– Pleasant cabin
– Great on-road handling
– True off-road capability
– High price with options
– Confused automatic gearbox
– Poor fuel economy
As with every other car manufacturer, Volkswagen has also jumped onto the 4WD bandwagon after a century of exclusively producing cars and vans. Sure, there might have been a few VW Beetle-based off-road buggies and the odd military vehicle during WW2, but the recent Touareg is officially their first true mass-market 4WD vehicle. Developed in conjunction with Porsche for cost-cutting and platform-sharing purposes, the Touareg initially seems like yet another soft-roader wagon riding on a car platform, but we learned a long time ago to never judge a 4WD by its cover.
The VW Touareg certainly looks like a jacked-up car, with many soft curves, a low roofline and a sloping windshield. The massive wheel wells hold equally massive tyres and rims, which were optional 19-inchers on our tester. The vehicle itself is not that big, and could even be considered a compact rather than a midsize where it not for its width. It is as wide as a Land Rover LR3, but much shorter in height. Thanks to our air-suspension-equipped tester, step-in height was minimal as the car lowers itself when parked, and thus removing the need for unsightly side-steps.
The interior design is simple and uncluttered, yet exudes a feeling of elegance thanks to the liberal application of high-quality matte plastic, soft-touch materials on most dashboard and door surfaces, well-stitched leather upholstery, and swaths of real wood along the centre console. It all looked good, except that the upper dashboard was a funny brown colour while the rest of the cabin was mostly tan. All the usual power options, such as door locks, mirrors and seats, are all there. While many of the controls are digital, some are still controlled by dials, such as the unique sunroof adjustments on the ceiling, and suspension and differential controls below the gear shifter, which gave us our first hint that this is no ordinary soft-roader like the BMW X5. The centre console also houses the great stereo and the not-so-great navigation screen. The screen uses buttons on the side for going through menus, and it becomes tiresome to use when inputting destinations. The screen also controls the stereo, though it thankfully has redundant buttons on the steering wheel. A touch-screen would have been worlds better. And while the stereo sounds strong, the CD changer is impractically stored in the luggage trunk. The a/c system has digital controls on the centre console, and surprisingly, separate digital controls for the rear a/c too, placed within reach of passengers in the back. However, the a/c wasn’t as strong as in many other 4WDs, such as the Land Rover LR3 or even the lowly Nissan Pathfinder.
Externally, the Touareg looks small, it has a relatively long wheelbase which provided very good interior space, both front and rear. There was no shortage of legroom anywhere, better than many other midsize 4WDs, though headroom is notably less than those same competitors. The two front seats are reasonably bolstered along the sides, while the rear bench is spacious and comfortable. The effect of prioritising space for five passengers is that there is no third row seating. This offers a massive luggage area out back, even though closing the heavy upward-opening tailgate might be a chore for the skinny women who will buy this vehicle in droves for image alone. The cabin is protected by the usual front airbags as well as a multitude of side airbags, including for the rear. The front passengers also enjoy a couple of coverless cup-holders, but we couldn’t find any for the rear saps. A quick look in the brochure revealed that rear cup-holders are optional. All the airbags in the world cannot replace missing cup-holders for the drooling kids! Not that we have any yet.
Driving the Touareg in traffic is pretty easy. All-round visibility is good, even through the rear window thankfully. The front-and-rear parking sensors also help in navigating through tight gaps in traffic jams, with no danger of running into impolite drivers. And the light power steering makes one-handed parking easy, even with the slippery wood trim on the wheel. The quiet cabin effectively isolates passengers from the noise outside. Hit the open highway, and the cabin still stays admirably quiet at highway speeds, along with providing the smoothest of rides. It is here that we let loose the 4.2-litre V8 engine’s 310 horses. Power is fairly adequate for this quick 4WD, and the 410 Nm of torque comes in handy for quick passing moves. Putting that juice to use yielded very poor fuel economy numbers, though we did appreciate the large 100-litre fuel tank. Our main gripe was with the standard six-speed automatic gearbox, which starts hunting for gears when the throttle is pressed enough to induce a downshift, thus delaying accelerative action. Anyway, out-of-the-way acceleration runs resulted in sprints from zero to 100 kph in a little more than 8 seconds. The brakes were also very strong, thanks in no small part to the massive discs visible through the rims, aided by ABS and other electronics.
The Touareg handles so well for a 4WD that we believe many cars would do well if they could match it. Thanks to the optional air-suspension that can alter the ride height on-the-fly, the Touareg can ride along in comfort mode for a superbly smooth ride, or lower its ride height in sport mode and eliminate more of whatever little body roll was present, slightly deteriorating ride quality while obviously improving handling. The wide tyres, combined with the four-wheel-drive system, also offer admirable corner-carving ability comparable to the expensive BMW X5. There are electronic nannies to save you in extreme situations, but we believe we didn’t set them off simply because the Touareg’s traction limits are so high. We just wish it didn’t come with that stupid foot-operated parking brake, as a true handbrake would’ve completed the performance-vehicle setup.
While the on-road handling was revealing enough, it is off the road that the Touareg really astonishes. It is a true off-road vehicle, similar in vein to stuff from Land Rover and Jeep. Its ground clearance can be increased for dune-bashing, using the same console-mounted dial that turns it into a lowered sporting wagon. There is also a full suite of differential lock controls. On the same dial are controls for switching to four-wheel-drive and low-range gearing, though these dials could be left in ‘auto’ to let the computer decide appropriate settings. Combine this with V8 power, and we had ourselves a solid desert dweller. We started off with mild sand and moved up to steeper grades rather easily. The excessive front overhang limits straight climbs up sudden inclines, but point at the slope at an angle and the Touareg will do the climb under its own power, with none of the top-heavy feel of a traditionally tall 4WD. The tyres were fairly low-profile for a 4WD, but not low-profile enough to limit its off-road prowess. All in all, we give the Touareg top marks as an off-roader. We supposedly made our tester dusty enough for Volkswagen’s PR people to demand that we get it washed when we went to return it, citing some clause in some contract. Needless to say, we were a bit peeved, but we couldn’t take it out on this unexpectedly great wagon.
The Volkswagen Touareg is the greatest combination of on-road handling and off-road capability we’ve seen since we drove the high-tech Range Rover Supercharged last year, and that one cost a good deal more. Our V8 Touareg also costs a good amount, and half the gadgetry we played with was optional, driving up the price. Its tame looks already attract a whole lot of upper-crust people using it as a mall-hopping school bus rather than for what it is designed to do. And it deserves more than that.