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FIRST DRIVE

Volkswagen's first SUV is full of surprises -- mostly good

The Touareg has style and good handling. But its limited cargo space can be a drawback.

October 15, 2003|Larry Printz | Morning Call

It seems that every automaker in the world has a sport utility vehicle, suitably named to suggest that the vehicle is perfect to drive to some remote outpost.

Leave it to Volkswagen to arrive late to the party -- and with the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara.

Although casual observers may yawn, the Touareg (pronounced TOUR-regg) turns out to be one of the best performing SUVs I have ever tested. Developed in conjunction with Porsche (whose own version of this SUV is called the Cayenne), the Touareg is a real surprise.

Start with the fact that a VW badge is affixed to an SUV. Although not as shocking as a Porsche badge affixed to an SUV, it still seems odd.

Then look at the price. For a manufacturer whose "people's car" heritage has always stood for value, the $34,900 base price for the 2004 Touareg V-6 and $40,700 for the Touareg V-8 are just as surprising. Both still are less than the Porsche Cayenne's $55,900, which might explain the Cayenne's heavier discounting.

But if that all seems overpriced, it won't be once you experience the vehicle, and that's the biggest surprise of all.

The Touareg offers 8.3 inches of ground clearance; its 187.2-inch length, 2 inches shorter than that of a Ford Explorer, gives it a tough sporting stance. Yet unlike the stubby-looking BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the Touareg looks sophisticated and upscale. It also upstages its Porsche cousin with better looks.

Those design pluses continue in the cabin. A mixture of smooth metallic trim and soft surfaces gives the cabin a typical upscale VW look. It just oozes with style.

There are plenty of standard goodies, including dual automatic climate control, power heated mirrors, rain-sensing windshield wipers, self-dimming rearview mirror, interior ambient lighting, cruise control, AM-FM-CD player, five 12-volt power outlets, 60/40-split rear seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, multi-function trip computer, automatic headlamps, alarm system, heated front seats, keyless entry, power sunroof and 17-inch wheels.

Our V-6-equipped test vehicle also came with a navigation and sound system package for $2,650; Xenon headlamps with washers, $750; a rear differential lock, $550; and California/Northeast emissions package for $150. The bottom line was slightly more than $39,000.

An all-wheel-drive SUV with a 220-horsepower V-6 engine sounds as if it would be slow. It is, when compared with some SUVs.

But for most chores, the engine seemed perfectly adequate. Although it's no speed demon off the line, the six-stepped Tiptronic can be shifted like a manual transmission or put into sport mode. That mode was the best for extracting the most power from the VW engine.

Braking was excellent: Four-wheel discs with electronic brake force distribution, hydraulic brake assist and anti-lock ensure safe, smooth stops.

Handling on road is a pleasant surprise. The Touareg feels agile on the highway -- a true tourer with tons of grip and minimal lean in corners. The ride is serene, never bouncing. With a performance this credible, I was sure off-road agility would be compromised. But here's the next surprise: It isn't compromised at all. Going off road in a Touareg, you get the same snubbed-down ride and adept handling you get on pavement.

Best of all, with the optional air suspension, the Touareg has almost a foot of ground clearance and can ford a stream almost 2 feet deep.

Continuous damping control is standard when the air suspension is ordered. There are three settings: comfort (soft), sport (hard) and auto (middle).

Volkswagen's all-wheel-drive system, dubbed 4XMotion, splits torque 50% front, 50% rear, in normal applications. This provides a very neutral feel.

If all this sounds too wonderful for words, there are some smaller surprises to consider.

Although it may seem like a nifty idea, VW's combination audio and navigation system is so confusing it will dissuade you from that notion. Without an owner's manual, it is impossible to decipher the function of the small buttons with their cryptic markings.

The other problem is space. Think of the Touareg as the best four-seat SUV money can buy. There is no third-row seat. The cargo hold sacrifices utility for its eye-pleasing shape. So the cargo hold isn't as roomy for bulky items as you might anticipate.

Although I expected VW loyalists to love the vehicle, I was unprepared for the smooth refinement, excellent workmanship and superior design that match the standards of any SUV in its class -- and would doubtless attract non-VW customers.

After a week with the vehicle, I can honestly say that the biggest surprise about the Touareg is how much better it performs than the obscurity of its name would suggest.

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