roadside assistance and five years or 60,000 miles on the power train.