2004 Volkswagen Touareg Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
September 4, 2003

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It came as a bit of a shock a few years ago when we heard that VW’s first SUV was going to be in the premium price segment and was going to include SUV qualities — read, off-road ability — at a time when the market seems to be gobbling up very carlike designs like the Nissan Murano, Volvo XC90, and Lexus RX330. Is there room in the premium SUV market for the oddly named Touareg?

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That enigmatic name, pronounced ‘tour-regg’ (ignore the ‘a’), which VW Germany was rumored stubborn to keep despite marketing-department resistance, is the name of a Saharan tribe, and VW says that it represents qualities of self-reliance and triumph over harsh terrain. Seems like the perfect name for an SUV, right? If only it were easier to say…

Volkswagen is serious by any standard when it claims the Touareg is tough. It’s overbuilt and burly enough to survive the toughest off-road treks. Rather than sharing a platform with the company’s car lineup, or incorporating portions of its cars’ underpinnings, the vehicle uses a completely new uni-body steel platform designed to resist severe off-road flex and twist.

Boulder-scrambling underpinnings aside, the Touareg was designed from the start to be luxury-car quiet, with sandwiched aluminum within the structure, panels made of sound-deadening materials, and a special door-seal system. It works. The Touareg is extremely quiet inside and very little road or wind noise enters the cabin. Vaultlike is a word used often in reference to high-priced German cars, but here’s it’s a relevant term to use.

Powertrain fascination

In the U.S., two different engines power the Touareg: either a 220-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 or a 310-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 Our test vehicle had the V-8. The all-aluminum engine has five valves per cylinder and is the same engine that powers the new Audi A8, but with a deeper oil pan and spraying tube to make sure lubrication is adequate in off-road situations.

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A new six-speed automatic transmission — supplied from Japan — is the only gearbox offered on the Touareg. Like many other VW and Audi products, it includes both a Tiptronic gate to ‘manually’ select the gears through a plus/minus arrangement and a ‘Sport’ mode in which the upshift points are delayed for better performance.

Delivering that power to the wheels is a permanent four-wheel-drive system that VW terms 4XMOTION. Depending on driving conditions, the system automatically controls the proportion of power going to the front and rear wheels, through a multi-plate center-differential clutch. The system normally locks the center differential to a 50/50 front/rear split, but if a different torque distribution is needed for the conditions, the lock disengages and the electronically controlled clutch pack reapportions it. A so-called Electronic Differential Lock takes care of torque distribution from left to right, braking the spinning wheel and allowing torque to be rerouted to the other side. As with most serious off-roaders, the Touareg’s system includes a low range. To get the most out of it, a rear differential lock is optional ($550), enabling up to 100 percent of torque to be used through a wheel that has traction.

For both on- and off-road driving, the four-wheel-drive system is linked in with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP). If you get a little overzealous, the system will back off the throttle and counter a skid or potential skid by applying the opposing brakes individually.

Several devices aid stability especially while off-roading. When going down a hill steeper than 20 percent at less than 15 mph, Hill Descent Control automatically increases engine braking and modulates the brakes to control speed. Also, when climbing a steep grade the Touareg will automatically lock itself from rolling backward.

Optional on the Touareg and installed on our test vehicle is a computer-controlled air suspension. The active system responds to current speed and driving conditions — for instance, it lowers the vehicle at high speeds — but the ride height can also be selected manually through a dial on the center console. In off-road driving, the air suspension gives the Touareg better approach, departure, and breakover angles by raising the vehicle on a particular side to counter a particular terrain.

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The firmness of the air suspension is also selectable. In an automatic mode, the damping rate of each individual shock is adjusted separately for that wheel, while there are also manual soft and firm modes.

Hefty cost

But all of this macho off-road toughness doesn’t come without a cost. At a hefty 5300 pounds, there’s no denying the Touareg is a heavyweight. Comparing it to some of the competitors, the Mercedes-Benz ML500 and the BMW X5 4.4i weigh in at about 400 and 500 pounds less, respectively, while the more carlike Infiniti FX45 weighs a boggling thousand pounds less. All of these vehicles have V-8 engines with similar power outputs.

