Once more, with feeling
Marc Stengel, Sat, 18 Aug 2007 08:00:00 PDT
Just because a vehicle defies easy categorization, that doesn't necessarilymean that it has missed the mark. Although it might have. It just depends onwhat the "mark" is.
In one sense the freshened-for-2008 Touareg2 from Volkswagen is easy enoughto describe: It's a five-seater sport/utilty vehicle with three powertrainchoices, a six-speed automatic transmission and a very capable "4Motion"all-wheel-drive system. Changes compared to the previous model areevolutionary rather than radical. And it's priced from $39,320 for the V6model; $48,320 for the V8; and $68,320 for the V10 diesel.
What's so complicated about that? Just about everything, really. Forstarters, the Touareg2 is a Volkswagen. Despite years of living withelegant, even pricey Passat sedans and wagons, despite the enormity (andfailure) of a Phaeton luxury sedan costing $100,000-plus, VW's "people-car"origins still suggest mass-market affordability. And whatever else it is, a$40,000 "entry-level" Touareg2 is not widely affordable to say nothing ofits diesel-powered sibling that edges up towards $70-large.
Then there's the "tuxedo-with-cowboy-boots" aspect to consider. The Touareg2is, without a doubt, a very refined vehicle, both inside and out. It isalso, thanks to its "4Motion" all-wheel-drive system, a scrappy, feisty,no-nonsense off-roader. So what, exactly, does it feel like to bash in thepassenger door of a $50,000 off-roader while you're scaling boulder-strewntrails in a Touareg2? Is it like ripping the crotch-seam of your tuxedopants while bull riding?
Something like that, I think. And human nature being what it is, you don'tsee many tuxedos at the rodeo. Nor is it likely that most owners ofTouareg2s will relish tempting the fates on fender-devouring, rock-litteredmountainsides despite VW's earnest efforts touting the Touareg2's off-roadracing credentials at Baja, Paris-Dakar and Pike's Peak.
Make no mistake, however. The Touareg2 is very easy to admire, even to loveafter miles of seat-time along paved highways and mountain trails inNorthern Idaho, where VW debuted this 2008 model for the automotive media.It's a vehicle with two distinct personalities, one evident on pavement, theother off road. Whether these personalities seem integrated or split will nodoubt determine Touareg2's commercial success.
Certainly its credentials are impressive. Of the three powertrains, the V6delivers 280 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque with fuel economyratings of 14 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway using premium. For the V8, there are350 horsepower and 324 foot-pounds on tap, and mileage of 12 mpg/city, 17mpg/highway. The V10 diesel is back for 2008, and its 310 horsepower isdwarfed by 553 monstrous foot-pounds of torque. Mileage logs in at 15mpg/city, 20 mpg highway.
Each motor has its charms, although from a value standpoint, the V6 easilymakes the most sense. It's plenty responsive for highway and city travel,and there's ample torque for quite serious off-roading. Then there's thiscuriosity: Each Touareg2 is tow-rated at 7,716 pounds, even though you'dexpect the diesel to pull far more than that. Ironically, however, the V6Touareg2, being the lightest model of the three, handles the highestpayload 1,400 pounds. With the heavier V8, payload slips to 1,250 pounds;and with the monster V10, payload is a mere 963 pounds. Here's yet anotherdisconnect between expectation and outcome that makes it difficult to sizeup this VW SUV.
On pavement, there's no disconnect at all however quite the contrary.Touareg2 is agile in the finest tradition of European grand touring. Fullyindependent suspension combines with four-wheel-disk braking to deliverswift, sure cornering. Stability and traction control are standard, and anoptional air-suspension system tailors the vehicle to different combinationsof speed, load and road surface. Ground clearance can be altered, bothmanually and automatically, from 6.3 to 11.8 inches.
The interior is crisp and Teutonic. VW's layout for controls isinstinctively learned; and even the combined navigation and audio systemdisplay is logical, once it's understood that selector-buttons flanking thescreen are apt to change their labels.
For once, experiencing long distances in the rear seat can be a pleasure foradults. Dimensions are roomy; climate controls are independently adjustablevia thermostat and vent selection; and visibility is expansive. Privacyshades, on the other hand, only enhance the rear seat experience.
At pavement's end, the Touareg2 literally transforms itself. Of course,serious off-roading essentially requires VW's "4-Corner" air suspensionsystem ($2,750); and with the V6 model, this also means having to order theLuxury package (with leather upholstery and power passenger seat, for$2,900). That's a $5,650 hit, in other words, in order to eat some dust. Butthe beauty of the system is the way twin controllers in the center consolelet a driver select gear range, locking center differential and ride height.With the proper combo, Touareg2 seems virtually unstoppable.
Among other impressive capabilities, Touareg2 manages to sense its positionon the trail. When heading steeply downhill, the hill-descent controlfeature manipulates both throttle and individual wheel braking without needof driver input except steering. When stopping midway uphill, Touareg2'spowertrain eliminates gear lash when you start again, it's all forwardmotion with no slight roll-back that would otherwise put traction injeopardy. For a two-and-a-half ton vehicle, Touareg2's gymnasticcapabilities are daunting: Driving sideways at a 35-degree angle means theground is roughly within reach of the driver's palm; and yet the vehicle isas poised and unruffled as if it were parked at the mall.
Excellence, of course, is its own reward; and there's very much about VW'sTouareg2 that is excellent indeed. If it seems pricey, there's enoughtechnology and luxury to justify it. Its road and highway manners mean it'sfun to drive. Its rock-climbing prowess will startle the unsuspecting. True,this is a vehicle with very little precedent in the VW annals. Then again,most gems are like that.