2008 Volkswagen Touareg
2008 Volkswagen Touareg. Click image to enlarge

By Laurance Yap

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2208 Volkswagen Touareg 2 V8

Toronto, Ontario – In the late nineties and the early part of this century, Volkswagen embarked on an ambitious – and some would say, ill-conceived – move upmarket. In addition to buying up luxury brands like Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti, VW pushed its own lineup to levels of luxury, technology and price that they’d never before aspired to. The Phaeton super-luxury sedan was the first VW to cross the $100,000 price bracket, while Golfs and Jettas were equipped with leather-and-wood interiors that shamed some cars costing many times more.

Since then, VW has in many ways gone back to its roots as the makers of “people’s cars.” The Phaeton is no more, and the company has intensified its focus on the lower end of the market, with products like the City Golf and City Jetta, priced at well under $20,000. You can no longer get an eight-cylinder engine in the Passat and all of the company’s most recent concept cars have been small, economical vehicles targeted at a large urban audience.

Where does that leave the Touareg SUV, then? Back when it was introduced, the Touareg was a cornerstone of VW’s upscaling strategy, packed full of technology, power and luxury features that put it toe-to-toe with vehicles like the BMW X5 and M-class Mercedes. These days, with its glitzy grille, 19-inch wheels and wood-trimmed interior, it seems like a bit of an anomaly in the lineup, a full-on luxury SUV being sold by a company focused mainly on practical, stylish urban transport.

That doesn’t make it a bad vehicle; far from it. Indeed, my loaded-up ($80,000!) V8 Touareg 2, which had all the toys one would expect of a high-end SUV, was a delight for the senses. There was a killer sound system, satellite navigation, power assists for everything and even a heated steering wheel. More importantly, the quality of the interior fittings was right up there with any other high-end vehicle I’d driven. The leather on the seats is superb, the metallic accents on the dash are real metal and the plastics all have a rich, textured finish. The design of some of the dashboard and centre console details, however, was less successful; as if VW’s designers were constantly fighting the conflict between the refinement you would expect in a high-end car and the rugged image you want from an SUV.

2008 Volkswagen Touareg
2008 Volkswagen Touareg. Click image to enlarge

To wit: what’s the deal with the tiny air vents with their huge adjuster knobs? Why are the climate control knobs so huge while the rest of the controls and all the displays so small? The air suspension control is a huge knob, as is the selector for low or high range, but the suspension stiffness is controlled by a tiny wheel that’s tough to operate with your finger, let alone a gloved hand. There are some other ergonomic glitches, too. The navigation system works quickly (it’s one of the better DVD-based systems out there) but the buttons are tiny and the interface can be inconsistent in the way it structures menu selections. On the plus side, the gauges are clear and easy to read and the steering wheel has a set of easy-to-use controls for the cruise control, audio system and trip computer.

While the Touareg’s interior is chock-full of big-SUV features and design, it’s actually a mid-sizer, with an interior that’s about as roomy as a Ford Explorer’s, without the third row of seats. That means that while both front- and rear-seat passengers have enough room on road trips, the cabin still has an intimate feel; this isn’t a vehicle you can really stretch out in. Its everyday practicality, however, is quite high: the cargo area is large and flat, easily accessible through a wide-opening hatch, while the interior is chock-full of useful storage compartments to hold the detritus of daily life. Thoughtful touches include rubber mats at the bottom of the door bins to keep stuff from rattling, plus an air-conditioned glovebox that keeps chocolate bars cool in the summer.

Fitted with the optional “exceline” package, my V8 Touareg featured an adjustable air suspension system, which allows you to choose from five ride heights (from extreme off-roading to an ultra-low setting for loading) as well as three settings for stiffness. Unlike, say, Porsche’s Cayenne, which is built off some of the same components, you can’t adjust ride height and stiffness independently; select “comfort” on the stiffness wheel and the ride height raises; choose “sport” and it drops right down, doing so even further above 120 km/h. The result is that, because I like the way the Touareg looks when it’s lowered, I drove around in sport mode most of the time, with the car lurching and and heaving over pavement imperfections it would have smothered in comfort mode. I guess that’s the price I paid for posing.

2008 Volkswagen Touareg
2008 Volkswagen Touareg. Click image to enlarge

Because of the air suspension, the stiff structure and the inclusion of true low-range gears for off-roading, the Touareg is a heavy vehicle for its size. It’s something you definitely feel in the corners; while the Goodyear Eagle LS2 all-season tires generate decent grip and there’s little lean from the suspension, you can tell the chassis is having to work very hard to keep you going where you’re pointed. Truth be told – and unlike the Cayenne and even the BMW X5 – there’s little fun to be had in driving the Touareg enthusiastically. The steering is light and devoid of feel and the brakes, while powerful, are connected to a grabby pedal that makes smooth driving difficult. For driving pleasure – if there can be such a thing in such a tall, heavy vehicle – it’s shaded by the handling ability of the X5 and the overall feel of the Cayenne, though both are more expensive on a comparably-equipped basis.

Too bad, because the powertrain is a gem. Upgraded for 2008, the 4.2-litre V8 now produces 350 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque, delivered smoothly to all four wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. Whether you’re scooting from stoplight to stoplight or passing cars on a two-lane road, there’s always plenty of power and the transmission always seems to be in the right gear. An aggressive sport setting on the transmission (accessed just below drive) as well as a raunchy engine note in the upper reaches of the rev range give the V8 Touareg a sporty edge, though you do pay the price in fuel consumption – with a rating of 17.1 L/100 km in the city, this is one of the thirstiest vehicles I’ve driven all year, almost as bad as the much larger, more comfortable Cadillac Escalade.

2008 Volkswagen Touareg
2008 Volkswagen Touareg. Click image to enlarge

Volkswagen has a new, smaller SUV on the way, of course. Called the Tiguan, it’s based on a platform that combines elements of the Passat and Jetta/Rabbit platforms and will be powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Low-range gears and off-road suspension will be optional instead of standard, making it a much more practical proposition for driving to and from work and around town. Clever packaging means that the Tiguan’s interior is surprisingly roomy – almost as roomy as the Touareg up front – and the level of perceived quality is almost as high, with quality plastics, metallic trim and many of the same luxury features as the Touareg’s, available at a much lower (and as yet unannounced) price point.

Where exactly that leaves the Touareg is anybody’s guess. In isolation, this is a very impressive vehicle: extremely capable on-road and off, with levels of power, features and luxury that are a match for any of its major competitors. As part of the wider picture, though – especially within VW’s current portfolio – it’s a more complex proposition. The Touareg is expensive for a VW, and the competition in the luxury-SUV segment is very strong, with similarly-priced vehicles from other brands offering better driving experiences as well as more badge kudos. Despite its foibles, I like the Touareg a lot, but my sense is that a V6 model, light on the options, is a stronger value proposition – and the new Tiguan is likely to be even stronger.

Pricing: 2008 Volkswagen Touareg 2 V8


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