Posted 7/31/2003 2:11 PM Updated 7/31/2003 2:12 PM
James R. Healey's Test Drive column appears Fridays. Healey has covered the auto industry for USA TODAY since 1988. E-mail him at [email protected]
USA TODAY auto writer
James R. Healey
SUV's got style, grace and growl
Volkswagen and Porsche jointly developed midsize sport-utility vehicles. Porsche took a wrong turn and wound up with the Cayenne. VW trod the right path and has the Touareg to show for it.
The 2004 Touareg went on sale last month.
Volkswagen of America
Touareg is a beauty behind the wheel. It's also better-looking outside than Cayenne to most eyes. It even feels roomier inside, although dimensions are nearly identical.
Seats in the two preproduction test vehicles — a loaded V-6 and V-8 — were among the most comfortable ever tested. Power is wonderful in the V-8, adequate and well-emphasized aurally in the V-6.
The automatic transmission offers six speeds, two automatic modes — regular and grrrr — and a manual-shift mode. Upshifts are silken but downshifts more like corduroy.
Brakes are prompt to the point of touchy. Steering stays where it's pointed.
Interior lighting is gorgeous, gauges are handsome, trim is classy.
The unusual all-wheel drive, called 4XMotion and unlike the 4Motion setup on VW cars, is a standout. It splits power evenly to all four wheels normally, adjusting as traction changes.
Off-road, you first choose the low-range gears for slogging. Then you twist the knob to lock the center differential, so power goes fore and aft equally, no matter what. An option lets you also lock the rear diff, so each rear wheel gets half the power going to the back.
The optional air suspension allows about 5 inches of height adjustment, giving Touareg 11.8 inches of ground clearance vs. about 8 inches on a typical midsize SUV.
With all those height and gearing advantages, it will take some trying to get stuck.
Touareg truly gives you the feeling you're high, wide and handsome and running with ease and aplomb.
And, oh, if only we could stop there, what a wholehearted endorsement Touareg would get. But perversity abounds. While VW took pains to get many attributes just right, others that should have been no-brainers are bollixed up. It seems best to wait until VW can remedy them — as surely it must, for they are so stupid. For instance:
• No back-seat DVD entertainment system is offered, VW says. Even the yeoman-duty Chevrolet Malibu will have a rear-rider DVD for '04. There's precisely zero excuse for VW not to have it as an option in an expensive SUV. Dealers will fill the breach, no doubt.
• The navigation system is especially evil. Most navis are Beelzebub's handiwork for starters. But VW takes you deeper into Hades using a CD-based system. You need to carry nine different discs to have maps for the whole USA. The DVD-based systems popular today put all that on a single disc. The CD maps in Touareg have few street names or other fine detail. A DVD navi gives you remarkable resolution and detail.
And the navigation CD uses the music-CD slot, so you can't listen and navigate simultaneously unless you buy the CD changer. And that's in the cargo area, where it can't be reached easily. A DVD-based navi is about two years off.
• The trip computer — perhaps the auto industry's only useful foray into electronic information display — can't be customized. You can scroll through different info pages, but you can't pick which one pops up each time you start the vehicle, VW says.
• The roof rack is a total bother. Unusually robust, it holds a meaty 220 pounds and looks great, like a tasteful roof air spoiler when the two crossbars are tight together at the rear.
But to move the crossbars for a load, you have to pull down a plastic cover on each side; use a small auxiliary key on the fob to operate a lock under the cover on each side; pull down on the gizmo you just unlocked on each side; voila — you now can slide the crossbar from either side, one-handed. The Lexus RX 330 SUV, by contrast, lets you do all that with the push of a button on only one side — no key, no walking around the vehicle; just push and slide.
• Temperature-control knobs clacked among settings with a sound and feel much like breaking the wishbone on the Thanksgiving turkey. You expect the knobs to snap loose any moment.
• There's no third-row seat. Never meant to have one, so VW has eliminated buyers who require such accommodations.
It's enough to make you pound the table in frustration. Such a wonderfully turned out machine, felled by such absurd mistakes.
If you simply must have one now — and it would be hard to argue a person out of that rush, so inviting is the Touareg as an overall package — you can minimize the aggravations by skipping the navigation system, using the climate control as a truly automatic system on which you never touch the adjustment knobs, and flooring the gas as often as possible to let the wonderful engine sounds get your mind off how mad you'll be when an improved Touareg comes out, with the flubs fixed.
2004 Volkswagen Touareg
•What is it? Midsize, four-door, five-passenger, four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle, developed with Porsche Cayenne but very unlike that SUV. Manufactured at a Bratislava, Slovakia, factory that also makes European-market VW cars and transmissions.
•What's up with that name? Pronounced TOUR-regg, VW says it's a tribe of Saharan nomads and translates as "free folk."
•How soon? On sale since June 20.
•How much? V-6 starts at $35,515, including $615 destination charge. V-8 starts at $41,315. Expect to pay close to full sticker price, Edmunds.com says.
•Who'll buy? 45-year-old married college grads.
•How many? 24,000 this year, then 40,000 annually.
•What's the powertrain? 3.2-liter, VW narrow-angle V-6 is rated 220 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 225 pounds-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. 4.2-liter Audi V-8 is rated 310 hp at 6,200 rpm, 302 lbs.-ft. at 3,000. Both engines have a six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual-shift mode; 4XMotion all-wheel drive with electronic center-differential lock.
•What's the safety gear? Normal bags and belts, plus side-impact bags for driver and front passenger, side-curtain head-protection bags, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, anti-skid control.
•What's the rest? Key standard features on the V-6 model include dual-zone automatic climate control; sunroof; AM/FM/CD stereo; power steering, brakes, windows, locks and mirrors; heated seats; cruise control; remote-control locks; tilt-adjustable and telescoping steering column; automatic rain-sensing windshield wipers with washer-nozzle defrosters; rear window wiper and defroster; outside-mirror defrosters; auto-on/off headlights; tire pressure monitor; adjustable roof rack; 255/60-17 all-season tires with a temporary spare.
V-8 model has leather upholstery; power seats; auto-dimming exterior mirrors; 255/55-18 all-season tires.
•How big? Slightly longer, wider and taller than Lexus RX 330 SUV; Touareg is 187.2 inches long, 75.9 inches wide and 68 inches tall on a 112.4-inch wheelbase. V-6 is rated to carry 1,400 pounds; V-8 is rated to carry 1,250 pounds. Both are rated to tow 7,716 pounds.
•How thirsty? V-6 is rated 15 miles per gallon in town, 20 on the highway. Test vehicle's trip computer showed 13.5 mpg in boringly normal suburban driving. V-8 is rated 14/18 mpg. Trip computer showed 10.5 mpg in suburban use punctuated by moments of enthusiasm. Premium is recommended, not required.
•Overall: Sweet and sour; almost delicious.