2004 Volkswagen Touareg TDI First Drive

2004 Volkswagen Touareg SUV

(4.9L V10 Turbo Diesel AWD 6-speed Automatic)

There was a James Bond movie marathon on TV the other night, and while many of the famous spy's oddball opponents benefited from one distinguishing feature like super strength, genius-level intelligence or really disgusting teeth, 007 always managed to walk off into the sunset thanks to a perfect balance of intelligence, strength, courage, style and, of course, more than a few really cool gadgets. In that regard, it occurred to us that the world's greatest fictional spy ought to ditch his unreliable British sports cars and pick up a chunk of German engineering that can keep up with his every demand, such as the new Volkswagen Touareg TDI. An adjustable suspension allows the midsize sport-ute to tackle mountain roads and backwoods trails with equal aplomb; its beautifully finished wood and leather interior reek of style; and a revolutionary new V10 twin-turbodiesel engine provides enough power to chase down even the most brazen bad guy. Heck, even Q would be impressed.

Now you're probably asking yourself, "Did they just say 'diesel'?" Come on now, surely someone as suave as a secret agent wouldn't drive around in a diesel, right? Mentioning the "D" word to the average American car buyer conjures up a bevy of bizarre images, none of them good. Whether one thinks about industrial-size trucks with black smoke pouring out the tailpipes, a beat-up old Mercedes knocking and banging along as it barely moves fast enough to get out of its own way or that lonely pump at the gas station, diesel-powered vehicles have long suffered from a stigma here in the U.S. that prevents them from being anything more than a mechanical oddity that only a few hard-core fans can appreciate. This is probably due to the fact that although diesel engines are typically more fuel-efficient and provide more bottom-end torque than a standard gasoline power plant, they require the owner to put up with noise and vibration that would be considered unacceptable in a modern gasoline-powered vehicle. Over the past decade, Volkswagen has been working hard to stamp out that stigma, and an all-new twin-turbodiesel V10 engine may finally deliver the perfect balance of power, economy, refinement and versatility that American consumers have been thirsting for.

While only a small percentage of new vehicles sold in the United States are diesel-powered, they have been extremely popular in Europe for years (see, maybe James already has one). Due to extremely high gasoline prices and strict emissions standards, most small cars and trucks sold in Western Europe are powered by efficient little inline four-cylinder engines. Diesel engines are not only more economical than their gas-powered brethren, they also produce more off-the-line torque (which translates to more fun behind the wheel). Factor in new technologies that make the diesel engine environmentally sound with low particulate and CO2 emissions, and you can see why 44 percent of new cars sold in Western Europe in 2003 operate under diesel power. Volkswagen estimates that number will jump past the 50-percent mark by 2005 and has devoted considerable resources to pioneering new diesel technology. By partnering with Bosch, the German automaker is hedging its bets that the current inflation of U.S. gas prices combined with the American demand for luxury SUVs capable of hauling heavy loads will result in a niche market for the new diesel-powered Touareg.

By now you're probably familiar with the Touareg, VW's do-everything SUV with the nearly unpronounceable name. Originally introduced a year ago with V6 and V8 power, the high-end luxury cruiser is equipped with impressive features, including a highly adjustable four-wheel independent suspension that delivers excellent handling both on- and off-road. Additionally, every Touareg comes with full-time four-wheel drive, a plush interior fit for the finest luxury sedan and an incredible list of safety gear.

Based on the same platform as the Porsche Cayenne, the gasoline-powered Touareg is a fun-to-drive and capable crossover SUV that really does put the "sport" in sport-utility vehicle. Throw VW's new twin-turbodiesel V10 into the mix, and you've got yourself one of the most powerful, most refined and best-engineered "trucks" ever to hit American soil. After spending some time behind the wheel of one of these four-wheeled action heroes, we can safely say that the new engine will demolish any negative thoughts you ever had about diesel power.

We recently had a chance to get behind the wheel of a diesel-powered Touareg in Northern Virginia, where we sampled the Touareg's capabilities in a variety of environments. Settling into the cockpit, the first thing we noticed was the purely German feel of the interior. The seating surfaces are comfortable and supportive, instruments and switches are clearly labeled and easy to locate, and the controls (shifter, steering wheel) are wrapped in supple leather. Our test vehicle was equipped with the Premium Package, which includes a CD-based navigation system, napa leather seating surfaces (a plush upgrade over standard leather) and enough genuine burled walnut wood trim to make a Jaguar jealous, all to the tune of $3,800. Other options included four-zone climate control ($1,200) and a locking rear differential ($550). Tacked onto the Touareg TDI base price of $57,800, our tester totaled out at just a hair under $65K. Even though that seems like a lot of cash to spend on an SUV, consider the fact that this vehicle can perform like a sport sedan in the canyons, chauffeur your little spies to school and back, haul a boat or trailer to the lake and get decent fuel mileage while doing it. Compared feature for feature with other high-end SUVs in its class such as the Hummer H2, Cadillac Escalade and even the Porsche Cayenne, the Touareg TDI is competitive in every respect.

