2004 Volkswagen Touareg Road Test

2004 Volkswagen Touareg SUV

(3.2L V6 AWD 6-speed Automatic)

We can usually tell how popular a car will be based on the reaction of our editorial staff and other Edmunds.com employees. In this regard, there haven't been many surprises; the cars that bring writers, office workers and computer geniuses alike into the parking garage are, by and large, the cars that most of the buying public is interested in. The Ford Thunderbird was quite popular, as were the Mini Cooper, Nissan 350Z and Hummer H2. OK, so odd curiosity obviously plays into this little formula as well, but what did seem to be a bit of a surprise was the clamoring caused by the Volkswagen Touareg — VW's first venture into the SUV world.

Not only were many on the editorial staff anxiously awaiting its arrival, but it seemed as if the entire Santa Monica office was interested in the arrival time and date of the new SUV. It was like some sort of creepy reenactment of an episode from "The Simpsons" where a huge buzz was brewing about the coming monorail. One Edmunds employee even purchased a Touareg as his personal vehicle and commented, "I've been waiting for this specific car as soon as I heard they were going to build it. This is the car I've always wanted." How he was able to purchase a regular production version long before we were able to get our hands on a high-mileage preproduction model is another story altogether.

This mass of interest probably has two forces behind it. First, Volkswagen has done a great job of creating interesting, high-quality cars that are also cool without being overly trendy. Second, there are plenty of people who want all that VW has to offer, but simply could not fit a Volkswagen into their lives — when the biggest car you make is a Passat Wagon, that's going to leave some customers out. The Touareg takes all that coolness and adds a measure of usefulness. The formula is not unique (the Infiniti FX45 and Nissan Murano are clearly playing in the Touareg's sandbox), but VW is hoping that the Touareg's Volkswagen-ness is the one quality that pushes it to the top of most consumers' shopping lists.

Unlike the monorail in North Haverbrook and Ogdenville, the Touareg's quality is obvious from the start. Inside, the dash and gauge cluster have a very tangible Audi quality. Chrome rings surround the various gauges and the faces of those gauges have the look and precision of a fine wristwatch. The leather is nice but lacks the ultrasmoothness of that found in Toyota and Lexus cars. The Lexus reference may seem unfair at first, but it's pretty clear that VW intends the Touareg to be a luxury SUV. We're not certain why VW chose the Volkswagen rather than Audi brand to bring the new SUV to market but the luxury is obvious nonetheless (an Audi-branded crossover is on its way).

We found the power seats and steering wheel to operate in a smooth and linear fashion without excessive buzzing from the electric motors that move them. The front seats offer ample room, but can tend toward the "sporty" side. The rear-seat quarters are less than spacious but the problem is due more to perception than actual accommodations. In fact, the rear-seat dimensions of the Touareg are nearly identical to such competitors as the Cadillac SRX and Lexus RX 330. Still, the Touareg's rear seat just seems to be a bit cozier than other SUVs in its class. The notable exception is the Cadillac SRX which offers more than five extra inches of rear-seat legroom. The door and rear pillars just seem closer when riding the Touareg's rear seat; it's never uncomfortable but simply lacks the vast spaces between doors and front seats one may be used to. Most buttons and switches have a nice tactile feel and are attractively styled as well. The interior lighting is very classy and, again, very Audi-like.

Of course the rear seats fold down, but not with the ease we've found in other SUVs. The seat bottom must be unlatched, then pulled up and forward, then the seat back will fold forward — but only after removing the headrests. These SUVs and minivans that require you to play musical chairs with the head restraints are getting a bit tiresome. It's a minor irritant at worst, but certainly the design could be improved.

Worth special mention is the ultracool yet ingenious rechargeable flashlight that is built into the center console. It's about as big as an in-car cigarette lighter and provides a relatively bright light for about 13 minutes — perfect for scouting out lost pacifiers or a misplaced earring. What's not so cool is the finicky remote for unlocking the doors. When approaching the car from behind, the remote signal seems to not register and we were forced to walk from one side of the car to the other trying to get the rear hatch to open. I can tell you this is no fun when carrying three bags of groceries or a small child. At first we thought it was a low battery inside the key fob, but another Touareg exhibited the same symptoms.

Our real complaint inside the Touareg focuses on the audio and navigation system. One editor noted, "For some things, like audio tone control, there was a dedicated button that brought up a screen to adjust bass/treble, etc. But for other functions, like switching between radio bands, you had to bring up the radio display then hit a button next to the screen where it said 'Band' and then you had to hit one of four buttons next to the screen to pick FM1, FM2, AM or Weather." Similarly, we found the navigation system to be less than intuitive to use. Of course it didn't help that our test vehicle did not come with an owner's manual. Still, it seems the main complaint surrounds the fact that too many buttons perform several functions depending on which mode or screen you happen to be on.

From behind the wheel, more minor irritants cropped up. No one would dare argue against the buttery V8 that offers more than enough power. It is a terrific engine and its 310 horsepower moves the 5,300-pound SUV with authority. Sure, that's a lot of weight to lug around but it also helps to give the Touareg its impressive 7,700-pound towing capacity. The Touareg comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and a very off-road-friendly low gear. Perhaps it's at this point that love for the Touareg starts to wane a bit. While the handling and acceleration are superb, the around-town ride quality leaves much to be desired. Actually, it's not really the ride quality per se, the suspension (our tester was equipped with the optional air suspension) is terrific and the various driver-adjustable settings work well. The problem seems to be that the vehicle is overly sensitive to driver inputs resulting in a somewhat unpleasant experience overall despite the really great individual aspects of the car. When coming to an abrupt stop, the Touareg surges forward in a kind of jerky motion as the transmission automatically downshifts. The problem was far less pronounced in the V6 model. Also, the brake pedal itself has a very non-linear feel. The brakes lack a firm and progressive feel that can add to a driver's confidence.

The Touareg uses a six-speed automatic transmission, which no doubt contributes to the breathtaking acceleration, but there is a good deal of commotion as a result of the car running through all the gears. More frequent downshifts are also noticeable. Is it possible that six-forward speeds are just too many in an automatic transmission? Under full throttle or moderately heavy acceleration, the Touareg responds perfectly. It's only under more "normal" circumstances that the Touareg's Achilles' heel begins to show. Light inputs to the throttle often result in unexpectedly quick starts. This can be disconcerting in stop-and-go traffic and parking lots — not to mention irritating to passengers who are convinced you're just an incurable speed demon or no better a driver than Homer behind the controls of Springfield's own monorail. The accelerator is also difficult to modulate. When accelerating by applying a constant amount of pressure, the vehicle doesn't move ahead to a set speed but instead continually speeds up even though no additional pressure is being applied to the pedal. It's almost like a slingshot the way the Touareg quickly builds speed — and continues to build speed despite no extra throttle input. While we're certainly not against a powerful engine that quickly gets up to speed, it can be annoying when you find that you constantly have to get on and off the gas just to modulate the speed. Interestingly, we did not experience the same thing when driving a V6 model — could this be one of those rare cases where less power is actually desirable?

Similarly the Touareg's all-wheel-drive system is a little cumbersome. When making sharp, low-speed turns, the inside wheel drags a bit or otherwise feels funky — actually it reminded me of the way a solid axle on a race car binds when pushing it through the pits. There's no question the Touareg is more capable off-road than many other SUVs in its class, it's just the around-town maneuvering that leaves something to be desired. This type of thing seems all the more obvious when you consider the seamless refinement of the Cadillac SRX or Lexus RX 330. However, if you need a high level of off-road prowess these complaints will seem like nothing more than an even trade. While the Touareg obviously has luxury intentions, the real appeal of this vehicle is that it combines Jeep-like off-road ability with Volkswagen refinement on-road.

This is not to say the Touareg handles poorly, because the exact opposite is true. At both high and medium speeds, the Touareg handles corners like a sport sedan. Here is where the relationship to the Cayenne really makes itself known — the Touareg, like the Cayenne, feels every bit like a German sedan with the added benefit of an elevated ride height and extra cargo capacity. If the Cayenne is the Porsche of SUVs, then the Touareg is the VW of SUVs, and we mean that as a compliment. Like the Cayenne, the Touareg's handling is stable and predictable. Body roll is minimal, and the heavy vehicle tackles twisties with dexterity. The weight of the car transitions nicely from side to side when sawing the wheel back and forth, and the driver feels in complete control at all times. The driver-selectable adaptive suspension adds to the car's versatility and sportiness — in full sport mode, the Touareg feels firm and precise. The comfort mode softens things up quite a bit, but the ride never deteriorates into mushy or floaty. If you really want that extra level of sport in your SUV, the Touareg delivers; this one factor alone is enough to push the Touareg to the top of many consumers' shopping list, displacing the likes of the RX 330 and Acura MDX. However, the Touareg's on-road handling prowess falls just short of vehicles like the BMW X5 and Infiniti FX45. Of course, the FX45 doesn't offer the same supple and compliant ride as the Touareg, so there are compromises to be made.

