*When showing up late to the party, it helps if you make a grand entrance. Volkswagen launched its Touareg sport utility vehicle in 2003, long after arch-rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz had staked out the market. The premium SUV segment quickly became even more crowded with offerings from Audi, Volvo, Saab and Porsche (the Touareg's first cousin). Nonetheless, the Touareg, particularly when equipped with a V6 FSI engine, was able to carve out a profitable niche for VW with more than 300,000 sales worldwide in less than four years. Still, with the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class now into their second generations, it's time for Volkswagen to play catch-up again with a significantly revised Touareg, claiming more than 2,200 new parts.
The first thing is the new nose. Volkswagen has given the Touareg its new corporate grille-chrome on V6 models and matte chrome on V8 and V10 diesel models. This expanse of brightwork mirrors the styling found on Jettas and Golfs. Somehow, all that chrome seems to work better on the big SUV than it does on the smaller cars and VW also claims the new grille, redesigned front bumper, new headlights with polycarbonate lenses, new side mirrors, and a new rear roof edge spoiler have improved aerodynamics and aided fuel efficiency. New LED brake lights at the rear are attractive, but the vast distance from the bottom of these lights to the top of the rear bumper makes the rear of the vehicle look awkward, especially for vehicles in lighter colors.
The interior also benefits from a makeover, with a new instrument cluster and redesigned seating-including a 12-way power driver's seat and an optional 620-watt Dynaudio sound system.
However, improvements go beyond a quick facelift and cosmetic tweaking. Although the 280-hp 3.6-liter direct injection gasoline V6 FSI carries over (70 percent of Touaregs currently sold in North America come with the V6), the 4.2-liter direct gasoline injection V8 FSI is new and pumps out 350 hp. Its responsiveness and power is impressive, although the hefty 5300-pound curb weight of this model mutes some of its eagerness. The top-of-the-line V10 turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engine (producing 310 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque) is back, but it will likely be replaced by a 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 diesel in late 2008.
Volkswagen has thrown technology at its SUV like never before. The Touareg has an amazing array of electronic controls that come into play when driving on-road and off-road. The Electronic Stability Program (ESP), for example, now includes a system that builds up brake pressure when the gas pedal is suddenly released (Hydraulic Braking Assistant). Active Rollover Protection (ARP) senses impending rollovers, while Fading Brake Support, a special dry and wet braking function, wipes water from the brake rotors, and new understeer control logic improves handling during corner entry.
One slick new item is ABS Plus, a system that's useful on loose surfaces, such as gravel or sand. It allows the wheels to lock briefly, pushing the rocks and sand into a wedge that actually slows the vehicle 20 percent faster than traditional anti-lock braking. Add a host of off-road driving aids (air suspension, locking differentials and traction control strategies) and the Touareg, which never feels small and/or nimble, proves quite adaptable to highways, back roads and fairly serious off-road travel over rocks, mud, and steep ascents and descents.
This impressive capability comes at a price. The V6 model starts at $39,320, the V8 begins at $48,320, and the V10 TDI is a hefty $68,320. Perhaps the most interesting model will be the TDI diesel V6 at the end of 2008. This engine is already available in Europe, accounting for 80 percent of Touareg sales in Germany. Using urea injection, the engine can be sold in all 50 states and promises 225 hp with highway fuel economy of over 30 miles per gallon-quite an improvement over the 19 mpg of today's V6, and 20-mpg highway estimates for the current V10 diesel. The V6 diesel Touareg will be the perfect example of using advanced technology for the greater good.
Longitudinal front engine, all-wheel drive
4.2-liter V8 FSI
Six-speed automatic with low range and 4MOTION
Independent front and rear
Vented front and rear discs
Length x width x height (in.): 187.2 x 75.9 x 68.0
Wheelbase: 112.4 in.
Curb weight: 5300 lb
Peak power: 350 hp @ 6200 rpm
Peak torque: 302 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
0-60 mph: 7.6 sec.
Top speed: 130 mph
*Why we love it: Electronics make it good both on-road and off
*Why we don't: Its weight works against it
The Price Tag: $48,320