2004 Volkswagen Touareg First Drive

2004 Volkswagen Touareg SUV

(3.2L V6 AWD 6-speed Automatic)

It's pronounced "Tour-regg" — emphasis goes on the first syllable, then it's quick and sharp on the second syllable. The word translates literally to "free folk," and refers to a nomadic tribe whose travels regularly take them across the Sahara Desert. Such harsh terrain demands a strong physical and emotional constitution, and knowing that, it shouldn't surprise you that a sport-utility vehicle has adopted the name of this people. Auto manufacturers seem to have exhausted all the synonyms for "trip" and "adventurer," leaving latecomers scrambling to find words that adequately convey the enormity of their vehicles — and so we get names like Sequoia, Aviator and Pathfinder Armada. At least Volkswagen opted for something more precise than "big tree" or "fleet of warships."

Precise? Sort of. While obviously unable to replicate the sentient human qualities of the real Touareg, the SUV namesake does indeed possess a strong physiology. Not strong in the old-fashioned, live-axles-at-either-end, give-me-your-worst sense, but strong as in carefully engineered (using today's technology) to take on such conditions as rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles, steep slick-rock trails in Moab and everything in between in an unruffled manner.

Based on Volkswagen's predisposition toward building drivers' cars like the Passat, Jetta and GTI, you might have expected the company's first SUV to be of the car-based variety — something along the lines of Nissan's Murano that was fun yet comfortable to drive and well dressed on the inside. Instead, VW chose to straddle the divide between crossover SUVs and traditional SUVs. The Touareg has a unibody structure, four-wheel independent suspension and agile handling on pavement like most crossovers. But leave the paved world, and it can be shifted into its low-range gearing (4WD Low) and evade the assaults of rocks with up to 11.8 inches of ground clearance and generous suspension travel. It can also ford water up to 22.8 inches deep. Qualities like these are matched only by Land Rover's Range Rover and the VW's platform mate, the Porsche Cayenne. Really, the Touareg is basically a Cayenne — with different engines, different suspension tuning, different sheet metal and even greater off-road ability.

Why do all this when consumers are perfectly content to stay home in the suburbs and drive Lexus RX 330s and BMW X5s? Well, we'll never have access to all the details of the marketing plan, but among the few bits of information we picked up at the event: Volkswagen buyers are younger and apparently more outdoor-oriented, so the company doesn't want to lose any more of them to brands like Jeep when they decide it's time for something more rugged than a Jetta. Additionally, since the Touareg is such a late entry to the SUV movement, VW evidently wanted to make sure that consumers felt it was worth waiting for — with something to distinguish it from the glut of SUVs in its price range.

What sort of price range are we talking about? That would be $35,515 (with destination) for a V6 model and $41,315 for a V8 model. This might be hard to swallow if you haven't accepted the Passat as a premium example of a midsize car and still associate VW with old Beetles and Vanagons. But have you priced 4Runners lately? Or luxury crossovers like the Acura MDX, Infiniti FX35/FX45, Lexus RX 330 and BMW X5? Better furnished than a 4Runner and more versatile than any of those luxo-utes, the Touareg may have no trouble at all cutting into the crowd. On the basis of outward style alone — there's a familial resemblance to the Passat and Phaeton — this SUV should find its way into a great many suburban garages.

As you've likely gathered, two engines will be offered during the 2004 model year. The base motor is a 24-valve, 3.2-liter V6 that generates 220 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 225 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. This isn't an abundance of power for a vehicle that tips the scales at over 5,000 pounds (remember, each Touareg is carrying a full load of off-road mechanicals — two-wheel-drive versions will not be offered). Although we found the V6 perfectly acceptable during our initial encounter with the Touareg, it was less at home on the interstates and back roads of northern Utah at elevations of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. Easy city driving and highway cruising posed few problems, but the engine felt winded whenever it was given liberal doses of throttle for quick merging and passing maneuvers. Since we were driving at relatively high altitudes, we'll have to see what the V6 can do closer to sea level before delivering a verdict.

Next up is a 40-valve, 4.2-liter V8, the same one used in the Audi A6 and A8. It makes 310 hp at 6,200 rpm and 302 lb-ft of torque and should please everyone. Acceleration comes easily at any speed, and this engine remains docile even when pushed. VW estimates a 7.6-second 0-to-60-mph time — not bad for a 5,300-pounder and almost a two-second improvement over the V6 Touareg's time. Curb weight notwithstanding, braking is not a problem for either Touareg — stops are short and pedal feel is excellent.