At first glance, 310 horsepower looks like plenty for this kind of vehicle, but factoring in the weight it’s no hot rod. The V-8 on our test vehicle didn’t have to work hard to bring the Touareg up to speed, and it has plenty of torque available just off idle or for brisk highway passes, though the sort of raw thrust that you might expect from a 300-plus-horsepower engine just isn’t there.

The six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly under moderate and aggressive acceleration, but under light acceleration — such as when creeping forward in traffic — it showed some very rough 1-2 and 2-3 shifts. Its touted Dynamic Shift Program didn’t seem to want to hold on to the lower gears while going around tight 30-to-40-mph entrance ramp loops, where it would shift all the way up to fifth gear then balk for a moment to shift back down to third when the ramp straightened out to merge into the highway. Fortunately, the transmission’s manual shifting is easy to use.

When first driving the Touareg around a parking lot or on narrow city streets and roundabouts, it’s hard not to notice its heft. At low speeds, the steering has a vague, heavy feeling on center — unusual for a VW product. But while the Touareg feels cumbersome at low speeds, the chassis underneath is actually quite capable and if a quick maneuver is demanded, the Touareg will deliver. Once you’re up to speed or the steering is off-center, it has a nice proportionate weighting, too. And once you’re used to throwing that much weight around, you’ll be surprised to find out that somehow the Touareg manages to do it well. Sprightly probably wouldn’t apply in describing the handling, but you’ll feel safe and comfortable muscling the Touareg along small two-lane roads.

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The stability and 4XMOTION systems seemed to work very well in a wide variety of conditions. As we charged down a washboard-surfaced, dusty dirt road, the stability system gently interceded briefly, causing none of the oh-my-gosh momentary loss of all power that some past (and present) stability systems cause.

Suspension-wise, the Touareg rides very well most of the time, but random potholes and standalone railroad tracks seemed to catch our test vehicle’s air suspension by surprise, with a loud, rough kerplunk from the back end. Manually selecting the softer setting seemed to make the situation marginally better. On consistently bad surfaces, like the aforementioned washboard-surfaced dirt road, the air suspension did a great job soaking it up in its ‘auto’ mode.

As is expected from a high-end German vehicle, the Touareg feels uncommonly comfortable and stable as you reach triple-digit speeds. Despite its height and somewhat boxy shape, the Touareg just manages to hunker down and feel composed, stable, and quiet, with solid straight-ahead tracking.

The large disc brakes are very capable of bringing all that weight to a stop quickly and stably, even from the illegally fast highway speeds that it seems to like so much. Unfortunately, at ‘creeping’ speeds in traffic, the brakes were very grabby and hard to modulate to a smooth stop.

Skimp-free

The interior doesn’t skimp. It’s luxurious, rugged, and functional, all at the same time. The materials and switchgear used are mostly of a higher caliber than those in the rest of VW’s lineup, and the style of the dash emulates a sort of upright “truck cockpit,” with buttons backlit in red. The gauges for the center instrument cluster are covered by individual round lenses, rather than by a large lens for the entire cluster, assumedly making them easier to clean but also giving them a distinctive appearance. There are plenty of small storage places inside, the cupholders can accommodate various sizes, and the “glovebox” is huge and can be cooled or heated through the climate-control system.

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Front seats are generously sized, twelve-way adjustable, and heated. The optional “smooth leather seating surfaces” that came with the $7300 Premium Plus Package on our test vehicle felt great and had creases that allowed them to be somewhat breathable.

Behind the front seats, there just isn’t as much space as expected, though. The rear bench sits low, and the cushions are short, with full-size adults left to prop up their knees a bit. For an SUV without a third-row seating option, the cargo area is only modest, though the floor is flat and folding down the split bench seat is easy to expand it.

