- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

With its 2008 Touareg 2 SUV, Volkswagen is driving head-on into a hurricane of changing consumer preferences.

That is because despite its unit-body construction, the Touareg 2 is more like a truck than a car — heavy and thirsty — at a time when buyers are deserting truck-based SUVs in favor of car-based crossovers.

Perhaps to refocus customers’ attention, the VW folks are emphasizing the ruggedness and off-road capabilities of the new Touareg, despite the fact that their own research shows that only about 2 percent of their potential buyers have much interest in those attributes. They could hardly do otherwise. The Touareg is a relative newcomer to the premium SUV cohort. It was introduced in 2003 as a 2004 model and was intended to take on the likes of Land Rover and Jeep, famed for off-road capabilities, as well as highway-oriented vehicles like the Volvo XC90, Infiniti FX, and BMW X3 and X5.

But consumer disaffection in the face of rising fuel prices is causing more manufacturers to switch to crossovers, which have better fuel economy, although minimal off-road capability. Among them: the new Buick Enclave, Acura MDX, Lexus RX, Toyota Highlander and Lincoln MKX.

VW doesn’t have a crossover. The Touareg is it. So the next best option was to tweak it as much as possible. But despite many virtues, it remains heavy and thirsty.

The Touareg 2 boasts 22 changes from the 2007 model, including a new grille and other face-lifts, though all the major body panels are carried over.

However, some changes are cool, including a system that adjusts the brake pads to wipe moisture from the brake discs whenever the driver turns on the windshield wipers, as well as a road-sensing system that shortens stopping distances on gravel and other loose surfaces.

There are three Touareg versions, all of which weigh well over 5,000 pounds. None delivers more than 20 miles per gallon, even on the EPA’s highway cycle. They are the VR6, rated at 14 city/19 highway mpg; the V8, at 12/17; and the V10 diesel, which gets a 15/20 rating. The test VW was the VR6, with a new 3.6-liter V-6 engine that sends 280 horsepower to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. Also new, the 4.2-liter V8 is rated at 350 horsepower, and the diesel comes in at 310 horsepower but with a whopping 553 pound-feet of torque. They also use the six-speed automatic.

Starting prices for the V8 and diesel are $48,985 and $68,985, respectively. The tested VR6, at $40,000, is uncommonly well-equipped for an entry model, even in the premium SUV class.

Standard equipment includes all of the now-expected safety equipment: traction and stability control, the antilock brakes with road-sensing, electronic brake-force distribution, tire-pressure monitoring, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, and a rollover sensing system to deploy the side air bags.

The VR6 also comes standard with a motorized sunroof, Sirius satellite radio, dual-zone automatic climate control, remote central locking, a parking assist warning system, power driver’s seat, garage-door opener, manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a power rear hatch.

For off-roading, the equipment includes automatic hill ascent and descent control, a locking center differential and a low-range transfer case. The Touareg can climb a 45-degree grade, tip sideways a full 35 degrees to negotiate a hillside, and can ford a stream 23 inches deep with the optional air suspension system and 20 inches with the standard suspension setup.

There are shortcomings. The VR6’s standard upholstery is a perforated vinyl that VW calls V-Tex. Though it looks like leather, it gets sticky in hot weather. If you want real leather, which is almost as sticky, it comes only as part of a $2,900 option package that also includes walnut wood interior trim, a power passenger seat and bi-xenon headlights that point around corners.

Other shortcomings, shared by all Touareg models, include rear seat backs that do not recline, an overhead compass/clock display that can be viewed only dead-on and can’t be seen by the driver or front-seat passenger, an uncomfortable center-rear seating position and an antiquated optional six-disc CD changer.

On the road, the VR6 has plenty of power.