Volkswagen Touareg V8

Review Notes: Volkswagen Touareg V8
Personality Luxury SUV with elegant looks and sports-car blood and user-interface issues
Unusual features Height and shock absorber adjustments, tech-boosted off-roading
Above Average: Smooth, quiet, powerful engine and great handling
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, controls
EPA gas mileage 14 city, 18 highway (V8; diesel 17/23, V6 15/20)
Price Base, $43,000; as tested, $53,355

The Touareg, Volkswagen's first SUV, immediately won accolates for its smooth, quiet ride - combined with the unusual ability to actual travel off-road - and its quiet 310-horsepower V8 engine (302 lb-ft of torque), which greatly exceeded its class. Unlike many other SUVs, the Touareg was designed to be what it is, not adapted from a truck or car chassis, which gives it a real advantage over the likes of the Navigator and Escalade.

The Touareg is remarkably composed and capable of whipping through turns with sports-car nimbleness, even though it's very heavy (over 5,000 pounds) and the V8 should be able to break the tires' grip when suddenly applied around tight turns. The Touareg can deal with anything most drivers, even moderately foolish ones, can throw at it, without breaking its composure or feeling like anything untoward is going on. Thanks to good body, suspension, and steering design, coupled with intelligent aerodynamics, the Touareg feels every bit as stable and assured at high speeds as it does at city speeds, even with the shocks on the comfort setting. Opening up the V8 results in no loss of control. All wheel drive and an active suspension are standard and no doubt a great part of Volkswagen's ability to keep the Touareg feeling lithe.

The power of the V8 is surprising given its small size of 4.2 liters. It is also unusually powerful for an SUV (though the Grand Cherokee is set to receive a 340 horse Hemi option). The engine pulls well from midrange to high rpms while some competitors require high revs. The automatic is responsive and tuned to extract maximum power, which it does partly by having a bias for lower gears, and partly by having six speeds, for quiet and efficient driving at high speeds but without sudden, large drops between gears. On highway sprints, the V8 has acceleration similar to the other German SUVs in this class, the BMW X5 4.4 and Mercedes ML430 (with 4.4 and 4.3 liter engines), with 0-60 at about 7.7 seconds.

The six-speed automatic is generally smooth, though with six speeds you do get more shifting than with five. We found it generally chose the appropriate gear, and that the optional sport setting - which revved the engine much higher and drank gasoline much more quickly - was less comfortable and unnecessary, especially given the transmission's responsiveness in kicking down to lower gears when needed. (The Sport mode is one position lower than the standard Drive mode). You can go sideways from Drive into a manual override mode as well, though the computer will overrule your selections if necessary to keep the engine from redlining or stalling.

Also available are a V6 which is nearly as powerful as most manufacturers' top engines (220 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque), and a diesel which provides far better gas mileage with 310 horsepower and a whopping 553 lb-ft of torque that easily beats every single other SUV we know about. It certainly provides a more impressive combination of power and mileage: gas mileage is a more satisfying 17 city, 23 highway. The V6 does 0-60 in about 9.4 seconds, which is not bad - about the same as a Civic EX with a stick, for example, and the V6 has an automatic. It does reportedly have problems with steeper inclines or fuller loads, not surprising given the weight it has to pull.

Fuel economy is fairly low with any of the gas engines. We generally got about 14-15 mpg around town, and around 18 mpg on the highway, using premium fuel.

The Touareg's high technology content is a mixed blessing. The bright side is the unsurpassed mixture of off-road capability and on-road comfort. Off-road agility is gained through automatic differential control, a stabilizer bar release (not on our test car), and automatic or manual height adjustment, which lowers the car automatically around sharp turns, and can be used to raise it far above obstacles and thus easily clear a snow bank or rock - as well as the small but very powerful engines and the convenient second navigation screen. (The "high normal" setting is 9.6 inches, while a special "obstacle clearing" mode gives temporary, low-speed access to a full 11.8 inch height.) While the height adjustment is only available with the optional (on some models) air suspension, it provides a 33 degree approach angle, 33.6 degree departure angle, and 27 degree breakover angle; it can be drive on a 35 degree offset angle (by comparison, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has a 34 degree approach angle, but only a 27 degree departure angle, and only a 20.6 degree ramp breakover angle). The maximum towing capacity is a whopping 7,700 pounds.

