Catalunya, Spain--Carved into the side of a steep valley in the mountains north of Barcelona, the test road was called "The Serpent" from the way it snaked up and down the abrupt inclines. Undulating through a thick oak forest and slick as soap in a sauna from recent rain, it was designed to show off elements of the Touareg's off-road capabilities. And a brilliant demonstration it was: Even though I'm not a veteran off-roader, VW's first SUV helped me tame The Serpent with an ease I would expect of the world's best off-road machines. Not once did the Touareg feel like a first try. VW may have arrived late to the game, but it came to play.
This big SUV doesn't look that big, its attractive styling diminishing the inherent boxiness of the genre. Add in a delectable interior on top of its dynamic prowess, and there seems no doubt of the Touareg's success in America. I was uncommonly impressed, both by its technical qualities and by the strong presence of that "feel" found only in the finest automobiles.
VW engineering candidly admitted it was targeting the world's most accomplished manufacturer of luxury off-road vehicles, Range Rover, in terms of the Touareg's skills in the rough stuff. On top of that, the on-pavement performance would need to match or exceed benchmarks set by such SUVs as the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
Although my few hours in the Touareg did not include steep sand dunes, black ice, sustained stretches of deep mud or the left lane of the autobahn, it appeared to be immensely capable of challenging the British and German standard bearers.
The various test venues did include a bespoke obstacle course, sandy river bottoms, muddy hillsides and stream crossings, and each were run without evident effort. Plenty of grip was provided by the highly adaptable 4XMotion all-wheel drive, even though the test vehicles were shod with all-season tires designed for all-around competence and not for deep sand or mud.
The geartrain, six forward gears chosen manually or via a Tiptronic system, was seamless in its smoothness, off road and on. It also features, when low range is chosen, hill-holding and descent control modes, both of which came into play on The Serpent and worked as advertised. The transmission didn't wheeze once, even when it seemed we were clawing up or crawling down the side of a skyscraper, not a mountain.
At a brief press briefing the night before our test driving, Volkswagen said it aimed to create the best all-around SUV in the world. Portraying it as a three-in-one vehicle, the VW marketeers enthusiastically claimed the Touareg would be a "Full-blooded off-road vehicle; dynamic and agile sports car; and elegant luxury-class touring saloon."
"Full-blooded" might be marketing blather, but it does fit the the VW, especially when talking about Touaregs fitted with the amazing CDC (Continuous Damping Control; also found in the Phaeton and Audi A8) air suspension. The conventionally suspended (front and rear dual wishbones) "base" Touareg is no slouch, but the CDC-equipped Touareg's grip, suspension articulation and roll control was amazing. And, good news for the hardcore, soon to come will be an assortment of optional equipment--tires with "off-road" tread; more ground clearance, extra skid plates and more.
Later in the test day, a three-hour drive back to Barcelona gave us a chance to judge the second contention of the marketing boys: "Dynamic and agile" cannot be argued against, but "sports car" is stretching the concept a bit. The top-dog Touareg V10 is scary powerful, but such a large vehicle precludes driving it like a sports car. It does go around corners with a more controlled dynamic than many passenger cars, but much of the credit should be given to the precise steering and comfort zones offered by big four-wheel discs, ESP, braking assist, electronic brake-force distribution and ABS. And the "luxury-class touring sedan" bit? If luxury means high-quality materials, excellent fit and finish, a full range of electronic goodies, exceptional ride quality and stability, a quiet cabin, state-of-the-art safety systems and advanced drivetrains, then I suppose the Touareg qualifies.
The Touareg's size--it belongs in the large class of off-road vehicles--is an indicator of its place in the market, at the upper end. It is 187.1-in. long, 75.9-in. wide and 67.9-in. long, with a wheelbase of 112.4 in., front and rear tracks of 65 in. and 65.6 in., and an unladen weight, with V6 powertrain, of 5,564 lb.
Compare those figures to the BMW X5's dimensions: l/w/h is 183.7/73.7/67.5 in., the wheelbase is 111 in.; the tracks are 62 in. front and rear (61.4 on 4.4i); and unladen weight is 4,572 lb (4,828 on 4.4i). Volvo's new XV90 is 188.9 in. long, 74.7 in. wide and 70.2 in. tall; wheelbase is 112.6 in.; and the tracks are 64.3 and 63.9 in. wide; curb weights are 4,450 lb for the five-seater and 4,610 lb for the seven-seat model. Also included among the Touareg's "core competitors" is Land Rover's Discovery. Its l/w/h dimensions are 185.2/74.4/76.4 in.; wheelbase is 100 in.; tracks are 60.6 and 61.4 in.; and curb weight is from 4,576 to 4,630 lb.
The Touareg, then, is clearly a large vehicle. However, it doesn't feel like it needs a stint at the fat farm, especially when the Big Daddy engine, a 313-bhp, 5.0-liter V10 TDI is the motive power. Unfortunately, this stump puller--553 lb-ft of torque!--is one of two engines, both diesel-fueled, that won't be coming to the U.S., at least not yet. The V10 might reach our shores along about 2005 if the Air Pollution Patrol doesn't institute even tougher regulations against oil-burners, but the 174-bhp 2.5-liter TDI will be reserved for the rest of the world. Europe is being given, at first, only the V10 TDI and the V6 that will be the base engine for the North Americans.
The 3.2-liter V6 has been offered before, in the Golf R32, but this version was slightly detuned and offers 220 bhp and 223 lb-ft of torque. For the present, the top U.S. engine is VAG's familiar 4.2-liter V8 with 310 bhp and 302 lb-ft of twist. Yet to come for the line, though it's unclear when they might make it across the Atlantic, is a W12 monster and a six-cylinder TDI.
Both North American debut models have an automatic six-speed Tiptronic gearbox, but for other markets VW also offers a six-speed with manual gear selection. Tiptronic paddle shift is an option. What makes this vehicle an exceptional off-roader, as well as an accomplished pavement runner, is the method through which engine power is allocated among the four wheels. The all-wheel-drive system is called 4XMotion and features a transfer gearbox with three differentials. The center diff can be locked either manually via a console-mounted dial or automatically by EDL's electronic selection. Locking for the rear differential is optional and would be needed only by the most avid off-roaders.
The "norm" is a 50/50 split of engine torque between the two axles, but up to 100% of the power can be sent to either set of wheels whenever tread slip is recorded. This happens in a completely transparent manner, the driver needing only to marvel at the balance and tenacious road-holding of the big truck.
Yet another vehicle that uses the "Skyhook" suspension damping technology, it works wonderfully in the large SUV, smoothing out the ride and helping maintain even weight distribution under hard braking or cornering. Three levels of damping can be chosen via a knob in the center console.
Occupant safety was addressed with the most advanced build strategies and passive systems available. A quick list includes an extremely rigid passenger cell augmented by the sturdiest of steel beams and buttressing; dual front and side curtain airbags; three-point belts for all passengers; and automatic pre-tensioners and belt-height adjustment for front and rear (outboard) passengers.
Perhaps the only potential hiccup to a strong roll-out is the pricing, though not in terms of the vehicle's equipment to dollar ratio, which is very attractive. Rather, it's a question of whether the U.S. market is ready to embrace an expensive Volkswagen? The V6 model will probably base for around $35,000, while the V8 will cost about ten grand more, but I don't see that as a problem.
The Touareg is VW's best chance, in a very long time, to make a big impact on the U.S. market. It fits the lifestyle aspirations of many VW owners so perfectly, there should be no trouble selling the 30,000+ models earmarked for U.S. sale. For additional technical details of the Touareg, visit europeancarweb.com.