Subjective points aside, Touareg left us with price shock at the pump with its heavy thirst for premium. If our disappointing real-world observation of around 12 mpg mostly around town is any indication, we think the V-8’s EPA ratings of 14 city, 18 highway are a bit on the optimistic side.

A full list of high-lux features is offered on the Touareg. Luxury-car offerings like supple leather heated seats, dual-zone climate control, aluminum and wood trim, Given the long list of luxury features, it comes as no surprise that the list of safety features is long, too. Front and side airbags protect the driver and passenger, while side curtain airbags protect both front and rear occupants. The outboard rear-seat occupants get height-adjustable belts, which is an unusual. Also during an airbag deployment, doors unlock, high-power electric devices are powered down, the fuel supply is switched off, and the battery terminal is disconnected.

Our test vehicle was equipped with that most expensive option package, called Premium Plus, which includes the navigation system, a 12-speaker, 375-watt sound system with CD changer, bi-xenon headlamps with washers, the air suspension, upgraded seating surfaces, and other conveniences. Most of those are available as standalone options, too. Other major options include 19-inch wheels and summer performance tires ($1200), and a four-zone climate control system ($1200). All said, a lavishly equipped Touareg runs about $50,000.

Although the navigation system wasn’t in proper operating order in our pre-production vehicle, we did get a chance to test out the interface, which also applies to audio, climate control, and trip information functions. The system does not have a touch screen, so you’re left with a knob to twist the cursor around the screen, then push it to select. It doesn’t rank tops in terms of ease of use, but buttons alongside the display help take you quickly to submenus.

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Ultimately, those who will get the most out of the Touareg are those who will REALLY take it off-road. On the road, it doesn’t feel quite as nimble as an Infiniti FX45, BMW X5 4.4i, or even the Range Rover. If off-road capability isn’t a priority, there are plenty of great choices, including the Volvo XC90 if the V-6 Touareg is on your shopping list.

What’s particularly amazing about the Touareg is how it manages to provide a modern electronically controlled system that’s good for the road but also backed up with serious off-road running gear, like a lockable differential, a real low range, and a suspension and underbody built to take the abuse. Coming onto the scene late has its advantages, as VW was able to determine what works best and what’s better left to tradition. Obviously in development the company decided for a little bit of both sides.

In fact, if there’s a reason to both love and hate the Touareg, it’s the weight factor. Its heavy construction gives it an off-road solidity that probably bests most of the competition. But Audi’s large flagship full-size A8 L weighs a thousand pounds less (admittedly through aluminum construction). You can’t help but wonder why this mainstream sport-utility model has to feel — and be — so darned heavy. Even with 300 hp, the Touareg doesn’t move as fast as you’d expect; it would be quite a bit slower if it weren’t for the snappy six-speed transmission. And it’s thirsty.

While VW insists that the Touareg won’t be in direct competition with its cousin, the Porsche Cayenne, the Cayenne starts at only about six grand more than our moderately-loaded V-8 Touareg. Add in the Porsche name and the far superior dealership attention, plus it’s several hundred pounds lighter, has 30 more horsepower, has sexier outside lines and a simpler, no-fuss but still luxurious interior. Who’s to say buyers won’t be smart enough to cross-shop?

As an urban grocery-getter, urban runabout, or soccer-mom-mobile, there quite simply are better choices. But for those who are serious about adventuring and really want to go where the going gets tough (or at least make people think that they do), the Touareg warrants a long look.

2004 Volkswagen Touareg V-8
Base price/as equipped: $40,700/$49,915
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 310 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.2 x 75.9 x 68.0 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Curb weight: 5300 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 14/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-occupant side airbags, side-curtain airbags, front and rear seatbelt pretensioners, stability control, anti-lock braking system, Engine Braking Assist, Hydraulic Brake Assist, Electronic Brake force Distribution, tire pressure monitoring system
Major standard equipment: Dual zone climate control, leather upholstery, aluminum and wood trim, heated power front seats, heated windshield washer nozzles, cruise control, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, roof rack, split-fold rear seat, trip computer, power windows/locks/mirrors, power sunroof, in-dash CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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