Jason Kavanagh, Senior Vehicle Test Engineer
Ambition is always a good thing, right? For Volkswagen, the Phaeton and Touareg were exercises in creative brand management intended to move the people's car company into a premium position. Now that the ill-fated Phaeton has been euthanized, the 2008 Volkswagen Touareg carries the torch as the company's flagship.
If there's ever been a do-it-all vehicle, the Touareg is it. It boasts a hushed, luxurious interior and then complements it with truly eye-popping off-road capability. As we learned during the SUV's introduction in Barcelona, Spain, there's practically nowhere a 2008 VW Touareg can't go, whether it's a matter of terrain or just dress code.
Just Different Enough To Be Called "New"
VW refers to the 2008 Touareg as a second-generation vehicle, but it's no more than a mild midcycle change, more like a refresh than a makeover.
Inside, the changes are limited to a new instrument cluster and seats. A face-lifted nose brings shapelier headlamps plus a tweaked grille and bumpers, while the rear end now wears darker LED taillights and reshaped muffler tips. The updated look is attractive and familial but unlikely to go noticed by anyone short of eagle-eyed VW aficionados.
New enhancements to the stability control system include both a brake-assist function and a smarter ABS that reportedly shortens braking distances on gravelly or sandy surfaces by 20 percent. A power liftgate is standard equipment and adaptive cruise control will be available later in 2008. VW also modified the option packages available for the Touareg and changed the standard equipment, so the pricing structure has changed a bit.
Three Engines; Two Degrees of Familiarity
For 2008, the Touareg offers two gasoline power plants: a 3.6-liter V6 and a 4.2-liter V8. Dubbed "FSI" in VW/Audi-speak to designate the use of direct fuel injection, these engines actually arrived under the hood of the Touareg as running changes midway through the 2007 model. The narrow-angle V6 FSI generates 280 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 265 pound-feet of torque from 2,500-5,000 rpm, while the V8 FSI pumps out 350 hp at 6,800 rpm and 324 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm.
The mighty turbodiesel V10 TDI remains unchanged, kicking out 310 hp at 3,750 rpm and a stunning 553 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm, but now it's only 43-state legal (down from 45 states in 2007) because two more states have adopted California's stringent emissions standards.
Depending on the option boxes you check on the order sheet, the price for the V6 FSI ranges from $39,320 to $54,120. The V8 FSI commands between $48,320 and $59,020, and the scratch required for the V10 TDI is between $68,320 and $76,270.
Driving Around the Spanish Countryside
We drove a 2008 Touareg equipped with the 350-hp V8 and air suspension (a $2,750 stand-alone option) on the city streets of Barcelona and the rural roads of the Catalan countryside. Then we spent an afternoon crawling on miles of decidedly unpaved trails on an enormous tract of private property frequently used for testing by WRC rally teams and Dakar off-road racers.
On the road, the V8 delivers solid thrust and a delicious exhaust note. The Touareg's ride is supple, like that of a fine sedan, although the lifeless, non-linear steering reveals the compromises made to reduce kickback through the steering wheel while driving off-road.
VW quotes a believable acceleration time to 60 mph of 7.6 seconds for the Touareg V8, and fuel economy of 12 mpg city/17 mpg highway for the V8 FSI under the new EPA calculation that starts with 2008 models. (See our Special Report on the new EPA standards for more information.) The Touareg V6 delivers fuel economy of 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway. Every Touareg can tow 7,716 pounds no matter which engine resides underhood.
Off-road, this Touareg V8 proves enormously capable thanks to variable ride height afforded by the air suspension, low-range gearing provided by the two-speed transfer case, and smart electronics that manage the throttle inputs, gearchanges and hill-descent control. When you dial up the air suspension's "Extra" mode, special air bladders inflate to give a stout 11.8 inches of ground clearance so the Touareg can crawl across serious obstacles.
With no further changes (aside from airing down the street-friendly tires a few psi for more traction), the Touareg clambered up and over some pretty hairy terrain with no indication that it was even trying hard, and asked very little of the driver when doing so. It packs more capability than most owners will ever dare to tap.
The Burden of Great Expectations
If anything, VW might have been overzealous when it originally defined the Touareg's skill set. In acquiring its go-anywhere superpowers, the Touareg got heavy. The combination of its Hummer-beating off-road hardware, aspirations of luxury-car ambience and plenty of crash protection exact a toll on the curb weight.
Therein lies the big Vee-Dub's big problem. With a curb weight of 5,300 pounds, the Touareg V8 is like packing the mass of a Chevy Suburban into a Volvo XC90-size wrapper. This poundage puts a dent in fuel economy and imparts a somewhat leaden feel to the on-road experience, particularly when the vehicle is driven with any amount of spirit. This is especially true of the 5,825-pound Touareg V10 TDI.
A New Diesel Future
VW reports that the V10 TDI will be phased out in favor of a 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel that's currently being sold in European markets. It's a smart move. The V10 is expensive, and there's not enough sales volume in the U.S. to justify the development expense required to make it comply with 2009 emissions standards.
Once the V6 TDI makes its U.S. debut in the 2009 Touareg, it will have a urea-based diesel exhaust treatment that Volkswagen says will make the engine legal in all 50 states. Rated at 225 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, the V6 turbodiesel lacks the force-of-nature output of the storming V10, but it weighs nearly 130 pounds less than the V10 and guzzles less fuel. Pricing of the 3.0 TDI Touareg has not been announced but we expect it to sticker between the V6 FSI and the V8 FSI models.
A Little Something for Everyone
North America is VW's most important market for the Touareg, and more examples of VW's utility have been sold in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world since this SUV's launch in the summer of 2003. Slicing the data further, we see that more Touaregs have been sold in California alone than in all of China. Or in the entire Asia Pacific region. Or in South America and South Africa combined. To us this suggests that the Touareg's all-terrain prowess is being exercised primarily on paved roads and in parking lots.
VW acknowledges this, and the company reveals that it is planning a third sport-utility vehicle to fall between the Touareg and the forthcoming VW Golf-based Tiguan. This as-yet-unnamed SUV will be defined by on-road usage, and it will do without the Touareg's heavy-duty off-road hardware and instead carry three rows of seating. We expect this new VW utility to resemble the Acura MDX or Mazda CX-9 — especially since the VW brass mentioned these well-executed vehicles by name.
For now, the only SUV in the Volkswagen lineup continues to be the Touareg. Ambition comes in waves, and these updates to the 2008 Volkswagen Touareg constitute less of a reinvention than a refinement of a uniquely capable SUV.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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