2004 Volkswagen Touareg
MSRP
$35,900
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Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Ready for the Autobahn.Or Hell's Revenge.

Introduction

We weren't surprised to find refinement inside the comfortable cabin of the 2004 Volkswagen Touareg. After all, we expect refinement in a Volkswagen, known for tautly finished interiors and keen attention to detail. What surprised and impressed us about the Touareg was its stellar off-road capability. It turns out a Volkswagen Touareg can go pretty much anywhere. 

We witnessed this while driving through Hell's Revenge, a trail that weaves through sandy gullies and the not so slick rock near Moab, Utah. With its articulate suspension, sophisticated drive system, and advanced technology, the Touareg gains the respect, if not the appreciation, of veteran off-road enthusiasts. We wouldn't hesitate to follow a Jeep Wrangler or Range Rover anywhere in one of these and the folks from Volkswagen would suggest the Touareg should lead the convoy. 

Named after a nomadic tribe from the Sahara, Touareg (pronounced 'TOUR-egg' or 'TORE-egg') is bound to be the most often mispronounced and misspelled vehicle introduced for the 2004 model year. In spite of this and in spite of its newness, it is instantly recognized as a Volkswagen. It looks just like you'd expect Volkswagen's first modern SUV to look. Touareg boasts a brawny stance, yet shares styling cues with the upcoming Phaeton luxury car and other future Volkswagen models that give it a sophisticated, upscale appearance. 

The optional V8 engine, lifted from the superb new Audi A8 L, delivers good acceleration performance, enhanced by a wonderful six-speed automatic transmission that smoothly selects exactly the right gearing for every situation. On the highway, the Touareg provides a fairly smooth ride, though opting for the 19-inch wheels brings in some road vibration and noise. Touareg is no sports sedan, but handling is responsive for a heavy SUV. Off road, the all-wheel-drive and traction-control systems automatically apportion power to the wheels with the best grip, providing better traction and requiring less skill from the driver. 

Inside, the Touareg offers comfortable seating for five with rich interior appointments and controls that are easy to use. Indeed, this is among the most comfortable of Volkswagens with firm, supportive seats. 

Measured more broadly, the Touareg is among the best of the mid-size luxury SUVs. It offers better off-road capability than the Volvo XC 90, and it seems more comfortable and more practical than the BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz ML 350. What the Touareg does not offer, however, is a third row of seats. So look elsewhere if you need seating for more than five. 

Lineup

Volkswagen Touareg is available in two models: V6 ($34,900) and V8 ($40,700). The 3.2-liter V6 is rated 220 horsepower, while the 4.2-liter V8 boasts 310 horsepower. 

The V6 Touareg comes standard with leatherette upholstery, eight-way adjustable seating, wood trim, power glass sunroof, dual-zone Climatronic temperature control with rear seat controls, six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic, multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel, automatic rain-sensor window wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels and many more items. Leather is optional. 

The V8 Touareg comes standard with full leather 12-way power adjustable seating, 18-inch alloy wheels, and more luxury features. 

Both feature a sophisticated permanent all-wheel-drive system with an electronic stability program (ESP), adaptive torque distribution, a set of low-range gears, a locking center differential, and automatic hill-decent control. A locking rear differential ($550) is available for both models. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) with emergency brake assist are standard. 

If that isn't enough to boggle the mind, a four-wheel air-suspension system optional for both models ($2,300) automatically adjusts suspension damping (stiffness) and ride height according to driving conditions. The system can also be controlled manually, raising the ride height for driving off road, lowering for high speeds, or kneeling down to let less-agile passengers in and out. 

Options for both models include high-intensity discharge headlamps ($750) and an electronic park assist ($600), a useful system that alerts the driver to objects (or, sometimes, children) behind the car when backing up. A navigation system comes bundled with a sound system upgrade ($2,350). The V8 Touareg offers 19-inch wheels with summer tires as an option ($1,200). 

The V6 Touareg offers a Premium Package ($2,200) that includes Cricket leather trim, 12-way power seats with memory, heated power folding auto-dimming mirrors with memory, center console wood trim, and a front sliding armrest. 

Passive safety features include front, side, and curtain airbags, the latter for head protection in a side impact or rollover. Touareg surrounds occupants with a carefully engineered safety structure with a rigid roof designed to protect them in a crash or rollover, and Volkswagen expects to be awarded a four-star rollover rating from the federal government. Touareg senses when an accident has occurred and automatically unlocks the doors, disconnects the battery, and turns on the warning flashers. Add optional OnStar and an operator will be alerted to send out the safety crews. Most important to safety are seat belts, which should always be worn, and Touareg comes with three-point belts for all passengers including the rear-center position; the front belts are equipped with force-limiters to reduce injuries, while the rear belts have tensioners to enhance their effectiveness. 

Walkaround

The 2004 Touareg looks like a Volkswagen with its smooth, arched surfaces. It has a Volkswagen face and rear end. Other Volkswagen cues can be seen in the jeweled headlamps, the design of the hood and other features. If that isn't enough, the prominent VW badges leave no doubt. 

Touareg looks brawny, though its true off-road capability isn't readily apparent. Its exterior styling is designed to make it look rugged yet refined, practical yet stylish. Its high ground clearance, large wheels, and the robust design of the wheel arches and bumpers are clues to its trail worthiness. Big air intakes in the lower bumper contrast with the upper radiator grille, which is shaped like that of a modern passenger car, contrast that hints at the Touareg's dual role as off-road vehicle and luxury car. In the same theme, smooth, elegant surfaces above the beltline contrast with broad, rugged-looking side sills. Big exterior door handles look functional and are well designed and easy to grab. 

Touareg is built on a unit-body chassis, like a car. It was designed to be a highly rigid structure (40 Hz), so that it won't bend or twist even in the most tortuous off-road driving conditions. We were able to open and close the doors when the Touareg was teetering on two or three wheels, an impressive feat considering Volkswagen's tight fitment of body panels. This rigidity contributes to the Touareg's ride comfort and high-speed stability. The doors are completely sealed when closed, providing a quiet cabin and allowing the Touareg to ford up to 22 inches of standing water. 

Like many SUVs, the Touareg features a two-stage rear hatch with a glass window that can be raised separately. It has a neat feature that many owners may never discover: The glass hatch can be hard for shorter people to reach when it's open. If this happens, simply raise the rear door. When they reconnect, the window clicks into the door. Rejoined as one unit, the hatch can then be closed as one unit. Tall people have it easier, of course: They simply reach up and close the glass. 

Perimeter lights illuminate the area around the Touareg when getting in or out at night, and can be programmed to the driver's preferences. 

Interior

The Touareg interior is luxurious and attractive. We were impressed with it when we first saw it at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit, and Volkswagen's craftsmanship in wood and leather impressed us again when we examined various models in detail. The interior elegantly combines robust dimensions with delicate details. 

Those delicate details include rich materials: Genuine burled walnut wood trim is standard, with vavona or myrtle wood available as an upgrade on the V8. We like both grades of leather, cricket and smooth nappa. Volkswagen officials were enthusiastic about the leatherette (vinyl) that's standard, but we have not seen it. The premium light-colored wood with tan leather is particularly attractive and the dark-colored wood is quite nice. The dash, door panels and other trim offer textures that appeal to the sense of touch. Chrome and brushed aluminum trim add elegance with a hint of technology. Everything seems perfectly tailored and fitted. 

The seats are excellent, supportive and comfortable, much better than most. I've found it sometimes takes time to get comfortable in some Volkswagen seats, but I was immediately comfortable in the Touareg. Larger derrieres may find the seats narrow, but they're wider than those in, say, a Land Rover Discovery. 

Visibility from the driver's seat is quite good, aided rearward by huge outside mirrors. All controls are easy to reach. The steering column tilts and telescopes manually; optional power adjustments make it easier to fine-tune the adjustments. The switchgear, climate control, audio controls, window lifts all feel smooth and sophisticated. Move the turn signal lever momentarily and the signals flash three times, handy for lane changes. Instruments are attractive and easy to read, big and clearly marked, using white-on-black graphics. 

Robust climate controls make adjusting temperature quick and easy. The standard two-zone (with rear A/C) does an excellent job. The optional four-zone system, allowing separate control of each of the four primary seating positions, may be overkill but it works well. Farther down on the center console are big round knobs for controlling the differential locks and air suspension (when equipped). The center armrest features a ring designed to hold large water bottles. Overhead, you'll find a small indigo display with compass and clock along with a pair of nicely designed map lights. The glove box is air-conditioned, so you can store a sandwich or beverage in there. 

Touareg's optional Navigation System provides traditional route guidance with mapping and voice announcements. But it also includes a really neat off-road navigation system with compass, altimeter, and GPS coordinates. A tracking mode leaves an electronic trail that can be used to retrace your route. 

Automatic wipers respond well to changing conditions. While driving through a squall in the mountains near Park City, they quickly changed the wiper speed from ultra-fast to slow to intermittent, then stopped them altogether when the going got dry. 

The rear seats are firm, supportive, and comfortable. The back seat of a Touareg is a pleasant place to be and we spent several hours there, sometimes in extreme terrain. Vents in the B-pillars help direct air back here and the four-zone climate control offers individual temperature controls. A second heat exchanger for the rear seats helps get heat back there quickly on cold mornings. 

Fold down the rear seats and Touareg offers 71 cubic feet of cargo space with a nice, flat floor. That's more the BMW X5 offers, less than what's available in the Mercedes M-Class or Lexus RX 330. Folding the seats is a little fussy because the seat bottoms must articulate before folding the seat backs down, but the system works well. Put the rear seats back into place and there's 31 cubic feet of space behind them. There's an optional pass-through for skis available, a car. 

