The 2011 Volkswagen Touareg TDI may be the best way to get Americans into diesels.
It combines a big SUV with good fuel economy like few other vehicles, while maintaining its European sophistication.
I would like to see a lot more diesel offerings in a lot more vehicles, but many Americans remain hesitant to take the oily plunge into efficient "torquey" engines that the rest of the world enjoys.
The redesigned and considerably improved Touareg may sway a few.
The Touareg's clean, quiet running 3-liter turbocharged direct injection (T-D-I) engine provides all the power and offers better fuel economy than its American gas-powered competition.
But a diesel disclaimer.
I love them. Most American are not fans. Many see diesels as stinky, wretched engines that should only be handled by truck drivers and farmers. But there are a slew of reasons diesel engines are so good. They run at higher compressions and create more torque, and the fuel just carries more energy in every gallon than gas.
That 3-liter V-6 in the Touareg creates 406 pound-feet of torque and 225 horsepower. That delicious torque is what you feel when you hit the accelerator. The Touareg weighs nearly 5,000 pounds â€” and that's even after the redesign; VW was able to trim more than 300 pounds from it. So to still get aggressive acceleration is quite the accomplishment. And the Touareg feels aggressive.
The weight difference is really not noticeable while driving the Touareg; it still has a heavy feel to its performance. It doesn't glide over bumps as much as it crushes through them like a juggernaut of German engineering. (The V-6 produces 100 percent of its torque at just 1,750 rpm.)
The ride is quiet and smooth, and the Touareg feels more like a Mercedes than a Volkswagen. Even in hard cornering â€” say taking an exit ramp too quickly â€” the Touareg felt well-planted on the road.
There's a distinct pleasure that diesels create for drivers that doesn't translate in the gasoline world. Diesels feel stronger and that adds to your confidence. Rarely do you feel a diesel strain for more power. It has all it needs, all the time. Add to that an incredibly smooth eight-speed automatic transmission, and the Touareg feels strong but still gets nearly 30 mpg highway.
The EPA estimates fuel economy at 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. I managed 27 mpg overall in mixed driving, with my highway driving at 30 mpg, which didn't surprise me. Diesels, from my experience, tend to overperform.
Taxing on wallet
Unfortunately, diesel costs more. That's more of a taxation issue than an economical one. This fuel is taxed more than gas.
My guess is people don't think about it because they don't use it â€” though much more of their lives are affected by the price of diesel than gasoline. Remember all of those truckers and farmers? They are the people who grow and ship everything we buy.
A smart country might want to make diesel cheaper, so even subway-riding city dwellers would reap the benefits every time they buy something at the grocery store.
And if they bought a lot of stuff, they might want a Touareg nearby to help get it home. The new Touareg offers 32.1 cubic feet of space behind the second row â€” more than enough room for groceries, hockey gear and just about anything else. Fold the second row down and there's 58 cubic feet of space.
Like in the case of most vehicle redesigns, the Touareg got bigger. VW added 1.6 inches to its overall length, half an inch to its width and 1.5 inches to its wheelbase. (It took 1.7 inches from its height, which is one reason it felt more balanced on the road.)
Those exterior changes helped VW overhaul the interior to provide more legroom (an extra 1.1 inches in the second row), shoulder room (2.1 more inches in the front) and knee room (2.7 additional inches in the second row). It may be a few inches, but that additional space is the difference between going for a long haul or around the block for some passengers. It also means that a Touareg can handle children from birth to graduation comfortably.
Right inside and out
The interior is comfortable throughout and feels very modern.
VW uses two video screens to help the driver. Between the speedometer and tachometer is a 7-inch display screen that provides vehicle information and turn-by-turn navigation information.
An 8-inch navigation screen provides nearly as much information at the top of the center stack with an extremely clear picture and 3-D mapping for the navigation system. This map includes some 3-D landmarks.
There are also all of the bells and whistles, such as Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free cellphone operation, an optional giant panoramic sunroof that reaches all the way into the second row, and an extremely comfortable interior for all five passengers.
The Touareg just feels right in and out.
The exterior, while overhauled, still maintains that ominous look. VW chiseled it a little more with this model, giving it a sporty stance and clean face. The headlights include the popular LED lighting around them to create a U shape, and the face uses long lines on the grille and air intake below the bumper to make the Touareg look stable and wide.
With its extended wheelbase, the Touareg maintains its sportiness while enhancing its profile. The slightly lower body also adds to this SUV's looks. Make no mistake, no one is going to think you're riding around in a crossover; there's a truckiness to the Touareg. And the diesel engine, which is surprisingly quiet, still ticks, ticks, ticks like a diesel. (What you hear are the injectors pushing fuel into the cylinders at high pressure.)
Sticker shock probable
Really, the thing that may keep people out of the Touareg is its price.
With a starting price of $47,950, many consumers might think twice before purchasing it. There are a lot of gasoline SUVs that start for a lot less than this VW, and gas hasn't gotten so expensive that people are willing to leave their SUVs parked. (Diesels cost more in general and onerous government regulations have caused diesels to cost even more.)
But the high price won't kill the Touareg; it just may limit it to tenured professors and a few other drivers who know the secret: Diesels are smooth, clean, and, drop for drop, take you farther in more luxury than anything else.
The Touareg isn't the exception, it's the rule.
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Exterior: Good. Strong, clean lines and well-proportioned, the Touareg looks sharp.
Interior: Good. Lots of space and comfortable interior. Feels modern and clean. Panoramic sunroof a must-have option.
Performance: Excellent. Strong engine and long wheelbase give this heavy machine lots of performance chops.
Pros: Good mileage and great ride.
Cons: High starting price may push the Touareg off many peopleâ€™s shopping lists.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor