Volkswagen seems to have hit another home run with the new Touareg sport-utility vehicle, just as it did with the New Beetle and the Passat. They decided that the Touareg must be a true SUV, id est, with superior manners on- and off-road, and, bless their little Teutonic hearts, they have pulled it off. The interior dimensions and on-road handling/ roadholding of the Touareg are much like those of BMW's X5, but its behavior off-road is more like that of a Range Rover or a Land Cruiser. Volkswagen avoided building a watered-down crossover vehicle, feeling that the target market would demand validation--it would not be enough for a VW SUV to look like an SUV; it also would have to manage tumbled rocks and steep gullies the way a genuine SUV does. Even the navigation system is programmed for off-road use, just like a hiker's hand-held GPS unit.
Some of our fellow automotive journalists have suggested that the name, Touareg, is a disaster that will bring down the entire enterprise. They predict that Americans will not be able to pronounce it. We'd prefer Webster's spelling, Tuareg, which is the name of a fierce and warlike desert tribe that gave the French Foreign Legion fits for decades and was never truly subjugated. Others mutter darkly about the Tuaregs' historic role in the African slave trade and wonder how the Germans could have committed such a hideous gaffe.
Here's what we think: Ferdinand Pich, who is both the author and the architect of today's millennial Volkswagen miracle, loved testing in the North African desert and spent a great deal of time there. When Americans dream of SUV adventures, we dream of the deserts and mountains of the North American West. Hence Tahoe and Durango and Wrangler. When Pich dreamed of SUV adventures, he envisioned the vast emptiness of North Africa and the grimly proud nomads who live there. Hence, in German, Touareg.
The VW Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne utilize the same platform and electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system and were to some degree jointly developed. This AWD system is based on lockable front, rear, and center differentials--and it reads throttle position before selecting the degree of differential lock to avoid a loss of traction. Porsche's version of the AWD system will be set up with more rear-wheel bias for better on-road performance. The Touareg will be tuned for maximized off-road performance. At the VW test track, we performed a variety of slalom and moose-avoidance maneuvers on smooth pavement, and the new VW took everything in stride. Each journalist secretly hoped that he might be the one to lay a Touareg on its side halfway through the slalom, but the Touareg remained upright despite everything. This was followed by some time on VW's off-road circuit, which was very reassuring about the Touareg's off-road skills although nowhere near as tough as Land Rover's test tracks. Nevertheless, we all came away impressed by this VW's wide-ranging portfolio of capabilities.
American Touaregs will be introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next January with a choice of the 3.2-liter narrow-angle V-6 (VR6) or the 4.2-liter Audi-based V-8. A 6.0-liter W-12 will come later. To watch a video of Volkswagen's fabulous twelve-cylinder engine in motion, with four rows of pistons going up and down and counterweights flying, is as mesmerizing for an adult car enthusiast as the first season of Sesame Street must have been for America's five-year-olds.
The real sleeper in all this will be the new 5.0-liter V-10 turbocharged direct-injection diesel (TDI), which produces 313 horsepower and a whopping 553 pound-feet of torque.
The VR6 is perfectly adequate, the V-8 is fast, the W-12 is faster still, but the V-10 TDI will make strong men weep. It is also capable of 24 mpg combined city/highway fuel economy. Volkswagen would very much like to send this engine our way, but they doubt that they can get it past the California Air Resources Board, which is the American answer to Robespierre's Revolutionary Tribunal. Make no mistake, the ultimate Touareg will be the one powered by this mind-bending diesel engine, but we poor deprived Americans are unlikely to get it.
All U.S.-spec Touaregs will be equipped with six-speed manu-matic transmissions, and a steering-wheel-mounted paddle-shift will be available. The paddle-shift feature should be a very useful boon to serious off-road drivers, although it will quickly seem superfluous in normal day-to-day commuting. This transmission is beautiful enough when polished and opened to display its innards that we should each have one on a stand in our living room. Equally beautiful are the massive Brembo brakes that are standard on all Touaregs.
An air suspension system will be optional on the six-cylinder price leader and standard on Touaregs fitted with the other three engines. Two simple rotary switches and one roller switch at the center of the instrument panel control the various settings for the suspension and the all-wheel-drive system. They're a little intimidating at first, but they're well marked and logical in their functions, and the first-time driver quickly becomes accustomed to them. The suspension automatically lowers the vehicle at highway speeds, and if you switch the AWD to low range, the suspension raises the vehicle to maximum ride height.
Truth to tell, so much driveline and suspension management is automatic that many owners will go through their years with the Touareg, driving on every kind of surface, without ever exploring the additional command-and-control possibilities. For instance, there are the electronic stability program, anti-slip regulation, anti-lock brakes, engine braking control, hydraulic brake assist, the traction control system, and engine-drag torque control, all toiling silently and transparently to make your drive up the wall of the Grand Canyon a pleasant one.
Interior accommodations are as comfortable as they are good-looking. There has been no attempt to shoehorn a third-row bench seat into the rear compartment, and all VW product planners should receive medals for their restraint. Individual controls are handsome and ergonomically appropriate. There are air bags and temperature control zones for everybody. The exterior appearance is clean and station-wagon-like, with strong Volkswagen identity front and rear. The family ties to the Passat cannot be missed. The cargo compartment is accessed by a liftgate with a window that opens separately and is thus very convenient in use. There has been no styling attempt to telegraph a lot of off-road machismo. As the technical presentation said in its summation: "The Touareg covers both the luxury sedan and the pure off-roader. The Touareg is a European SUV. The Touareg is a Volkswagen." To which we say, "Amen."