Editor's note: This review was written in March 2011 about the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
While Volkswagen recently moved to make two of its best-sellers — the new Jetta and Passat — more affordable by spending less on interior refinements, it's going the opposite direction with its redesigned Touareg SUV.
The Touareg's powerful base engine, standard high-tech features and comfortable ride endeared it to me.
It's a near-luxury machine — and starting around $45,000, it had better be. Because if you're shopping this class, you're likely to shop for similarly priced models from Mercedes and BMW, let alone Acura, Lincoln and Lexus. That's stiff competition.
And the thing is, the Touareg almost outdrives all of them.
I can't say enough about the V-6 engine powering the base Touareg. There's a turbocharged diesel TDI model — somewhat more expensive, at $47,950 — and a Touareg Hybrid, which is much more expensive at $60,565, though that price includes a host of options. I tested the gas Touareg and the hybrid, and there's no question I'd choose the standard V-6, no matter the size of my bank account.
The 280-horsepower V-6 is a smooth operator. That's due in part to an eight-speed automatic transmission, but the revs come on in a delicate fashion, and the cabin is so quiet it feels like this rather large SUV is gliding over the pavement.
It's not V-8 power, but it's as good as I've tested from a V-6 SUV, and I've driven them all, with the exception of the most recent BMW X5. Rest assured, no Lexus RX, Lincoln MKX, Acura MDX or Mercedes ML350 driver will be able to scoff at a new Touareg owner at a cocktail party. Plus, if they're fixated on nameplates, just tell them it's the same power plant you'll find under the hood of a Porsche Cayenne. That should shut them up.
Mileage, at 16/23 mpg city/highway, is par for the course for an all-wheel-drive SUV of this size.
The acceleration is nice to have, but I think I would take the Touareg's pleasing ride if I had to make such a decision. The MKX is probably closest in terms of luxury refinement and a perfectly cushioned ride, with the RX and MDX a bit on the firmer side. The Touareg is even better-controlled. It comes with 18-inch wheels, while the hybrid has 19-inch wheels standard. Nineteen- and 20-inch wheels are also available on standard and diesel Touaregs.
Braking is solid, but as in several VWs I've tested over the years, the brakes squealed a few times in low-speed efforts. That was in both the gas and hybrid versions I tested.
All-wheel drive is also standard, and during a severe snowstorm the Touareg performed exceptionally well. The previous Touareg was always touted for its off-road capabilities, which came at the expense of a pleasing on-road driving experience. Thankfully, VW has figured out most car buyers spend their time on road, not off.
The exterior gets a manlier design than the past model, highlighted by standard LED daytime running lights. I think it was those lights that made one toll-taker on my commute home tell me, "Nice car." I've driven six-figure sports cars through that same tollbooth countless times and rarely garnered a second glance from the folks taking my George Washington.
The inside is typical of past Volkswagens, before the new Jetta arrived. It's a cliché to say, but if you were to cover up the VW logo, you'd think you were in an Audi … almost. I think this is where the price will be hard to justify. While the materials are quite good — at Lexus and Acura levels — I'm not sure you'd say they're at Audi or BMW levels, but those vehicles do cost more.
The front seats are exceptionally comfortable, and I enjoyed the high riding position. The backseat had plenty of room, much like the MKX and unlike the cramped RX and MDX.
Throw in child-safety seats like the two full-size convertibles I had in both Touaregs for more than a week, and you'll appreciate the room even more. A petite grandmother even managed to squeeze herself between the two for a few weekend outings.
While I often relate the cars I review to my status as a parent, I really can see the Touareg being the choice of parents who don't want to upgrade to a luxury nameplate just to have it brutalized by their offspring. Indeed, the imitation leather seats in the base model may be the perfect surface for messy kids.
Cargo room, at 32.1 cubic feet, is comparable to the MKX, at 32.3, but both the Lexus RX and the Jeep Grand Cherokee have more at 40 and 36.3 cubic feet, respectively. (When fully loaded, the Jeep costs less than a Touareg with a similar level of interior quality.) I found it funny when transferring some luggage from my own 2005 VW Passat Wagon into the Touareg for an airport run that the Passat definitely had more room.
The Touareg Hybrid uses a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 — borrowed from the Audi S4 — teamed with an electric motor and the same eight-speed transmission as the regular Touareg. However, instead of simply trying to wring out more fuel efficiency — not something $60,000 SUV shoppers put at the top of their lists — VW wanted the combination to amplify the car's performance aspects.
Did it achieve that goal? Not really. While the hybrid certainly has more power and torque — the engine and motor combine for 380 horsepower and an impressive 425 pounds-feet of torque — it didn't enthrall me like a traditional V-8 engine can. The brakes were typical of hybrids, overacting to most inputs at times and delayed at others. This led to some annoying stops for my family, eliciting curses from my spouse and cries from my son, whose toy went flying to the floor.
It did outperform the base V-6 at the pump, though, returning about 3 more mpg overall in combined driving. It's rated 20/24 mpg city/highway and 21 mpg combined.
The hybrid also comes with an E-mode that allows you to switch to purely electric power when accelerating gently at speeds under 35 mph. I used this switch extensively in bumper-to-bumper traffic during my morning commute.
During other times, I drove the hybrid like I would any other car — meaning not at peak efficiency. When stuck in traffic like that, though, why wouldn't you take the idle time to eke out better mileage?
A graphic on the center LCD shows power flow from the respective energy generators — gas engine, electric motor or both — along with the regenerative braking and battery recharging when coasting.
Since this review fixates on the Touareg's starting price, let me explain what you get for it. Most important is the standard navigation system. Generally, navigation on any vehicle is a $1,500-$2,000 option. Acura's $42,580 MDX charges an additional $3,675 for a navigation package. However, Acura makes a moonroof and leather seating standard. Adding those options to the Touareg costs $3,895, as part of a Lux option package. The Touareg's moonroof, though, is a panoramic one, which is not to be found on the MDX.
Volkswagen says its buyers ask for navigation over any other feature in overwhelming numbers. If that's the case, the automaker may have a winning strategy.
The navigation screen in the base model — VW uses a different nav system for the hybrid and uplevel trims — is crisp and clear, with easy-to-read traffic patterns. I relied on those green, yellow and red lines every day to choose my path to and from downtown Chicago.
The Touareg's iPod integration, also standard, isn't perfect. While I wouldn't want a car without it, the Touareg's system makes it hard to pull up artists and albums, and there are a number of screens to sort through. The center screen also doesn't display the artist's name, which bugs people like me, who like to play 9,000 songs on shuffle all the time.
That annoyance is mitigated a bit by the stunning LCD between the two gauges. This screen works much like the twin setup Ford uses in its MyFord system. This single-screen approach works better, though, switching among music, navigation, car and phone information with a single set of buttons on the steering wheel. Ford's, while working acceptably well, uses two different thumb pads for two separate screens.
The Touareg's center screen is very crisp and clear, and the audio section there did display artist names from my iPod.
The navigation system on the hybrid model I tested was slightly different; the screen between the gauges only had options to display audio, phone and car information, not navigation cues.
That wasn't the main problem with the system, though. The maps on the hybrid weren't as simple as the base model's, and the audio menu on the gauge-mounted screen kept malfunctioning, telling me the entertainment system wasn't turned on even though I listened to music during the entirety of my test. I tried turning both the system and the vehicle itself on and off many times, but the screen never righted itself.
If I were shopping for the Touareg, I'd probably end up with a base model just like my tester, with its $44,450 price tag and no options.
Besides the base gasoline Sport and its Lux package, you can opt for a $9,550 Executive Package that adds a heated steering wheel, 20-inch wheels, heated rear seats, an automated parking feature, an upgraded stereo, and keyless entry and ignition. In this class, you'd expect keyless entry and ignition at a lower price.
The $47,950 diesel TDI also comes in Sport, Lux and Executive configurations, with the same equipment and pricing.
The hybrid comes loaded with those options for its $60,565 price tag. My kids loved to look out the huge dual-panel moonroof, but it was too cold out to open it fully. I didn't think the upgraded stereo was particularly better than the base model's, which itself wasn't aurally stunning. "Competent" is probably the best word for it.
The 2011 Touareg earned a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The organization's highest award is given to vehicles that earn the top score, Good, in front, side and rear crash tests, as well as a roof-strength test.
The federal government has not crash-tested the Touareg.
Touareg in the Market
It's often hard to judge how a vehicle like the Touareg will be received. Too many shoppers rely on badges as a connotation of luxury and quality, even though they often matter little.
The Touareg packs most of the traits luxury automakers have been telling the public they want for decades, like a quiet ride, smooth acceleration and dazzling displays. I just wonder if buyers will be savvy enough to give the Touareg a fair shake given its perceived high price.
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