While things like ride quality and throttle input can be debated, one of the few issues the whole staff seemed to agree on is that the Touareg offers much more attractive styling than its Porsche sibling. Yes, it's cool the way the Cayenne incorporates a "Porsche" look in the front end treatment, but really, the Touareg's styling simply works much better. Our editor in chief summed it up quite well: "I think this car looks better than a Cayenne, so unless you're getting a Turbo Cayenne (there is no Turbo Touareg) I can't see getting the Cayenne S over a V8 Touareg — unless the Cayenne has a more accurate throttle pedal."

In considering the Touareg over the Cayenne, one must factor in price. Our test vehicle with a V8 and several option packages came to a grand total of $50,965. However this includes a $7,300 Premium Package with navigation, upgraded stereo, air suspension and bi-xenon headlights. Add to that a $550 locking rear differential, $800 Winter Package and $1,200 for performance wheels and tires and it's easy to see how the price can get out of control. To put things in perspective, a V6 Touareg starts at around $35,000. For that price you'll still get all-wheel drive, a six-speed automatic, beautiful wood trim and an 11-speaker stereo. A V8-powered Cayenne is priced between $55,900 and $88,900. Granted there is no 450-hp Turbo Touareg, but that is quite a price premium to pay for another vehicle that is very similar. For 2004, a V6-powered Cayenne is available. But you've still got to pay a little extra as the Porsche's V6 makes more power.

While our feelings about the Touareg are positive overall, we can't help but feel that the drivetrain and its overly busy transmission and sensitive throttle really detracted from the fun. Certainly the V8-powered version offers more surging acceleration than a runaway monorail, but under more normal usage conditions the Touareg felt clunky and heavy — a characteristic not found on the V6 version. There are plenty of good midsize luxury SUVs on the market; many, like the Touareg, are new or newly redesigned and some seem to offer a smoother driving experience. The one thing other SUVs simply can't match is the fact that the Touareg is a Volkswagen. That might not mean much to the hordes of Accord owners looking to move up to a Pilot, but to those who cherish VW's modern, unique and just plain cool style, it is perhaps the defining characteristic. Like most things in life, it all comes down to a popularity contest — if you're rolling in the right circles, the Touareg is "it."

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 5.0

Components: Our tester came with an upgraded audio that consisted of 11 speakers and a 12-channel, 375-watt amp. A single in-dash CD player is standard, but the optional six-disc changer is a dealer-installed item and it resides in the cargo area — not good. Furthermore, if you opt for the navigation system, the disc that holds map information must be inserted into the single CD player.

Performance: The sound quality is very good. If judged only on the quality of the head unit and speakers, the Touareg's audio system would probably get a good solid 7; it's only the cumbersome controls that bring the score down. The controls are anything but intuitive and in some cases just plain confusing.

Bass response is very good and can border on booming but lacks the sharp punch that denotes a really great car stereo. A little more separation between midlevel lows and ultradeep bass would improve the system even more. The highs are brilliant but can sound tinny. In fact, in high, mid and bass responses the sound was a bit on the flat side — dropping the mids helps a bit. More natural types of music sound best on this system; stripped-down folk music and classical compositions allow the system to really shine.

Best Feature: Bass response.

Worst Feature: Confusing controls and rear-mounted CD changer.

Conclusion: This system is certainly good enough to be in a luxury car, but it is not one of the best. — Brian Moody

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
My first thought about the Touareg was why wasn't this upscale SUV branded as an Audi? Last time I checked, Audi was the premium relative of VW and it doesn't have a 'ute to compete with the BMW X5 and the Mercedes M-Class, let alone others like the new Cadillac SRX. And don't tell me that Audi has the allroad; it's a tall A6 Avant (Audi-speak for wagon), not a true SUV.

