- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

It’s hard to believe that there was still a manufacturer out there who did not have an SUV in its lineup but, until recently, Volkswagen was among the missing. That has changed now, with the introduction of the new, 2004 Touareg. Touareg was developed by VW in concert with Porsche. The Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg share many components, parting company mainly on engines and suspension setups.

Off road, Touareg is highly capable. Equipped with an optional air suspension, it will ford water as deep as 23 inches, and climb/descend a 45-degree pitch. The chassis employs a full-time, four-wheel-drive system called 4Xmotion. The electronically controlled 4x4 system transfers torque from axle to axle as needed to boost traction. In normal conditions, power is split 50/50, front/rear.

Two variations of the system are offered. The standard setup has a locking center differential and open rear. An optional unit has locking differentials front and rear. The basic arrangement will do most people just fine, though the true hard-core 4x4 fan may wish to opt for lockers all around.

The Touareg’s standard steel suspension is stout enough for off-roading, but the optional air-suspension system is a noticeable upgrade. Statistics tell the tale. The angles of approach/break over/departure in the standard suspension VW are 28/22/28 degrees, respectively, with 8.3 inches of ground clearance. Air suspension Touaregs improve to 33/27/33, with a maximum ground clearance of 11.8 inches.

Two more features add confidence and convenience when driving in the dirt. VW’s hill incline system will, as the name suggests, hold the vehicle in place any time it is stopped on a grade — without the need to keep a foot planted on the brake pedal. That’s going up. Going down, hill decline assist maintains a slow, even speed during steep descents without the need for driver input. This allows the driver to concentrate on steering down a tricky slope without worrying about modulating speed.

The Touareg’s pavement performance is particularly impressive given how good it is off-road. It has a smooth ride quality and handling that is more sedan than sedate. Autobahn-wannabees will be interested to note that the optional air suspension lowers the VW, as well as raises it. Engine choices number two, with a third coming soon. Buyers can choose from the standard, 3.2-liter V-6, or the optional 4.2-liter V-8. The former makes 220 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 225 foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 rpm.

The V-8 checks in with 310 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, 302 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. It will make the 0-60 dash in 7.6 seconds and tops out at 130 mph.

Both engines are matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. EPA rates gas mileage as 15 city/20 highway for the V-6 and 14/18 for the V-8. Waiting in the wings is a 5.0-liter, 10-cylinder turbo diesel, said to generate 310 horsepower and a stump-pulling 553 foot-pounds of torque. Both the six- and eight-cylinder engines have enough bottom-end power to work well off road

Touareg’s interior comfortably holds four or five people and a generous amount of cargo. Storage capacity ranges from 31 to 71 cubic feet in back, depending on how you configure the seats. The cabin is well fitted and handsome, and the only two issues that I have with it concern visibility and distractibility. Rear visibility is limited by the back-seat headrests and a smallish window (a typical complaint in SUVs). Drivers who buy the optional navigation system will find an able assist for traveling, but the controls for many functions are found in the center dash control panel, and it’s distracting to deal with when driving.

VW enters the SUV market at an interesting time, as the trend continues to shift away from truck-based big utility vehicles and toward smaller, car-based crossovers. Touareg impresses for its ability to work on and off road with equal aplomb. For the money ($35,515 for the V-6; $41,315 for the V-8, I can think of no better dual-purpose vehicle.

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