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New models - Volkswagen - Touareg

First drive: Touareg tough enough for rough

On off: Touareg offers far more off-road ability than most owners will ever dream of.

VW juggles off and on-road capabilites with the Touareg

Volkswagen logo5 Sep 2003

IT’S the feast that follows a famine. The luxury 4WD segment, virtually non-existent five years ago, is being bombarded by new contenders. The latest entrant is Volkswagen’s Touareg, following hot on the heels of the Volvo XC90, Porsche Cayenne, Lexus RX330 and Honda MDX.

It could be argued the Range Rover has inhabited this segment for decades, but the category really did not start to generate much buyer interest (or sales volumes) until the Mercedes M-class appeared in October, 1998, followed by the BMW X5 a little over two years later.

It is patently obvious there is a burgeoning demand for these opulent lifestyle vehicles, so the manufacturers are coming to the party by giving the people what they want – and boosting their bottom lines in the process.

The Touareg is a significant vehicle in that it represents VW’s first crack at building an SUV. It’s off to a good start in the US, with the prestigious Car and Driver magazine voting it the Best Luxury SUV of 2003.

The newcomer is competitively priced, with the entry level V6 bowing in at $67,900 – undercutting the RX330, MDX and XC90. Further up scale are the V6 Luxury at $75,800, the V8 at $99,900 and the V10TDI at $138,900. On price, the top two models are up against the Mercedes-Benz ML500 and ML55 AMG respectively.

Volkswagen says its design brief was to build a vehicle that delivers "superlative performance on-road and off-road". Right, then - that shouldn’t be too difficult.

Flippancy aside, achieving a balance between these two diverging parameters has proved tricky - and few contenders can claim to excel both on and off the black stuff.

Volkswagen concedes that 95 per cent of Touareg owners will not venture off the beaten track, but the ability to do so is built into the vehicle because "people buy into the dream that one day they might go off-road".

"The 4WD has become the quintessential family car," Volkswagen Group Australia managing director Peter Nochar said at the Touareg’s launch.

It has been fairly well documented that Porsche and Volkswagen collaborated in the development of the Cayenne and Touareg respectively. But while these two vehicles share their basic platform, they differ markedly in their drivetrains and, obviously, appearance.

Like all its rivals, the Touareg is built on a monocoque chassis that is sprung independently – by double wishbones – on all four corners. The Touareg’s 4XMOTION all-wheel drive system distributes torque to front and rear axles in a 50:50 ratio in normal circumstances, but up to 100 per cent can be directed to either end when the going gets rough.

Where the Touareg differs from most rivals is in its provision of a centre differential lock, which can be engaged via a knob on the centre console. It is also equipped with genuine low-range gearing of 36:1 in first. There’s even an optional rear cross-axle diff lock, but VW officials concede the take-up rate on this feature is expected to be minimal.

Off-road enthusiasts will be dismayed to learn the Touareg comes with a space-saver spare tyre, but those genuinely intending to venture off the beaten track can opt for a full-size spare and swing arm that mounts on the tailgate. This option costs $2000.

Two engines will be available from the end of October - a 3.2-litre V6 with 162kW and 305Nm, and a 4.2-litre V8 with 228kW and 410Nm. They will be joined in late January by a thumping 5.0-litre V10 turbo-diesel with 230kW and a towering 750Nm – sufficient to tow the average house!Also in the pipeline is a 2.5-litre five-cylinder TDI with 130kW. This powerplant is expected to join the line-up around April and will be priced slightly below the V6 variant. So, in other words, it will undercut the ML270CDI on price by a reasonable margin.

Further down the track – VW officials will not say when – a W12 version will join the line-up to put the wind up the likes of the Porsche Cayenne Turbo.

A six-speed automatic is standard across the range and this transmission can either be left to its own devices, or controlled manually. The V8 and V10TDI come with F1-style paddles behind the steering wheel, while the V6 makes do with a conventional Tiptronic-style shifter.