Driving Impression

Our first impression of the Volkswagen Touareg was its relatively quiet cabin. Both engines are smooth and the six-speed automatic transmission is really smooth. Overall, Touareg feels like a well-engineered vehicle carved from a single block. 

The top model's V8 engine delivers strong torque around town and the transmission always selects the right gear. So you don't need much throttle pressure to smoothly accelerate to the desired speed. Slam the throttle down and the V8 responds well, but does not deliver breathtaking thrust. Granted, we drove the Touareg at 6000 feet where thinner air reduces the V8's 310 horsepower to something less than 250. But at any altitude, a V8 Touareg weighs about 5,300 pounds when empty. That makes Touareg 400 to 500 pounds heavier than a BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Still, the V8 Touareg delivers respectable performance. It will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.6 seconds, says Volkswagen, which is comparable to the performance of a BMW X5 4.4i or Mercedes ML430. 

Touareg's weight does not help in terms of fuel economy, either: The V6 earns an EPA rating of 15/20 mpg City/Highway, while the V8 returns 14/18 mpg. This weight is more noticeable in the less-powerful V6 version. Though 200 pounds lighter than the V8 model, a V6 Touareg takes about 9.4 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60, slow by anyone's stopwatch. Indeed, the V6 Touareg felt sluggish at altitude, its 220 horsepower reduced to only 175 at 6000 feet. Punch it while going 55 mph on a long grade in the mountains and you'll hear it downshift and you'll hear the engine working harder, but you won't go rocketing past that truck. That's especially true if you happen to be pulling a trailer or have several passengers and their gear aboard. In short, the V8 Touareg delivers decent performance, while the V6 Touareg is merely adequate in this regard. Even so, we were quite happy in the V6 and we wouldn't hesitate to choose it. The V6 engine is smooth and quiet and should offer enough power at lower altitudes. 

The transmission is brilliant, a luxury-grade six-speed automatic used in the new Audi A8 L. The transmission uses fuzzy logic to sense the driver's intentions before smoothly selecting the proper gear. After switching from Normal to Sport mode, it automatically selects higher shift points for more aggressive driving. There's also a Tiptronic mode for manual shifting, useful in some situations, but ultimately the transmission will still shift up automatically when redline is reached. 

The ride quality of the Touareg is good, though it certainly doesn't ride like an A8 L. And its ride quality varies somewhat according to the suspension and wheel package you've selected. There is some road vibration, which becomes more acute with the larger diameter wheels that are available. The 19-inch wheels transmit more road vibration into the cabin due to the rubber compound and short, stiff sidewalls of the summer performance tires. The 17-inch wheels offer the best ride quality, smoother and quieter, though the aggressive tread pattern of the tires does generate some noise and vibration. Steering responses are sharper with the 19-inch wheels, and more lethargic and mushier with the 17-inch wheels. The 18-inch wheel and tires seem a good compromise between the two. Most of my time with the 18-inch wheels was spent off road, but the ride seemed quite pleasant during the few, short highway sections with them. Overall, I preferred the 17- and 18-inch wheels and tires. 

Two suspensions are available for Touareg: a standard suspension with steel springs and an optional air suspension. The standard suspension works very well and we recommend it highly. It might even be our preference. Fully independent, the standard suspension provides a nice ride and does a great job in the handling department as we discovered on some winding mountain roads in Utah. With it, the Touareg boasts an. 

Summary

Though late to the SUV party, Volkswagen has added dimension to the market with its new sport-utility vehicle. While most SUVs have gotten bigger, softer, less rugged, and less capable, the 2004 Volkswagen Touareg delivers the off-road capability that was part of the original sport-utility intent. 

Touareg combines luxury and sophistication with impressive off-road capability and highly competent road manners. It's a small, poor man's Range Rover that'll go anywhere you desire in smooth, luxurious comfort. While the V6 Touareg is competent, the V8 is needed for respectable levels of performance. 

Arguably, the capability of the Touareg is overkill as few owners are likely to come anywhere close to tapping its full potential. But this capability adds to the Touareg's credibility, demonstrates the high level of engineering that went into it, and distinguishes it among the herds of SUVs that have become nothing more than tall station wagons. Another point of credibility is the Touareg's towing capability: 7,700 pounds. That's more than the big Cadillac Escalade offers. 

Model Lineup

Touareg V6 ($34,900); Touareg V8 ($40,700). 

Assembled In

Bratislava, Slovakia. 

Options As Tested

four-zone climate control ($1,200); Premium Plus Package ($7,000) includes Air Suspension, navigation system, Nappa leather trim, wood interior upgrade, bi-xenon headlamps, silver roof rack, Convenience Package with keyless access and memory function, power-adjustable steering column, sound system upgrade; rear differential lock ($550). 

Model Tested

Volkswagen Touareg V8 ($40,700). 

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