Saturday, September 27, 2003

VW Touareg will set you free

But to appreciate this pricey SUV, take it off road

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

VW Touareg

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
5 wheels
Expensive European-style SUV, heavy on the sport, light on the utility

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 Volkswagen Touareg, four-door, five-passenger 4WD sport utility

Base price: $40,700

Price as tested: $49,915 (including freight)

Options on test vehicle: Navigation system, 12-channel/11-speaker sound system, bi-xenon headlights with washers, air suspension, silver roof rack, CD changer, heatable steering wheel and rear seats, ski bag, rear differential lock.

Drivetrain layout: Front, all-wheel drive engines: 3.2-liter V6 producing 220 hp and 224 lb-ft of torque; 4.2-liter V8 producing 310 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic shifter

Wheelbase: 112.4 inches

Length: 187.2 inches

Width: 76 inches

Height: 68 inches

Weight: 5,300 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 14/18

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/50,000 miles

Safety: Dual front airbags, front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, LATCH child-seat anchors, anti-lock brakes, traction control, brake assist, stability control, tire-pressure monitoring.

Cool: Brilliant suspension and 4WD technology, richly appointed interior, 7,700-lb. tow rating.

Uncool: Price, weight, poor fuel economy, adult-unfriendly rear seats, limited cargo space, incomprehensible instruments, no rear-seat entertainment system.

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Car Talk
Volkswagen's first sport-utility vehicle is a conundrum.

First, it's a sport-ute with serious off-road capabilities in a market clamoring for car-like SUVs such as the Lexus RX330, Volvo XC90 and Acura MDX.

Second, it's an expensive Volkswagen, priced in the luxury SUV sweet spot of $35,000 to $50,000.

Third, it's got a weird name.

Touareg (TOUR-regg) means "free folk," and is the name of a nomadic Saharan tribe. The connotation, of course, is that this sport-ute can overcome obstacles of harsh terrain just like the nomads do.

We didn't encounter any obstacles during our Touareg test drive. In fact, we never got the chance to take the Touareg off-road. But those who have rave about its abilities.

The Touareg packs a high-tech four-wheel-drive system with a shift-on-the-fly "Lo" range, four-wheel traction control, hill-descent control, a hill rollback feature and an optional locking rear differential. The standard suspension offers 8.3 inches of ground clearance. An optional six-way adjustable air suspension lets you vary ground clearance from 6.3 inches to a log-straddling 11.8 inches.

The Touareg shares its platform and some of its components with the Porsche Cayenne, but it's better looking than the Porsche and has its own engine choices. The Touareg is offered in two trim levels: V6 ($34,900) and V8 ($40,7000).

The 4.2-liter V8 engine, borrowed from the Audi A8L, produces 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. The 3.2-liter V6 generates 220 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque. Both are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual shifter. Both models can tow up to 7,700 pounds.

To really appreciate the Touareg, I think I'd have to drive it off-road, not just on pavement like we did with our $50,000 V8 Touareg tester. Don't get me wrong. This is an exceptionally well-engineered vehicle. It has a classy and handsome exterior - it looks kind of like a tall Passat wagon. It has a beautifully well-crafted interior, drives and handles like a champ, and is luxury-car quiet. But this sport-utility is too much about sport - the off-road kind, not the sports-car kind - and not enough about utility

My husband, Greg, disagreed. He was so enthralled with the sports half of the equation that he couldn't have cared less about utility. To him, the Touareg's V8 engine and drivetrain made up for the fact that the rear doors were so small we couldn't squeeze our daughter's pet rat cage into the back seat (for show-and-tell at school). Never mind that the back seats were so low and tight that adults had to sit with their knees propped up. Or that the cup holders were so shallow, a full cup of coffee tumbled onto his suit on the way to a wedding. To Greg, it was all good.

"This is the best truck drivetrain ever!" he exclaimed, one hour into a three-hour drive.

"But the back seat is pretty dinky," observed our 8-year-old daughter, Page, pressing her knees into the back of my seat to prove her point.

"Oh, you've got plenty of room back there," Greg said cheerfully.

"It's kind of bouncy," I said, showing him the sloppy looking notes I'd taken riding in the passenger seat. He switched the suspension to its softer setting, and my writing got marginally more legible. Of the new-generation SUVs I've tested, the Touareg felt the most truckish, its rear suspension clunking loudly over road bumps and expansion joints.

An hour later, Greg spouted, "This is the best SUV ever!"

Then Page asked why there wasn't a rear-seat DVD player.

"For $50,000, the least they could do is throw in a rear-seat entertainment system," conceded Greg. Turns out you can't get one with any Touareg model.

While Greg continued to chirp about the Touareg's power and handling, Page colored in the back seat, and I fumbled with the electronic controls, most of which are operated through an on-board computer screen. Unaided by an owner's manual (our car didn't come with one), I figured out how to operate the radio and AC controls, but we never mastered the navigation system. We turned it on, but the system didn't recognize our friend's street in the country and wouldn't accept our home address in the city. We fiddled until Greg got so distracted he pulled over to assist. All this made the computer screen's "Distraction causes accidents!" warning seem funny.

The only quality flaws we found in our test vehicle were deep cracks in the glazing over the wood inlays on the front dash and front and rear door panels. I'm hoping these were flaws only in early production models, and that they've been remedied since.

After the wedding, I took over driving duties to observe what Greg had been talking about. Yes, the V8 engine and six-speed transmission felt strong and smooth, with near-perfect synchronicity. But even with the 310-horsepower engine, the Touareg wasn't as fast as I'd expected. It had plenty of torque off the line and power to spare for snappy freeway passes, but the thrust I'd expect from the engine just wasn't there.

Blame it on the Touareg's weight. At 5,300 pounds, it outweighs the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML500 by 400 to 500 pounds, and outweighs the Infiniti FX45 by 1,000 pounds. The Touareg's weight hurts its economy, too. While the V8 Touareg is EPA rated at 14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway, our real-world usage was a Hummer-like 12 mpg.

Consider the Touareg a Hummer for guys who like European sports-car styling. Ultimately, those who will get the most out of the Touareg are those who will really take it off-road, and/or really use it to tow. On the road, it's not as nimble as other low-utility sport-utes, and it doesn't offer the utility most people ask from their SUV. For grocery hauling and soccer-game duty, there are better choices. But for those who take their adventuring seriously or who want to venture where others dare not tread, the Touareg is worth a serious look.

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