Click image to enlarge
by Richard Russell
Barcelona, Spain – VW’s first shot at the SUV market is lofty, aimed over the heads of the mainstream players directly at the luxury segment. The 2004 Touareg is part of Volkswagen’s effort to offer its legions of loyal customers a chance to move up within the brand. And more significantly, as a shot across the bow of Audi, BMW and Mercedes who have been moving into VW’s territory by offering less expensive models in Europe.
Marketing and competitive reasons aside, VW is serious about this vehicle, and has put considerable engineering thought and resources behind the effort.
Developed in conjunction with the Porsche Cayenne, the Touareg is a big 5,000-plus pound vehicle equipped with a full slate of next-generation technology and six, eight, 10 or 12-cylinder engines. At the moment, Canada receives only the six and eight cylinder powerplants.
Several hundred kilometres at the wheel of a variety of pre-production models gave the distinct impression the Touareg is at or near the top of the class in terms of quality, interior refinement, engineering and onroad manners. But it will clearly go to the front of the pack when it comes time to go offroad. VW also hopes to have a distinct edge on the others in terms of drivetrain choice, standard equipment level and price. Touareg’s start at $52,100 for the V6 model and $60,550 for the V8 model.
All Touaregs come with a modified version of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, electronically controlled locking centre and rear differentials and a two-speed transfer case. The 220 horsepower 3.2 litre V6 and 310 horsepower 4.2 litre V8 are sourced from Audi; a 313 horsepower 5.0 litre V10 from “heaven”, and the 6.0 litre W12 in-house.
The transmission of choice across the board is a new six-speed automatic with Tiptronic and optional shift paddles behind the wheel. I found the latter all but useless, especially off road since they are attached to the column and don’t move with the wheel. I drove Touaregs equipped with the V6 and V10 engines. The former proved smooth, quiet, modern and reasonably capable considering the size and weight of this beast. We also spent a few quality hours with a twin-turbo V10 diesel with an impressive 313 horsepower, mind-boggling 555-lb. ft. of torque and absolutely stunning performance. When we left Spain, a European colleague was cooling his heels in jail after being nabbed for 245 km/hr per hour in one of the V10s! Let’s start a movement – get down to your VW dealer and start a petition to bring this engine to Canada! Not only in the Touareg, VW could sell complete engines to CN to replace locomotives!
Ride height is a big issue with SUV’s that purport to be able to play equally well both on and off road. The Touareg will see duty at high speed on the autobahn, and crawling around the outback at single digit speeds. So the wizards in the lab developed an automatic height adjustment system covering a range from 160 mm to 300 mm depending on speed, conditions and settings. It automatically lowers the ride height in stages – at 125 km/hr and 180 km/hr. We felt it our duty to verify both. The system also includes a step-in mode to bring the Touareg to its knees when parked for easier access to people and cargo spaces. There are electronic assists to hold it on an upward slope and help it crawl back down at walking speeds – with both feet clear of the pedals. It is designed to climb a 45-degree slope, a 35 – degree side slope (perhaps the most attention-getting of all off road exercises) and tackle 28-degree approach and departure angles. The latter can be extended to 30 degrees if jacked up with the adjustable suspension. It is capable of fording 500 mm of water – 580 with the suspension raised. All this controlled by a pair of rotary knobs atop the center console.
Inside the five-passenger Touareg takes VW’s typical attention to detail to new heights. Incredibly narrow panel gaps and top quality leather, wood, metal and plastic result in a distinctly upmarket and stylish look and feel. The seats are big, supremely adjustable and all-day comfortable. As befits a vehicle of this class, there is a full array of comfort, convenience and safety equipment including four-zone climate control, front, thorax and side curtain airbags etc.
On the road, the big SUV feels solid and extremely stable. At any sane speed there is an almost complete lack of wind and road noise. The ride is supple and well controlled over both minor and major interruptions and the steering communicative and linear. The Touareg is a big, heavy, tall vehicle so it understeers when pressed into a turn, but leans very little and sticks very well. The six, with less weight up front was better balanced, but the V10 made up for it on the straights! The ability to send power to all four wheels means you can get back on the throttle early and it pulls out of the corner with authority, especially with the diesel’s awesome torque. The massive brakes – six-piston Brembos up front – are not only powerful, but progressive and capable of hauling this heavy monster down from silly speeds repeatedly, with no fade.
During an extensive session at a special facility owned and developed by world rally champ Carlos Sainz, the Touareg easily handled a tortuous course that caused most passengers to bail and many to seek a washroom. Extreme angles, awesome changes in elevation, deep rivers and nothing but sky outside the window were the norm. On standard 18-inch all-season tires the Touareg laughed it all off thanks to a full array of techno-trickery including drive-by-wire throttle that eliminates the super-sensitive jumpiness of offroading in low range.
VW is hoping the Touareg will take the company places it’s never been – into the hearts and minds of luxury car buyers. It is more than capable of climbing mountains, but the bigger hill may be that of convincing Acura, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes intenders to put VW on their shopping list.
What kind of a name is “Touareg”?
Where did VW come up with the name “Touareg”? Touareg means “knights of the desert” and comes from a tribe native to the African Sahara. Actually the tribe is Toureg, but that was determined to be the French spelling, and VW wanted to avoid any legal conflict so they changed the name to Touareg, pronounced “Tour-egg”.