The mixed part of the technology is how well features are managed. The differential and height controls are easy enough to use, as is the damper adjustment (comfort, sport, or automatic); reading the manual helps. But certain things are disconcerting or worse, such as when the turn signal noise disappears whenever the navigation system is providing instructions. A more serious glitch is the way the driving lights stay on if you shut off the engine with the turn signal on - as you might after pulling into a parking space or driveway. They cannot be shut off again without turning the engine on and shutting off the turn signal, not an obvious step. We also noted that while the automatic headlights worked on the outside, they failed to turn on the interior backlighting. Though Volkswagen's love of complex technology brought us many admirable vehicles, they should have brought in a usability expert this time.

The navigation/audio system is a prime example of the need for more user testing. The maps display with amazing slowness, yet they do not have any road names, making them nearly useless in many cases. (Route numbers are shown where roads are numbered). The slow video updates can be very confusing when relying on the nameless maps. These are the major flaws, but there are others - for example, having to go through several menus to temporarily mute the audio instructions or to change the map orientation (from North upwards to your direction upwards). While you can get gas stations or restaurants or other points of interest to show up at certain zoom levels, getting a list of them eluded us. At some times, the knob was oriented in the wrong direction (that is, turning the knob right moved the cursor up instead of down). The traffic avoidance feature is also complicated compared to other systems, but there is a redeeming point there - most of the time, you actually have to get to a traffic jam to tell the system to avoid it; the VW system lets you describe traffic at a future part of the journey.

The features which are the greatest improvements over some competing systems - nearly all of which are faster, have road names, and allow single-button orientation changes - are the ease of entering destinations, and the second screen situated right in front of the driver. This one provides bare details on the route - to the tune of "turn left up there" - which is often all that the driver needs. It's good to have that information right in front of the driver.

Most vehicles with LCD screens use them as a way to set preferences and provide information, and VW's is no different, though most of this is done through the small instrument panel screen rather than the center console screen - not a big deal unless you want the passenger to do it. The control is mounted on the steering wheel and is rather awkward and not exactly self-explanatory; even with experience, we found ourselves often doing the wrong thing (usually, changing the CD track by accident). On the lighter side, you can set the usual lighting and locking features through a convenient menu system once you get the hang of it.

The stereo does have its own volume knob, as well as steering wheel volume controls, and a button each for the various modes (FM, CD, etc.) Changing CDs in flight is a bit tough since the changer is in the trunk, and there's no slot in the center stack (unless you take out the navigation system's DVD). Changing bass, treble, and such is done by pressing a music-note button, then selecting the item from a menu using the right-hand knob, then clicking the knob, then changing the setting with the knob, then clicking the knob again, then pressing ESC or another button.

The instruction manual does contain instructions for just about everything, though it's inconveniently set up as a series of paperback books in a looseleaf binder, an arrangement which makes it hard to go from one book to another, as they all jam up and need to be shoved around. A single big book, paperback or spiralbound, would be far easier for reference - and we suspect all owners will need reference now and then.

Inside, depending on how well you option the Touareg, you can have a pretty high degree of luxury appearance with optional wood trim to go with the brushed aluminum. The instrument panel is shared with the $65,000 (base) Phaeton, with a large round speedometer and tachometer separated by an LCD panel, and four small gauges for oil, gas, temparature, and voltage, all white on black and surrounded by bright chrome trim rings. The smaller gauges are somewhat hard to read but the overall effect is quite nice, and they give actual numbers instead of "Low and High." As usual, we appreciated Volkswagen's very precise fuel gauge; an alarm sounds when you have only three gallons left.

Some of the interior controls feel very good, but others feel a bit cheaper, particularly the emergency brake release and the smooth, undifferentiated cruise control buttons. The seat adjustments are hard to use, and the headlight buzzer and no-front-passenger chimes are annoying (especially when the no-front-passenger chime started to sound each and every time we started up).

Visibility is good in all directions, though the height of the vehicle means you won't be seeing things that are very close by and lower than you are. The optional xenon headlights are very bright, and the brights are conventional halogen bulbs that go on in addition to the xenon headlights for excellent short and long visibility. The electronic headlight switch is a bit confusing in its function, and whenever the headlights aren't on, a "DRL" light shows up on the instrument panel to let us know that the daytime running lights are on (not that you can shut them off). Presumably this is so at night you'll know when the headlights aren't on, though one would think that the absence of instrument panel backlighting would be a big clue. There are parking lights, but they are not connected to the interior lighting. At night, labels are backlit in bright red, which preserves night vision and Volkswagen's new red-lighting tradition; but the instrument panel is backlit with a more restful white. The outside mirrors can be told to fold in at the turn of their adjusting knob.

Windshield wipers are thick and short, and seem ready to tackle heavy rain or snow, but we were surprised at the small number of choices on the variable-interval wipers. The rear wiper-washer covers a large area and works well, as do both front and rear defrosters. The rear defroster had extra coverage of the wiper blade to avoid freeze-up, and rear windows also had electric defrosting.

A pair of primitive but functional cupholders sit between the front seats; rear passengers have a set that folds out of a flip-down center armrest. There are map pockets on all four doors, and a two-level center storage unit which was sometimes a bit hard to open. The top part of the storage unit flips over to become a rear cupholder. There are numerous power outlets, all the cigarette-lighter type, and a first aid kit next to the CD magazine in the hatch.

Storage space is neither generous nor stingy, falling between mid-sized and full-sized SUVs. You can easily lay a full-sized suitcase down and have room for another one lengthwise before hitting the hatch; a well-designed shade draws out and hooks in to cover the contents of the hatch very thoroughly, allowing nary a peak. As with most SUVs, the hatch can be opened as a whole, or you can just pop the glass. Unlike most SUVs, the hatch can only be opened electrically - from the driver's door or from the key fob. There is only a single mechanical keyhole in the outside of the car.

The slats in the moonroof allow hot air out without letting sunlight in. Volkswagen's usual dial-type sunroof control is the best we've seen. Children in the back will appreciate the sunshades that pull out to cover the rear side windows without completely blocking the view.

The Touareg has many safety features, including front and rear side airbags, side curtain airbags, and head restraints for all seats. Volkswagen, like Lexus, has chosen to use General Motors' excellent OnStar concierge/safety system. Available, but not on our test car, is a parking assist program, which can help to avoid both bashing other cars and running over actual people. The Touareg received either four or five stars in various government safety tests.

Our vehicle had the advanced entry system, which automatically unlocks either front door when you touch it (if you have the key fob), and puts external locking buttons onto each door; it can be set to unlock just the driver's door, or all doors at once. All Touaregs come with a semi-remote window raising/lowering feature: put the key into the driver's lock and hold it on lock or unlock, and the windows will all raise or lower themselves, followed by the sunroof. It takes some patience, and a remote version would be nice, but it is a handy feature to avoid getting back in and putting the key in to raise a window or two, or to cool off the interior a bit before getting in. Probably more useful is the optional power adjustable steering wheel - moving in and out as well as up and down.

The base price of the Touareg V8 is $43,255, including destination. Our test car had the premium package, which at a hefty $7,600 does much to make the Touareg into a luxury vehicle: it adds the navigation system, xenon headlamps, keyless access, memory seat/steering column/seat belts, power adjustable steering column, wood interior, air suspension, and leather. It also had the $600 winter package (heated steering wheel, rear seats, and ski bag), rear differential lock ($550), and four-zone air conditioning ($1,200). The total, including destination and emissions charge, was $53,355.

By comparison, the base Touareg V6 is $36,515, and the diesel - which includes the air suspension, OnStar, xenon headlamps, and other features - starts at $58,415.

The Touareg is a good example of what can happen if time, attention, and technology are applied to make the functional parts of an SUV be all they can be, but also a cautionary tale of the need for judgement and end-user testing of controls. Without the luxury package and navigation system, there are far fewer annoyances, and the price is very competitive with other luxury SUVs; if you do not need the extra space, it is a far more enjoyable vehicle than the larger Cadillac Esalades or any of the Lincoln trucks. It will be interesting to compare it to the Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi, which has a far different design approach, and is likely to be not as agile on-road (or to have as much ground clearance), but will have a 325 horsepower Hemi engine option - with much less weight to propel.

On the whole, the Touareg is quite an achievement, with strong on- and off-road abilities and masses of well-controlled power; we suspect it'll find even more popularity once the rough edges have been polished a bit more.