As far as the Touareg itself? It's handsome, has a beautifully finished cabin and, with the V8, moves out smartly when the gas is goosed. But the transmission seemed a little out of sorts. The tranny upshifted too early when in the standard mode, blunting performance unless one drove with a lead foot. Then, when one selected the sport mode, it did fine jog holding gears for max performance and downshifting quickly when a burst of power was needed. But it was perhaps a little too aggressive — when you rolled up to a stop sign or red light, it would downshift into first before the Touareg was stopped, resulting in a slight jerking as some serious engine braking took place.

And with a torquey V8, are six speeds really necessary? Or does it just give VW something to boast about, like Mercedes with its new seven-speed automatic. With five well-spaced gears, the tranny probably wouldn't be as busy and the drivetrain would have the smoothness buyers in this market expect.

On the open road the Touareg felt solid, if heavy. It was composed but not especially sporty, even with the suspension set on low and the shocks at their firmest. In short, it was pleasant but not inspiring like the SRX.

What I would like is a Touareg with the drivetrain and chassis of the Cadillac SRX underneath its classy body and Audi-esque interior.

Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
There are a few cars that I keep tabs on as they move through development to production, and the Touareg is one of them. I was struck by this people's car when I first saw it at the Detroit Auto Show. Once we got one in to test, I was impatient to get behind the wheel.

The exterior styling is very reminiscent of the current Passat, a vehicle I find to be very handsome. The interior is definitely a step up in terms of luxury for VW. Gorgeous wood inlays and metal trim abound in a very symmetrical outlay which is very aesthetically pleasing. The dash illumination with its metal-rimmed gauges and video display is almost breathtaking at night, very similar to the oohs and aahs I felt when I saw the blue and red illumination in the New Beetle for the first time.

I found the navigation system a little cumbersome and unintuitive; it pales in comparison to similar setups in Toyota or Honda vehicles. There were many layers to go through, and it was all complicated by unclear button labeling. After a lot of experimenting, I was one of the few editors to finally figure it out and use it to good effect.

The power the V8 provided was ample for any task, coming to life when pressed with a wonderful guttural sound. I could definitely feel the heft of the vehicle, and it made me wonder whether the base V6 would be up for the task. While driving the Touareg around town, I was surprised by the stiff ride, even on its most comfortable setting. I was afraid to put it into sport and experience something as hard as the ride offered by our long-term 350Z. As I traveled along steep sandy knolls during an off-road adventure, I found it a snap to raise the vehicle height and switch into 4-Low with the two ingeniously designed command dials. Living up to its nomadic namesake, the Touareg navigated the sandy knolls and rocks with ease. It'll definitely be more than capable for what 99.9 percent of its owners would ever demand of it.

The Touareg offers a package that's very attractive to most SUV shoppers. Their excitement, however, will be tempered by the price. It jumps quickly when you step up to the V8 or start adding options. Our test Touareg, going over $50,000, is in the price range of BMW and Lexus SUVs — SUVs that offer far more name cachet. It makes me wonder if the Touareg will find its place in the market.

Consumer Commentary

"This car is FAR, FAR superior to the '99 ML430 I traded in. The ride is absolutely awesome and smooth with the air suspension in comfort mode or nimble and quick in sport mode. The comfort of the napa leather is fantastic. The 310-hp Audi 40-valve V8 makes this a super highway cruiser. This is by far the best value SUV being sold today. These features in an Audi would cost you $10K more, and $20K more in the Porsche Cayenne." — Spockcat, Sept. 7, 2003

"We get more looks and positive comments in this car than any other car we've ever driven. The car is a great value, and we couldn't be more pleased." — Steve Maller, Sept. 7, 2003

"Just purchased my Touareg today and I have put 120 miles on it. Can't stop driving it. The way it holds the road is like my '01 Lincoln LS that I traded in. If you are looking for the best SUV out there, stop, you have found it!!!" — Touaregnd4spd, Aug. 30, 2003

I have had my Touareg for two weeks and put approximately 2,000 miles on, including a vacation trip. I am simply speechless. It's an SUV when you want it be. It's a performance sports car when you want it to be. It's a highway cruiser when you want it to be. And all of this without compromising. I have had several dozen people wave at me (or the car) and even more strangers begging me for a test-drive. This car beats my three previous Jeep Grand Cherokees and my wife's Audi allroad." — HL, Aug. 29, 2003

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