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|June 30th, 2003, 10:42 PM||#1|
Forget the Cayenne! V10 Turbodiesel 553lb-ft of Torque!
2004 Volkswagen Touareg
However you say the name, it’s a serious performer, on and off-road. by Paul A. Eisenstein 6/13/2003
Our off-road adventure gets off to a premature start, as the DC-9 bringing us into Moab slips off the taxiway and snags a tire in the soft dirt. As the pilots frantically try to figure out how to yank their 78,000-pound jet loose, our Touareg rolls up the tarmac to begin a more planned excursion into the deep desert of southern Utah.
This ancient and scarred countryside boasts a harshly unique beauty that has been seen in countless movies, from John Wayne westerns to the opening scene in Mission Impossible 2.
It’s especially appealing to those who find their fun jouncing and bouncing over some of the most rugged off-road trails in the country. Moab presents a tough challenge to even the more experienced drivers and vehicles. So it’s with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that we begin the steep climb up along the Lion’s Back ridge.
Call it TOUR-egg, twar-ig or, toe-rag, if you prefer, the first true sport-utility vehicle ever to bear the Volkswagen badge is named after a tribe of sub-Saharan nomads. The automaker spent five years designing and engineering the Touareg, in partnership with Porsche, which recently launched its higher-performance version, the controversial Cayenne.
In an era when automakers brag about the speed with which they bring product to market, that’s an uncharacteristic anachronism, but probably an appropriate one. Volkswagen didn’t intend to watch Touareg get lost in the increasingly crowded field of SUVs and crossover ute wannabes.
The excursion to Moab was clearly and successfully designed to demonstrate that the new VW can stand up to some of the toughest and best-established off-roaders, while also delivering the luxurious feel and on-road manners of an up-market sedan.
The exterior styling of the new ute is handsome and rugged, if a bit on the plain vanilla side. The wagon-like Touareg is decidedly more aerodynamic in appearance than the likes of a Land Rover. But there’s also no confusing VW’s new entry with Porsche’s ungainly Cayenne, which looks a lot like a 911 on stilts. One of Touareg’s most notable details is the oversized VW badge centered on the grille. The overall appearance is of a tall, but elegant wagon, but the high ground clearance, large wheels and cladding clearly signal the vehicle’s rugged character.
Slip inside and Touareg really shines. While not quite as lavish as the new Range Rover, it is clearly one of the most exquisitely crafted SUVs on the road, outfitted in a tasteful blend of wood, chrome, leather, and high-end plastic. There was a trained attention to detail, with subtle touches such as the damped door over the ashtray and the damped grab handles, and the vehicle’s ergonomics are virtually flawless.
We found particularly useful the oversized video display with its various on- and off-road navigation modes. Should you be uncertain of your course, the system will lay down electronic “breadcrumbs,” so you can retrace your steps. It also keeps an eye on direction, altitude, even the direction your wheels are pointing, a surprisingly useful feature when you’re popping over a blind ridge, hoping to turn onto a narrow trail and avoid a sheer cliff.
The Touareg boasts seating for five, though it’s really most suitable as a four-seater. The front buckets are plush and comfortable, absorbing most of the shock of off-roading — though we’d like a wee bit more bolstering for those hard turns on-road. The rear seats could use a touch more thigh support.
Inside and out, Touareg comes with a long list of standard features, even on the base V-6 model, starting with leather seats. The base car offers a manual tilt-and-telescope wheel, while the V-8 is electrically adjusted. Seat heaters, a high-line CD sound system, full-time standard all-wheel-drive, there’s no question VW has incorporated quite a bit into a car that starts at $34,900 for the V-6, and $40,700 for the V-8. (Add another $615 for delivery charges.)
A very different VW
Even so, it’s going to be a challenge getting potential buyers to accept the idea of paying that much for a Volkswagen. Most folks still think of the original Beetle, the $1,999 darling of the hippie generation. Spend a little time behind the wheel, though, and there’s no question this is a very different Volkswagen.
The new 4XMotion is surprisingly adept off-road. Under normal conditions, it splits torque evenly between front and back wheels. On Moab’s steep and deeply rutted trails, the system transfers power to the wheel or wheels that need it, virtually instantaneously.
The Touareg’s air suspension system adds yet another tool in an off-roader’s belt. At its extreme, it provides 11.8 inches of ground clearance — two more than the vaunted Hummer H2. There’s an automatic mode that adjusts vehicle height to drive conditions. The Touareg’s standard steel suspension provides a reasonably effective 8.3 inches of clearance, good for all but the most rugged trails while reasonably low enough for on-road driving.