A six-speed automatic transmission handles the shifting duties on both models — compared with four- and five-speed units, it improves acceleration and fuel economy and reduces emissions, according to Volkswagen. It offers regular and sport shift modes, as well as an automanual gate for those who want to pick their own gears (the steering column-mounted shift paddles didn't make it over from European models, so it's just a matter of bumping the shift lever up and down). As the transmission occasionally seemed a little slow on the draw in "D," we tended to leave it in sport mode on winding roads, switching back to "regular" on the interstate so that the tranny would pick up sixth gear. In terms of gas mileage, there's only so much a six-speed can do for a heavyweight like the Touareg: V6 models are rated for 15 mpg city/20 highway, while V8s come in at just 14 city/18 highway.

If these fuel numbers concern you, you should probably scrap any plans for serious off-roading and go with a lighter, more efficient crossover SUV like the RX 330. Or, you could wait until the first quarter of the 2004 calendar year when VW brings its 5.0-liter V10 turbodiesel to the U.S. Likely to be more expensive than the V8, the big TDI promises to deliver the best performance — 308 hp at 4,000 rpm and a crushing 553 lb-ft of torque — and the best fuel economy (mileage is supposed to be in the 20s). There is also a possibility that Volkswagen will offer a six-speed manual gearbox (designed for serious off-roaders) with either the V6 or the V10 TDI, but we're not holding our breath on that one.

The Touareg rides on an all-new platform, and the fully independent suspension employs a double wishbone design front and rear. From there, buyers will have a choice of whether to go with the standard suspension setup (with coil springs and mechanical dampers) or, optional on both V6 and V8 models, an air suspension. Like other systems of its kind, VW's air suspension allows for height adjustment ranging from 6.3 inches of clearance for easy loading to an impressive 11.8 inches of clearance for clearing larger rocks and ruts on 4x4 trails. In between, there is an 8.7-inch setting for normal driving and a 9.6-inch setting for normal off-roading, and the system automatically adjusts the height once certain speeds are reached. Vehicles with the standard suspension have a fixed ground clearance of 8.3 inches. Standard approach and departure angles are 28 degrees; with the air suspension, they increase to 33 degrees.

The air suspension also includes continuous shock damping control (which VW calls CDC), meaning that the system regulates the action of the shock absorbers on a continuing basis to improve ride quality and handling on all types of terrain. Drivers can either leave it in the "automatic" setting or select "sport" or "comfort" on the console-mounted thumbwheel.

We had an opportunity to drive Touaregs with both the standard and air suspension setups on a varied route of interstates and two-lane highways. While both vehicles provided a smooth, quiet and stable highway ride (even at very high speeds), there was a noticeable difference in handling. The Touareg equipped with the standard setup felt heavier around sweeping turns and exhibited more body roll. With the air suspension, the Touareg rolls less around curves and generally feels more surefooted. Is it as nimble as the X5, FX45 or Cadillac SRX? Probably not. Based on our early impressions, it feels a bit too heavy to be driven like a sport sedan. As on other premium SUVs, stability control comes standard.

But none of those other vehicles would have made it past the parking area during our day trip to Moab, Utah. Known for its breathtaking vistas of red rock and desert scrub, Moab is home to challenging slick-rock off-road trails — basically, steep expanses of rock face with tire tracks burned into them with names like Hell's Revenge, Lion's Back and Dragon's Tail. Between these boulders are plenty of rocks and ruts that separate the "real" SUVs from those that just look like them.

Here we made use of the Touareg's dual-range, electronic 4XMotion four-wheel-drive system. Unless you fiddle with the dial on the center console, the Touareg is in a 4-Hi mode intended for driving on pavement. The front/rear power split defaults at 50/50 (rather than using a rear bias like the Cayenne), and this ratio is adjusted according to traction needs. The center differential locks automatically on slippery surfaces, but the driver can lock it manually if he likes. Switch to the low-range gearing, and you've got the same flexibility — let the system lock the differential automatically or do it yourself to deal with tricky situations. A locking rear differential is optional on all Touaregs, and it's worth considering if you're a serious off-roader. The VW also has hill ascent and descent features. The ascent feature keeps the Touareg from rolling back on steep inclines when you're not on the brakes, while the Hill Decline Assistant allows for slow, steady descents down steep grades without brake input from the driver.

