Having a record-breaking athlete and a celebrity as your sibling can’t be easy; just ask Volkswagen’s talented Touareg. Despite sharing the mechanical goodness of the PL 71 platform with them, it was comprehensively overshadowed by the larger-than-life duo of the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7. Now the second-generation Touareg is ready to hit Indian roads and is quite determined to make a dent in the luxury SUV market. We took a first drive to see what it’s packing.
Even though the Touareg is now bigger and more striking to look at, it still keeps a low profile. Make no mistake, it isn’t a small SUV – although it is lower by 17mm, it has grown in every other dimension. At 4795mm, it is 41mm longer and the wheelbase has been stretched, by nearly as much, to 2893mm. It is a bit wider too. The design manages to mask the considerable bulk quite well, the soft lines giving this big SUV a gentle air.
The Touareg’s new face is in line with the rest of the VW family, uncluttered and understated with just a few highlights, like the chrome-lined grille and LED-laced headlights. A nice technical-looking detail is the chrome separators in the headlights. Actually, it ends up looking like a Passat on stilts, as the headlights and tail-lights aren’t very different. A fantastic highlight of the original Touareg – the tailgate – mounted full-size spare wheel – has been ditched in favour of a space – saver in the boot’s floor.
There’s a certain sense of luxury associated with a vehicle like the Touareg and the interiors of the earlier-generation car didn’t live up to those expectations. But not the new Touareg – it feels richer and more expensive. Except for the dash top, the interiors are all beige, including the leather upholstery, the lower dash plastics and the carpets. The soft-touch dashboard and the wood-and-leather steering wheel exude richness, though the wooden rim for the steering looks out of place in the overall design of the interior.
Interior space is much improved and there’s now more width in both rows of seats. Passengers in the seconds row are better off too as the kneeroom has grown, thanks partly to the longer wheelbase and also because the bench can slide back and forth. It’s still a five-seater, but makes up by having 580 litres of boot space. There is also a very neat trick in here – there are dedicated buttons in the boot to lower the rear suspension, so loading luggage is easier.
The standard equipment list is also quite healthy. The touchscreen for the infotainment system doubles up as a monitor for the reversing camera. There is also a massive panoramic sunroof, keyless go, four-zone climate control, fully powered front seats, leather upholstery, adjustable air suspension, an electronic parking brake and cruise control. On the outside, you get cornering lights, headlamp washers and 10-spoke alloy wheels. Phew! Which is why it is surprising that VW isn’t offering a stop-start system- after all, it is available on the Passat. However, the real stumbling blocks for the Touareg are the missing third row of seats and an interior that feels no more special than that of a Passat or a Jetta, in an SUV that cost three times as much.
Don’t be fooled by the Touareg’s tame looks. On the road, this big SUV is as quick and as light on its toes. The 56kgm swell of torque is routed to the four wheels by the eight-speed gearbox without any hesitation or slurring. The chaos of the Nagpur traffic didn’t spoil the serene atmosphere inside the very quiet cabin either. Just a light tap on the throttle was enough to get the SUV to spring forward past the dawdling traffic. Lighter chassis, drive train and suspension components have resulted in a weight loss of 203kg for the Touareg, and this is a big reason for its sprightly behaviour.
Once out on the highway, the Touareg showed off the breadth of its abilities as it stretched its legs and purred on towards Pench, in Madhya Pradesh. Low triple-digit speeds felt pedestrian in the Touareg, as seventh and eighth are overdrive gears. When prodded for a change of pace, the transmission swapped gears quickly and smoothly, the revs shot up and we were pushed gently back into our seats. The engine didn’t sound strained or raucous as we shot down the highway.
At these speeds, the Touareg wasn’t a handful either. With air suspension and double wishbones at all four corners, it was quite a pleasure to pilot. Drive enthusiastically in Comfort mode and the body roll is apparent. In Normal or Sport modes the dampers become firmer and the ride height is lowered (down 25mm in Sport), resulting in better body control and better handling. The light and precise steering gives the driver more confidence too. Although the steering doesn’t enthrall the driver with feel and feedback, it does a remarkable job of pointing this big SUV in the direction of your choice.
Overall, VW has kept the focus on comfort rather than sporty dynamics, and as a result ride quality doesn’t plummet in the other Normal or Sport modes. In the stiffest of settings, the extra firmness is only apparent when you hit sharp edges of broken tarmac. Set to Comfort, the suspension was at its softest, the mishmash of tarmac underneath the tyres barely registering inside the cabin. It was only on the narrow undulating country roads that the ride seemed slightly choppy.
Volkswagen had set up an off-road course for us to test out the Touareg’s abilities. The course was littered with the familiar challenges – side inclines, axle-twisters, troughs and inclines. However, the degree of the challenges was severe enough to get me all keyed up for my turn. The Touareg boasts an off-road setting for the air suspension, which raises the ground clearance by 80mm to a massive 300mm! Volkswagen is bringing the Touareg 4Motion to India and so it won’t get the low-range transfer cases or the advanced settings for off-roading. But, if our outing in the standard Touareg is anything to go by, then the 4Motion variant is enough for those looking to attack the Dakar next year.
The Touareg’s mud-plugging ability is multiplied simply by switching to off-road mode. Behind the scenes, the electronics re-adjusts the ABS, ASR and even the Torsen differential to deal with the loose and slippery conditions. The throttle response also became dull, making it easier to modulate the power being delivered to the wheels as I teetered on two wheels on the axle-twisters; too much power would bring us crashing down, instead of landing gently. The deep troughs showed off the Touareg’s 24 and 25-degree approach and departure angles very well. But an interesting highlight of the Touareg’s systems is the hill hold function. On a steep incline, the system keeps the Tauareg from rolling back even without the driver applying the brakes. The hill descent control is also quite adjustable as it adapts to pedal input to increase or decrease the descent speed.
Out in the Pench forest, I put the Touareg’s features to use so that I could keep an eye out for big cats. The cruise control allowed us to coast at a steady speed and the off-road model left me with only the steering wheel to manage as we clambered down the rocky, bumby declines. Of course, we were quite comfy, no matter what the road surface.
WALK THE TALK
Even in its all-new guise, the Touareg still plays the boy-next-door. However, there is a quiet elegance to it, which will appeal to the select few looking for something discreet. The comfortable and plush interiors will serve customers well too, although the luxury quotient still won’t match up to the Q7 or Cayenne. The drivetrain and suspension have an enduring, ready for everyday and everywhere quality that makes up for the ordinary driving experience. Although it lacks the essential third row of seats, the Touareg will walk into the luxury SUV segment this April as the contender with a capable and sensible head on its shoulders. Now we’ll just have wait and see whether the pricing makes a virtue of its sensible nature or an oddity.
Source: Autocar March 2012