Once more, with feeling

2008, Volkswagen, Touareg2

Just because a vehicle defies easy categorization, that doesn't necessarily mean that it has missed the mark. Although it might have. It just depends on what the "mark" is.

In one sense the freshened-for-2008 Touareg2 from Volkswagen is easy enough to describe: It's a five-seater sport/utilty vehicle with three powertrain choices, a six-speed automatic transmission and a very capable "4Motion" all-wheel-drive system. Changes compared to the previous model are evolutionary rather than radical. And it's priced from $39,320 for the V6 model; $48,320 for the V8; and $68,320 for the V10 diesel.

What's so complicated about that? Just about everything, really. For starters, the Touareg2 is a Volkswagen. Despite years of living with elegant, even pricey Passat sedans and wagons, despite the enormity (and failure) 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 of its diesel-powered sibling that edges up towards $70-large.

Then there's the "tuxedo-with-cowboy-boots" aspect to consider. The Touareg2 is, without a doubt, a very refined vehicle, both inside and out. It is also, 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 the passenger door of a $50,000 off-roader while you're scaling boulder-strewn trails in a Touareg2? Is it like ripping the crotch-seam of your tuxedo pants while bull riding?

Something like that, I think. And human nature being what it is, you don't see many tuxedos at the rodeo. Nor is it likely that most owners of Touareg2s will relish tempting the fates on fender-devouring, rock-littered mountainsides despite VW's earnest efforts touting the Touareg2's off-road racing credentials at Baja, Paris-Dakar and Pike's Peak.

Make no mistake, however. The Touareg2 is very easy to admire, even to love after miles of seat-time along paved highways and mountain trails in Northern Idaho, where VW debuted this 2008 model for the automotive media. It's a vehicle with two distinct personalities, one evident on pavement, the other off road. Whether these personalities seem integrated or split will no doubt determine Touareg2's commercial success.

Certainly its credentials are impressive. Of the three powertrains, the V6 delivers 280 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque with fuel economy ratings of 14 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway using premium. For the V8, there are 350 horsepower and 324 foot-pounds on tap, and mileage of 12 mpg/city, 17 mpg/highway. The V10 diesel is back for 2008, and its 310 horsepower is dwarfed by 553 monstrous foot-pounds of torque. Mileage logs in at 15 mpg/city, 20 mpg highway.

Each motor has its charms, although from a value standpoint, the V6 easily makes 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 this curiosity: Each Touareg2 is tow-rated at 7,716 pounds, even though you'd expect the diesel to pull far more than that. Ironically, however, the V6 Touareg2, being the lightest model of the three, handles the highest payload 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 another disconnect between expectation and outcome that makes it difficult to size up 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. Fully independent suspension combines with four-wheel-disk braking to deliver swift, sure cornering. Stability and traction control are standard, and an optional air-suspension system tailors the vehicle to different combinations of speed, load and road surface. Ground clearance can be altered, both manually and automatically, from 6.3 to 11.8 inches.

The interior is crisp and Teutonic. VW's layout for controls is instinctively learned; and even the combined navigation and audio system display is logical, once it's understood that selector-buttons flanking the screen are apt to change their labels.

For once, experiencing long distances in the rear seat can be a pleasure for adults. Dimensions are roomy; climate controls are independently adjustable via thermostat and vent selection; and visibility is expansive. Privacy shades, 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 suspension system ($2,750); and with the V6 model, this also means having to order the Luxury 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. But the beauty of the system is the way twin controllers in the center console let 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 position on the trail. When heading steeply downhill, the hill-descent control feature manipulates both throttle and individual wheel braking without need of driver input except steering. When stopping midway uphill, Touareg2's powertrain eliminates gear lash when you start again, it's all forward motion with no slight roll-back that would otherwise put traction in jeopardy. For a two-and-a-half ton vehicle, Touareg2's gymnastic capabilities are daunting: Driving sideways at a 35-degree angle means the ground is roughly within reach of the driver's palm; and yet the vehicle is as 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's Touareg2 that is excellent indeed. If it seems pricey, there's enough technology and luxury to justify it. Its road and highway manners mean it's fun 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.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Volkswagen Touareg2

2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 front view
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 front view
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 interior view
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 interior view
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 center console
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 center console
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 rear shot
2008 Volkswagen Touareg2 rear shot