The answers came quickly, punctuated by time behind the wheel. Yes, Volkswagen did need to be in this market, because loyal VW customers who wanted an SUV were leaving the brand.
And yes, VW executives did their homework, beginning with a field trip in 1998 to the brutal Ocala National Forest. "We gathered up just about every SUV we could find, and brought in dozens of VW people, many of them from Germany," recalls Kenneth Moriarty, VW corporate Strategy director. "Then we thrashed the SUVs on those trails through the forest." They were looking for a niche to fill, and they found one. Average in the Touareg's performance on the road, and its unexpected ability off-road, and you had what may be the best all-around SUV for the money.
It helped that Touareg's basic platform also was used for the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7, which are considerably more expensive than the Touareg, so VW reaped some nice technology that otherwise would not have been cost-effective to develop.
After a week in a 2007 Touareg, not much has changed, and that's good. Thanks to mostly minor refinements, this may still be the best all-around SUV, three years after its introduction.
The test vehicle was a V-6 model, which I prefer to VW's pricier V-8. Even with the V-6, though, this isn't a cheap SUV: Base price was $37,990, and as-tested price was $43,990. Options included a $2,980 package with leather upholstery, power seats, memory mirrors and a parking distance alarm. Upgraded air conditioning and heated rear seats added $1,500, and xenon headlights were $850.
It's the Touareg's standard equipment list that's impressive, though, and the reason for its substantial starting price. You get full-time four-wheel-drive, electronic stability control, an electronic differential lock, anti-lock brakes with brakeforce distribution, side and side-curtain air bags, real wood trim, a power glass sunroof, nice 17-inch alloy wheels and plenty of other stuff. The leather upholstery is nice, but the base-model Touareg without options is the best buy. And at that, it's still about $2,000 more than it was in 2003.
Price aside, the Touareg is just the right size: big enough to be roomy and stable on the highway, small enough to be maneuverable on twisty trails. Though the center of gravity is high enough to clear most obstacles off the road, you never get that tipsy feeling on the road when you are making tight turns. VW's 276-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 seems stronger than it is, likely because of its excellent six-speed automatic transmission. EPA-rated fuel mileage, 16 miles per gallon city and 20 mpg highway, is nothing to brag about but not bad for a vehicle this size.
The 2007 Touareg remains a superb SUV from an unlikely source.
And as for that name: VW says the vehicle is named after "a traditional African desert tribe that has made a name for itself trading precious goods. The proud Touareg, with their camel caravans and their mysterious veils, embody the idea of limitless freedom under mercilessly tough conditions of the desert."
Whatever. Odd name, nice sport ute.