"Late to the party with an SUV, Volkswagen finally shows up
with a nice one."
Good: handling, road-holding,
nice interiors.
Bad: quality issues, reliability,
navigation system.

  for driving

  if we had
to own one

Late to the party with an SUV, Volkswagen finally shows up with a nice one. But quality issues make it hard for us to recommend you drop 40K plus on one of these babies, despite its excellent driving manners.

This is essentially a cheaper version of Porsche's Cayenne sportute, with which it shares a platform (and even modified engines).That makes it a bargain for those looking for a sporty handling,versatile, all-wheel-drive SUV. But even in its short stay with us,the reliability bugs made us reluctant to fall in love with the Touareg.

The Touareg comes with a choice of a V6, V8, or V10 TDI diesel. Pricingbegins at $35,900 for the V6 and $57,800 for the V10 TDI. We drovethe V6, fully loaded, which has a suggested list price around$44,000. Not cheap.


Driving Experience

The best feature of the Touareg is its handling and road-holdingabilities. Here, the Porsche roots become obvious. It stays flatin the corners, holds the road on the curves, and, overall, iscomparable to the BMW X5 in terms of its road manners. Despitethis, its ride is plenty comfortable, if a bit on the firm side. Add in plenty of power from the V6 and, we must say, the driving experience was excellent.

The Touareg is available only as an automatic with an option for VW's"Tiptronic" auto-stick mode, a mode which simulates manual transmission.Our automatic also came with a "sport mode," which makes theautomatic shift more, well... sportily. Other cars have this sortof thing, and they typically just move the shift points up tohigher RPM. In other words, if your Camry normally shifts fromfirst to second at 1,600 RPM, in the Sport Mode, it might shift at2,200. Volkswagen's Sport Mode did more than that, it actually holds the gear through deceleration as well as acceleration. The result is thatthe car actually WAS more sporty, holding gears and giving youengine braking, just as you would experience when you shift manually.This did become tiresome to use pretty quickly, and we tended to stay inthe basic automatic mode, but I suppose there are circumstanceswhere you might use the Sport Mode and enjoy it.

One nice feature is that the transmission display on the dashboardtells you not only that the car is in drive, but also tells youwhat gear it's in, even though it's automatic. Granted, it's notcrucial information, but it's a nice touch.

Our Touareg also had the optional, adjustable sport-air suspension.There are six settings to chose from, ranging from just over sixinches for carrying heavy loads all the way up to nearly 12 inches,for those few percent of SUV owners who actually drive their $45Kluxury car off road. It also lowers itself automatically forstability at higher speeds. Unable to compare it with a Touaregwithout air suspension, we can't tell you exactly what role itplays in the Touareg's excellent handing, but we do know that it'sone more thing that can break, as we would learn.

In our first highway ride, we suddenly started getting errormessages ("ride height" icon) on the dashboard display along with arather loud warning beep. (An aside: We recently test drove a VWEurovan, that also featured a loud alarm, which claimed that theengine was overheating...when it wasn't. Perhaps this is all a VWconspiracy to help keep their drivers awake?) The ride-heightmessage came and went for five or 10 miles, and then disappearedfor no apparent reason. The same thing happened the next day, butwe never had any idea what it was all about. Our Producer dubbedthis sudden blurting out of random information, "Touareg's Syndrome."

Adding to our concern about stuff breaking, one morning, ourProducer went out to his driveway and discovered that the Touareg'skey fob wouldn't open the doors. (He did wise up and eventuallyjust stuck the key in the door and unlocked it manually.) But whenhe got inside, it wouldn't start when he put the key in theignition. The battery was completely dead ...and, get this ...the key would not come out of the ignition. After calling VW roadsideassistance (which contracts to AAA), three different AAA truckscame, and couldn't figure out what to do. Why? The battery is inthe back cargo area of the Touareg. And with the battery dead andthe theft deterrent system engaged, none of the doors would unlock,including the rear hatch. Why not unlock it manually? Because thekey was locked in the ignition and wouldn't release (another theftdeterrent feature).

Finally, around dinnertime, a sympathetic local dealership sentits own tow truck over, which put a dolly under the Touareg androlled it onto a flat bed. If we had just spent $45 Big Ones on thisvehicle, we would have been steamed.

The dealer found nothing wrong, except for a dead battery. But noone had any explanation for why the battery had drained itselfovernight. It seems to us that there may be electrical gremlins inVolkswagens these days, and because of stuff like this, we have ahard time recommending them, despite their excellent drivingdynamics.

We only got to try the all-wheel-drive Touareg on a little bit ofsnow, and the traction was flawless. We did, however, also noticea little bit of four-wheel-drive-style binding at very slow speeds.It felt as if a brake was sticking. It's nothing horrible, but abit annoying.


Interior

You might describe the Touareg as an Audi-fied Volkswagen, reminiscent of Audi's very nice interiors. There are a lot of controls on the wheel. Seats are firm, but very comfortable. It's plenty spacious enough for four people, and you could fit a fifth person easily. There's a decent amount of room in the back. The Touareg is an excellent size...not too small, not too large, and the interior definitely suggests luxury.


Ergonomics

With a few exceptions, the controls are easy to understand. Theradio can be a challenge, and the navigation system gets a big,ergonomic thumbs-down (although we did have fun changing thenavigation voice to Italian for a while). There's a CD slot on topof the navigation system screen. But it holds the navigationsystem's CD ROM. So while you're using the navi system, you can'tlisten to music. Dumb, huh? We had to choose between finding ourway home from southern Vermont, and listening to Robert Earl Keen.For $45K, we'd like to do both. And bear in mind that if you getthe optional CD changer, it's mounted in the cargo hold in theback, not on the dash.


Styling

The Touareg has a nice, conservative look: kind of stately andrugged at the same time. We like it.


Servicing

The engine is absolutely crammed into its compartment, which isgoing to make the Touareg a challenge to service. And, yes, thatcost will be passed along to the owners. So, count onhigher-than-you-might-expect service costs.


Reliability

The Touareg is a new model, featuring a preponderance ofelectronics. Based on our brief experience with it, Volkswagen maybe reaching beyond its means on the electronics front. Maybe it'sjust first-year-bugs, but maybe not. We advise caution.

And let's face it VW doesn't exactly have a clean reliability rapsheet, at least in recent years. Our own dubious experiences withthe Touareg and the Eurovan only confirm what we've heard fromothers. Our advice? If you really want a Touareg, spend the extramoney at the outset and get an extended warranty. And move towithin walking distance of a dealer.


Overall comments

Volkswagen has created a really nice vehicle to drive. It handleswell, rides well, provides lots of space in a medium-sized package,and provides luxury, comfort, and safety. We just don't trust thereliability. It's too bad, because if we did, we'd say that theBMW X5 has a serious competitor. If you're a risk-taker (or if youlive near a VW dealership) and don't want to be seen driving around ina BMW X-5, the Touareg is definitely a vehicle to consider. Wecertainly enjoyed driving it. The nagging concerns about theTouareg's reliability, however, would keep us from shelling out$40,000 or more, until reports suggest that the reliability hasimproved.

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