Two other nice features are Hill Climb mode, which let you lift off the gas without slipping backwards on a steep climb, and Hill Descent Control. The latter feature is especially useful coming down a steep hill. Simply lift off both gas and brake and let Touareg creep forward at a safe couple miles an hour.
During a day on the Moab trails, we found no obstacle we couldn’t overcome. And that’s likely to score the Touareg a lot of points in the crowded SUV field, where image counts. But let’s face it; even Hummer H1 owners seldom, if ever, travel on anything rougher than a gravel road, and VW officials admit with Touareg, it’s likely to be one in 20, at most. So in real world terms, what really counts is how the new SUV performs on the highway.
Though you do have a good step up to climb inside the cabin, Touareg’s command seating will likely be the only thing to remind you you’re not driving an up-market sedan. The air suspension is especially well-suited to hard driving, lowering 25 millimeters — about an inch, at freeway speeds (and another 10 mm above 110 mph). During a day of cruising in the hills and valleys outside Salt Lake City, we found Touareg corners tightly and provides a far nimbler, car-like ride, something we can credit to both the suspension design and the SUV’s stiff, unibody construction.
On-road, the 3.2-liter, four-valve V-6 is acceptable though uninspiring, not surprising for a vehicle weighing just short of 5100 pounds. That powertrain makes 220 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque, and is rated at 9.4 seconds 0-60 mph.
The five-valve, 4.2-liter V-8 generates 310 hp and 302 lb-ft, and while adding 200 pounds to the vehicle’s weight, cuts 0-60 times to a factory-rated 7.6 seconds. That was enough to make a real difference on the open road — though we should point out, in fairness, that most of our highway driving was done at altitudes starting at 5000 feet, where normally aspirated engines quickly suffer.
Even so, if the Touareg has a weak point, it’s probably comes in terms of power. It’s not quite up to the likes of the top-line Jeep Grand Cherokee, for one, and the new Porsche Cayenne, in particular.
That should change early next year when VW begins importing the third engine in the Touareg lineup, a spectacular V-10 turbodiesel that we briefly tested in European spec late last year. The V-10 TDI pumps out a hefty 308 hp and a stump-pulling 553 lb-ft of torque. Perhaps more significantly, it does that without the drawbacks of diesels past. It is smooth, quiet, and quick off the line.
Though its final mileage numbers aren’t in yet, the turbodiesel should also satisfy those disappointed by the Touareg’s fuel-economy ratings. The V-6 gets an unimpressive 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. The V-8 cuts that to 14 and 18. Both require premium fuel.
There were a few other issues we ran into with the Touareg, including a slight whistle from the mirrors at freeway speeds. This is one of the conundrums a manufacturer like VW faces. The SUV is otherwise so quiet you can talk in whispers, but every so often, a noise occurs that would normally be masked by wind, engine, and road noises in most other utes.
There was a slight vibration in the steering wheel at highway speeds with the V-6 Touareg. Not much, but enough to tire you out on a journey of several hundred miles.
We’d have liked to see the Touareg launch with satellite radio and the OnStar emergency system, both of which should arrive by the 2005 model year. And we were surprised that the navigation system still uses CDs, rather than the more data-dense DVD discs. For those who travel a lot, that will require the occasional disc change on a long trip.
And we’re looking forward to getting a manual transmission. Right now, all Touaregs come with a smooth and fast-shifting six-speed automatic with Tiptronic mode. To be honest, with its Dynamic Shift Program, designed to anticipate and even hold the best gear through corners, it will satisfy all but manual diehards.
Overall, there are relatively few things to complain about with the new Touareg. It may have taken a long time to bring the project to market, but VW clearly did its homework during the SUV’s five-year development cycle.
Though Porsche got the better powertrain, it can be argued that Volkswagen got the most out of this joint venture overall. For an SUV of this refinement, and capabilities, the price tag is surprisingly reasonable, unlike Cayenne. Whether buyers will feel comfortable spending that much for a Volkswagen badge remains to be seen, but if you’re looking for a ute in this class and don’t at least check out Touareg, you’d be making a mistake.
2004 Volkswagen Touareg
Base price: $34,900 for base V-6; $40,700 base V-8 (plus $615 delivery)
Engine: 3.2-liter, 4-valve V-6, 220 hp/225 lb-ft; 4.2-liter, 5-valve V-8, 313 hp/302 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Tiptronic mode, all-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 187.2 x 75.9 x 68.0 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Curb weight: 5086 lb V-6; 5300 lb V-8
EPA City/Hwy: 15/20 V-6; 14/18 V-8
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, head/thorax side airbags, ISOFIX child fastening system, pretensioning seatbelts, electronic brake system, stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution, hill descent control
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone automatic climate control, power seats, tilt-telescopic steering column, CD audio system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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