For me, the Touareg has always been something of a disappointment - a car without a purpose. It's neither as sporty as its European competition (BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML) nor as useful, practical, and functional as the American SUVs that it was patterned after. Poor sight lines, a relatively space-inefficient interior, and a lackluster powertrain compound the problem. The engine lacks torque down low - it's not helped by the Touareg's substantial heft - but frustatingly, the six-speed automatic downshifts as if its innards were mired in molasses. The adjustable suspension (Sport/Automatic/Comfort) alternates between wallowy and painfully brittle, and finding pavement that the Touareg actually liked was something of a challenge.
On the plus side, however, this drive got me thinking back to the V-10-powered diesel Touareg that we had in the office last year. Yes, it was heavy, and yes, VW of America reportedly sold only a handful of examples before discontinuing the model on emissions grounds, but the big diesel Touareg was really the best of the bunch. That truck was relatively economical, torquey as hell, and possessed of a stiff-yet-compliant suspension tuning that neither beat you up nor made you motion-sick. Makes me hopeful for the V-6 diesel Touareg that VW is supposed t to unveil at the Los Angeles auto show in November.
Sam Smith, Associate Editor
For the 2008 model year, Volkswagen treated its first-ever SUV to some minor changes, mostly appearance tweaks. The Touareg 2, as VW now refers to it, is very much the same vehicle that arrived way late to the SUV party, a party that sky-high fuel prices have busted up with the same devastating effectiveness as campus cops puncturing the keg at a dorm-room beer blast.
As before, the Touareg proffers true off-road ability, but are there any buyers left who care? The extra traction of four-wheel drive is nice, but for most people the off-road hardware and jacked-up ride height serves no purpose other than to drag down fuel economy; a quick glance at the Touareg's EPA numbers will attest to how effectively they do that. Our test car, with the V-8 engine - arguably the worst of the three engine choices for 2008 - clocks in at 12 (!) mpg city, 17 highway. For 2009, VW was able to get the estimates up to 13/18. Hurray.
That's pretty pathetic for what is only a mid-size, five-seat SUV. The standard, 3.6-liter V-6 punches a slightly smaller hole in the ozone layer and buyers' wallets, with mileage ratings of 16/20 mpg for '08, slipping to 14/20 mpg for '09. The '08 Touareg also offers the V-10 TDI, which is amusing for its prodigious torque (553 lb-ft), but provides little of the much-talked-about diesel efficiency, with EPA numbers of 15 mpg city, 20 highway. It's also nearly $20,000 more expensive than the V-8, itself a healthy $9000 over the base six-cylinder.
The V-8 is a heavy drinker, but it has the muscle to move this chunky monkey with ease, and to tow a hefty trailer (of up to 7700 pounds) to boot. The powertrain is smooth and fairly quiet. The whole car has an overall sense of refinement, it coming out of VW's We're-just-as-good-as-Mercedes era, a period which also produced the Phaeton luxury car. The interior materials quality is above reproach (but beware that the base version comes with vinyl, not leather, seats, despite a sticker price just shy of $40,000). Our example was loaded with upmarket options such as navigation, a rearview camera, keyless ignition, a high-end audio system, and an air suspension.
The latter allows drivers to choose between sport and comfort settings, or default to automatic damping. The sport is on the firm side, while the comfort allows more body roll than we'd like - that's about what you'd expect, and probably not worth the extra $2750, unless you live at the end of a very windy road. Unfortunately, there's no way to dial up any heft or feel in the overboosted steering.
As is the case with most SUVs, Touareg sales have fallen hard of late. Back in the day when people were still infatuated with the idea of driving a vehicle that could go off-road - those also being the days when gas was less than two bucks a gallon - the Touareg would have been a dreamboat, smooth, plush, and powerful, yet also extremely capable. Now, however, it just seems out of date. Time to bring on Touareg 3; make is lighter, lower the ride height, ditch the hardcore off-road gear, and package in at least a kid-size third seat.
The Touareg 3, however, is still a few years off. In the meantime, Volkswagen has one more trick to breathe some new relevance into the Touareg 2. At the Los Angeles auto show in November, VW will unveil a Touareg with a V-6 diesel engine. That V-6 TDI, which meets emissions standards in all fifty states, should get much better fuel economy than any of the current offerings, although we won't know the official estimates until closer to its on-sale date in the spring. A Touareg without the heavy drinking habit would be a much more pleasant traveling companion.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor