- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Until it visited the oddly named 2004 Touareg upon an unsuspecting automotive public, Volkswagen had never played in the sport utility game.

Now that it has dealt itself in, however, the German manufacturer has upped the ante. The Touareg (pronounced too-reg or tour-egg) is a fully developed luxury SUV, five years in development, that performs as well and perhaps better than almost anything out there.

That goes for highway handling as well as severe challenges off the pavement. The Touareg can hold its own off-road against similar models from Jeep, Land Rover, and Hummer, and on-road can vie for honors against the likes of the Lexus RX330, Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Volvo X90, BMW X5 and even its similarly designed cousin, the new Porsche Cayenne.

That’s saying a lot, but the Touareg is a lot of SUV. As such, it costs a lot of bucks, though the starting price looks reasonable enough. A base model with the 3.2-liter, 220-horsepower V-6 engine has a suggested price of $35,515.

At that, there’s a long list of standard equipment, including dual-zone climate control, motorized sunroof, a stereo system with CD player, real wood trim inside, remote locking with a security system, six-speed automatic transmission with a sport mode and TipTronic manual shifting, rain-sensing windshield wipers with heated washer nozzles, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, a trip computer, garage-door opener, side air bags and side curtain air bags, and a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system with low range and automatic traction control.

For off-roading, there’s a hill holder to keep the Touareg from rolling backward on steep ascents, as well as a hill descent control to keep it from going too fast downhill.

The 220-horsepower V-6 engine is adequate to most tasks, though it sometimes feels challenged moving the Touareg’s 21/2 tons up hills and passing on two-lane highways. VW rates its zero-to-60 acceleration time at 9.4 seconds. It has a towing capacity of 7,716 pounds.

For those who want more punch, a 310-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 engine is available for an additional $5,800. Other options include a navigation system, 19-inch wheels, four-zone climate controls, an air suspension system, a locking rear differential and a power-adjustable steering wheel. There’s enough on the list to bump a Touareg V-8’s price north of $52,000.

The Touareg is named for a nomadic tribe of people in North Africa, who are famed for their self-reliance and ability to deal with some of the harshest living conditions in the world.

In many respects, the Touareg is similar to the pricey new Porsche Cayenne. The basic packages are built on the same assembly line in Bratislava, Slovakia.

But then the Cayennes go to Leipzig, Germany, where they get engines, transmissions and suspension systems. Both vehicles use a six-speed automatic transmission designed and built by AISIN, a renowned Japanese transmission manufacturer. But Porsche’s engines and suspension systems are unique to the Cayenne.

The Porsche favors on-road performance, with a tighter suspension system, less ground clearance and a bias that sends 68 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Volkswagen’s Touareg has a 50-50 split between the front and rear wheels, as well as more ground clearance.

With the standard suspension system, the Touareg has 8.3 inches of ground clearance, an inch more than the Cayenne. But with the optional air suspension system, the Touareg’s clearance can be dialed up to 11.8 inches, enabling it to negotiate some really fearful terrain.

On the road, with the exception of some circumstances when the V-6 feels challenged, the Touareg comports itself handily. The VW designers set out to build an elegant German autobahn cruiser that can handle speeds of 170 miles an hour, along with the capability to go off-road any time.

Inside, its European orientation gives the similarly-sized Touareg somewhat less of a luxury look than the Lexus RX330. But the materials and workmanship are tasteful and of high quality, and the Lexus has nowhere near the off-road capability of the Touareg.

The VW mavens know that their SUV likely won’t go off-road any more than the Lexus. People who pay this kind of money for luxury transport rarely venture into the boondocks. At the same time, the expectation is that the Touareg’s sure-footedness in rough terrain will be a selling point.

Some of it borders on the uncanny. The Touareg will keep going with one wheel 4 feet in the air and only one other wheel driving. Uphill, if the situation gets spooky, all the driver has to do is lift his foot off the gas and the Touareg stops and stays in place.

As with any brand-new vehicle, the early production Touaregs exhibited a few shortcomings. In the sport mode, which delays shifts to higher engine revolutions, the transmission did not shift into sixth gear, even at extralegal speeds, forcing the driver to manually upshift into the “drive” position. VW said a fix was on the way.

The back seat is comfortable for only two, with the center position uncomfortably restricted. It also has no rake adjustment for the seatback, and no fore-and-aft adjustment.

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