On this outing, we only had air suspension-equipped vehicles with us, and an off-road instructor sat next to us, reminding us when to select the "extra" ride height level for maximum clearance. Often, he got out to scout ahead on the trail so that he could give exact instructions on how to maneuver the vehicle. With that kind of help, it's no wonder that the Touaregs we drove mastered these trails without taking damage or even bottoming out (except due to driver error). But having experienced the severity of some of the grades, we wouldn't have wanted to use just any SUV for this task. We only would have considered those with Jeep, Land Rover and Toyota badges, and that puts the unibody VW in good company. One other thing of note: These early-production Touaregs proved to be exceptionally quiet and refined companions on this rugged course — a few creaks emanated from the B-pillars on the steepest grades, but that was it.

Besides being tough enough for serious off-roading, the Touareg can handle medium-duty towing jobs, which is much more than can be said of the typical crossover SUV. Its maximum tow rating of 7,716 pounds (for both engines) even exceeds that of utilitarian midsize SUVs like the 4Runner, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer and Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT.

Inside, the Touareg builds upon the styling cues established in the Passat. Each one has an upscale two-tone ensemble accented by real wood and aluminum. The gauges are large and attractive, and ringed in chrome. Most surfaces are soft-touch, and what hard surfaces there are (lower dash, console and doors) feel smooth and substantial to the touch. Even the carpeting is lovely, and the cargo bay has a chrome scuff plate and tie-downs. Everything seemed well constructed in all the vehicles we scrutinized, and the carefully damped grab handles in all four outboard positions proved invaluable on our off-road excursion.

Dual-zone automatic climate control is standard on both models (a four-zone setup is optional on the V8), and it's a big improvement over the single-zone Climatronic system used in other VWs. The buttons are larger, and temperature adjustment is controlled by two large dials (still no separate "off" button, though).

The audio situation still leaves something to be desired, though. Although the stereos themselves continue to offer high-quality sound, there's still no in-dash CD changer, and if you opt for the dealer-installed magazine unit, you're going to be trooping out to the cargo bay to load your CDs. Equally annoying is that the optional navigation system (it was installed in all of the Touaregs we drove) is CD-based, such that it occupies your in-dash single-CD player. At least a single CD covers the continental U.S., so you won't have to pay extra for an entire collection. But the nav interface governs all audio functions when it's installed, and rather than employing a touchscreen or large directional knob, it uses a fussy collection of "soft keys" like at an ATM. Suffice it to say, this is probably an option to skip.

Manually adjustable leatherette (vinyl) seats and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel come standard on V6 models. Optional on the six and standard on the V8 are power-adjustable leather seats and additional wood trim. V8 buyers who require additional elegance can opt for premium Nappa leather that wouldn't be out of place in a vehicle twice as expensive. If you're trying to hold the line on price, the V6 with leatherette is the way to go — it looks and feels like real leather.

While the front seats were comfortable, the backseat was a little disappointing. Compared to the Passat's accommodations and those of other SUVs in this price range, the seat bottom is short and low to the floor (compromising thigh support for adult-size occupants). What's more, unlike in other SUVs, the rear seat backs do not recline. Legroom, at least, should be ample for most, but depending on how the front occupants have their seats positioned, there may not be much foot room under the front seats. We spent several hours back here during the off-road excursion (when it was our co-driver's turn behind the wheel), and while comfort levels were tolerable, they weren't as good as those of the Touareg's competitors. Even though they might complain about comfort, your passengers will be well protected by VW's usual menu of airbags.

Cargo capacity isn't class-leading, but compared to an SUV like the X5, the Touareg earns its keep as a utility vehicle. It holds 31 cubic feet with the rear seats in use and 71 cubes when they're folded. Unfortunately, the procedure for folding the 60/40 bench isn't user-friendly — first you've got to fold up the seat bottoms, then remove the headrests and only then can you drop the seat backs.

So the Touareg is not as practical for family types as other SUVs in its price range. But apart from these concerns, the hypothetical buyer would get a lot for his money. For one thing, an unusually good balance of on-road handling and off-road ability this side of $50,000. For another, a generous package of standard equipment: You really don't need to add anything to either the V6 or the V8 model, except perhaps the air suspension. Volkswagen plans to sell 23,700 Touaregs in the remaining months of 2003 and 40,000 in 2004 (with the flexibility to build more if demand is greater), and we expect the company will find plenty of people who desire the style and talents of its first SUV.

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