After stuffing the key in the ignition, we waited for a light to come on in the dash warning us that the glow plugs were working. After waiting in vain for a few moments, we realized that such rudimentary technology is now a thing of the past and we twisted the key and hit the road. With the windows rolled up, the engine is almost completely silent, both at idle and at cruising speed. The diesel mill is so quiet, in fact, that the only noise perceptible while cruising down the highway was wind buffeting off the optional rear spoiler. The six-speed automatic works its way quickly through the gears, shifting at around 2,300 rpm under normal driving conditions. This makes sense since VW claims the engine's operating range is 2,000-4,000 rpm, with a 4,400-rpm redline. All those extra gears really come in handy cruising around town, as the shifts are hardly noticeable and the engine always has plenty of power on tap.

Stomping on the pedal at 55 mph causes the transmission to double-downshift into fourth, bumping the engine from 1,500 rpm up to 2,200 rpm where power is plentiful. With 310 ponies on tap and well over 500 pound-feet of torque, the Touareg feels incredibly fast, and accelerating away from a stoplight it feels more like a muscle car than an SUV. The "smart" transmission also knows to downshift on downhill grades to achieve engine braking, which helps reduce brake fade and premature wear.

Cruising on the highway, we truly began to appreciate the Touareg's interior appointments, especially the 12-way power seats and four-zone climate control. Aluminum and wood trim abound, and both lend an incredibly upscale feel to the vehicle. All V8 and TDI Touaregs come equipped with highly advanced adjustable four-wheel independent suspension, which has six adjustable ride height settings and three separate damping modes (it's optional on V6 models). While running on the open Virginia roads, we set the suspension to its softest settings with the ride height on the second notch from the bottom, and the resulting ride was very smooth while retaining excellent road feel. Upon entering a canyon coming down out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we dropped the suspension a full 11 inches to its lowest setting (feeling the SUV lose that much ride height while under motion is an odd sensation) and switched the damping control to its sportiest setting. While we weren't chasing a blonde damsel in distress in a red Ferrari, we did manage to find a sporty Golf GTI driver to play tag with, and he was more than a little shocked to see a big ol' Touareg zooming up on his bumper on several occasions.

Blessed with tight, responsive steering, excellent balance, almost no body roll and explosive bottom-end grunt available every time we stomped on the fun pedal, the Touareg TDI managed to run through the canyons like a sports car half its size. The six-speed Tiptronic transmission puts out firm and perfectly timed shifts every time while in sport mode. Although the hefty SUV exhibited just a hint of understeer in tight corners, we were quite impressed by how well the air suspension performed.

After our little jaunt through the canyon, we took the Touareg off-road on a wild little trail that cut straight through the heart of the Appalachian National Forest. Because the trail was littered with boulders, fallen trees and even a few small rivers, we dialed the suspension height to its highest setting. Very quickly we discovered that this maxes out the shocks and provides an extremely choppy ride. One click from the top was more than adequate, and the Touareg's independent suspension navigated road hazards with ease. Volkswagen claims that with the ride set for maximum height, the SUV can ford two feet of standing water, which we were able to successfully verify. While some of our more unbalanced compatriots elected to take a WRC (world rally championships) approach to off-road driving by sliding around every corner at breakneck speed, we found a slower, albeit more obstacle-ridden, route. Climbing over boulders and fallen trees with the 4XMotion system set in low range, the diesel engine truly shined. Plentiful off-idle power and enough torque to climb even the greatest obstacle make the Touareg TDI one of the most truly capable SUVs available, both on and off the beaten path. Factor in an EPA mileage rating of 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway and you've got yourself one heck of an SUV.

If you've made it this far into the story, you have probably figured out that we really like this new iteration of an already successful sport-ute. With awe-inspiring power, frugal fuel economy and enough technology to make even the most jaded techies jealous, the Touareg TDI should serve as an excellent halo car to help bring new car buyers into VW dealerships while making old-school TDI fans dizzy with glee. Now if only we could order one with built-in rocket launchers….

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