Apart from the badging, the most obvious visual differentiators between the different variants are the wheels – the V6 rides on 17-inch rims, the V8 gets 18s, while the range-topping V10 gets 19-inchers.

The V6 and V8 models are suspended on conventional steel springs, but the V10 TDI relies on Continuous Damping Control (CDC) air suspension that enables the driver to select one of six ride heights – ranging from an autobahn-friendly 160mm to a tippy-toe 300mm. Ground clearance on steel-sprung models is 237mm.

Touareg V8 buyers can order the air suspension as part of a $8000 option pack that also includes bi-xenon headlights.

Volkswagen says the Touareg has been designed to handle speeds of 270km/h (which the imminent W12 would no doubt be capable of if it wasn’t speed limited) and all models have an impressive 3500kg towing capacity.

The Touareg’s design places great emphasis on pedestrian safety, says VW, and to assist in this cause the bonnet is fabricated from aluminium and the front guards are plastic. The other benefit of the plastic guards is that they can withstand low-speed impacts without sustaining damage.

No bullbars or other body add-ons will be offered, in keeping with VW’s "conscious rejection of aggressive off-roader design".

Equipment levels are everything you would expect from a vehicle in this category and even the base model gets front, side and full-length curtain airbags, keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, dual-zone climate control, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Electronic Differential Lock (EDL), Hill Start Assist, Downhill Assist and six-speed automatic transmission.

The V6 Luxury Pack adds leather upholstery, electrically adjustable (and heated) front seats and woodgrain trim.

Volkswagen Group Australia aims to sell 1500 Touaregs next year, of which it says the V6 will account for 11 per cent, the V6 Luxury 57 per cent, V8 20 per cent and V10TDI 12 per cent.

There will be a purpose-built display for the Touareg in many VW showrooms and the vehicle will also be exhibited at Sydney and Melbourne airports.

TOUAREG PRICING:
V6: $67,900
V6 Luxury: $75,800
V8: $99,900
V10 TDI: $138,900

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

VOLKSWAGEN has set itself a lofty ambition – to build a vehicle that excels in all conditions.

A brief drive program at the vehicle’s launch is not sufficient to conclusively prove whether it has been successful, but early impressions are nothing short of highly positive.

It would not have been unreasonable to expect a fairly tame drive loop consisting of gravel roads and a few rutted tracks – as has been the case with most previous luxury 4WD launches.

But VW bravely chose to put its money where its mouth is by presenting the assembled motoring journalists with a gnarly, narrow tree-lined track with a host of steep climbs and descents. It was the sort of terrain that you wouldn’t point an X5 at – unless you’re a lunatic.

Centre diff lock activated and low-range selected, we set off. Flat terrain soon gives way to some steep, slippery climbs, but the Touareg impresses with its ability to simply scramble up at the prod of the throttle (and all this despite rolling on Bridgestone Turanzas much better suited to tarmac). You can feel – and hear – the electronic traction aids beavering away in the background, but the net result is that it makes the driver’s life relatively easy across arduous terrain.

The 237mm ground clearance (on our steel-sprung Touareg) proved sufficient and the vehicle only scraped its belly once across the whole route.

Having established that it offers far more off-road ability than most owners will ever dream of, it’s time to tackle the blacktop. Here again, the Touareg impresses with its composure when driven with gusto through the twisty bits. An X5 might be a tad sharper in its responses, but there’s certainly not much in it.

The 4.2-litre V8 (which was the only variant at the launch) is a gem. It is smooth, grunty and sounds great. The six-speed paddle shift is also good fun and quite user friendly once you get used to it.

Touareg’s interior is beautifully crafted, but some journos found the seats lacked lumbar support.

Styling is a subjective area, but this humble scribe found the Touraeg’s lines very easy on the eye. It is certainly more attractive than the slightly ungainly looking Cayenne.

Overall, it is too early to give it an unreserved thumbs-up, but we think Volkswagen could have a winner on its hands.

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