March 28, 2009

Volkswagen Touareg V8

The Touareg, Volkswagen's first SUV, immediately won accolades for its smooth, quiet ride - combined with the unusual ability to actual travel off-road - and its quiet 310-horsepower V8 engine (302 lb-ft of torque), which greatly exceeded its class. Unlike many other SUVs, the Touareg was designed to be what it is, not adapted from a truck or car chassis, which gives it a real advantage over the likes of the Navigator and Escalade.

The Touareg is remarkably composed and capable of whipping through turns with sports-car nimbleness, even though it's very heavy (over 5,000 pounds) and the V8 should be able to break the tires' grip when suddenly applied around tight turns. The Touareg can deal with anything most drivers, even moderately foolish ones, can throw at it, without breaking its composure or feeling like anything untoward is going on. Thanks to good body, suspension, and steering design, coupled with intelligent aerodynamics, the Touareg feels every bit as stable and assured at high speeds as it does at city speeds, even with the shocks on the comfort setting. Opening up the V8 results in no loss of control. All wheel drive and an active suspension are standard and no doubt a great part of Volkswagen's ability to keep the Touareg feeling lithe.

The power of the V8 is surprising given its small size of 4.2 liters. It is also unusually powerful for an SUV (though the Grand Cherokee is set to receive a 340 horse Hemi option). The engine pulls well from midrange to high rpms while some competitors require high revs. The automatic is responsive and tuned to extract maximum power, which it does partly by having a bias for lower gears, and partly by having six speeds, for quiet and efficient driving at high speeds but without sudden, large drops between gears. On highway sprints, the V8 has acceleration similar to the other German SUVs in this class, the BMW X5 4.4 and Mercedes ML430 (with 4.4 and 4.3 liter engines), with 0-60 at about 7.7 seconds.

The six-speed automatic is generally smooth, though with six speeds you do get more shifting than with five. We found it generally chose the appropriate gear, and that the optional sport setting - which revved the engine much higher and drank gasoline much more quickly - was less comfortable and unnecessary, especially given the transmission's responsiveness in kicking down to lower gears when needed. (The Sport mode is one position lower than the standard Drive mode). You can go sideways from Drive into a manual override mode as well, though the computer will overrule your selections if necessary to keep the engine from redlining or stalling.

Also available are a V6 which is nearly as powerful as most manufacturers' top engines (220 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque), and a diesel which provides far better gas mileage with 310 horsepower and a whopping 553 lb-ft of torque that easily beats every single other SUV we know about. It certainly provides a more impressive combination of power and mileage: gas mileage is a more satisfying 17 city, 23 highway. The V6 does 0-60 in about 9.4 seconds, which is not bad - about the same as a Civic EX with a stick, for example, and the V6 has an automatic. It does reportedly have problems with steeper inclines or fuller loads, not surprising given the weight it has to pull.

Fuel economy is fairly low with any of the gas engines. We generally got about 14-15 mpg around town, and around 18 mpg on the highway, using premium fuel.

The Touareg's high technology content is a mixed blessing. The bright side is the unsurpassed mixture of off-road capability and on-road comfort. Off-road agility is gained through automatic differential control, a stabilizer bar release (not on our test car), and automatic or manual height adjustment, which lowers the car automatically around sharp turns, and can be used to raise it far above obstacles and thus easily clear a snow bank or rock - as well as the small but very powerful engines and the convenient second navigation screen. (The "high normal" setting is 9.6 inches, while a special "obstacle clearing" mode gives temporary, low-speed access to a full 11.8 inch height.) While the height adjustment is only available with the optional (on some models) air suspension, it provides a 33 degree approach angle, 33.6 degree departure angle, and 27 degree breakover angle; it can be driven on a 35 degree offset angle (by comparison, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has a 34 degree approach angle, but only a 27 degree departure angle, and only a 20.6 degree ramp breakover angle). The maximum towing capacity is a whopping 7,700 pounds.

The mixed part of the technology is how well features are managed. The differential and height controls are easy enough to use, as is the damper adjustment (comfort, sport, or automatic); reading the manual helps. But certain things are disconcerting or worse, such as when the turn signal noise disappears whenever the navigation system is providing instructions. A more serious glitch is the way the driving lights stay on if you shut off the engine with the turn signal on - as you might after pulling into a parking space or driveway. They cannot be shut off again without turning the engine on and shutting off the turn signal, not an obvious step. We also noted that while the automatic headlights worked on the outside, they failed to turn on the interior backlighting. Though Volkswagen's love of complex technology brought us many admirable vehicles, they should have brought in a usability expert this time.

The navigation/audio system is a prime example of the need for more user testing. The maps display with amazing slowness, yet they do not have any road names, making them nearly useless in many cases. (Route numbers are shown where roads are numbered). The slow video updates can be very confusing when relying on the nameless maps. These are the major flaws, but there are others - for example, having to go through several menus to temporarily mute the audio instructions or to change the map orientation (from North upwards to your direction upwards). While you can get gas stations or restaurants or other points of interest to show up at certain zoom levels, getting a list of them eluded us. At some times, the knob was oriented in the wrong direction (that is, turning the knob right moved the cursor up instead of down). The traffic avoidance feature is also complicated compared to other systems, but there is a redeeming point there - most of the time, you actually have to get to a traffic jam to tell the system to avoid it; the VW system lets you describe traffic at a future part of the journey.

The features which are the greatest improvements over some competing systems - nearly all of which are faster, have road names, and allow single-button orientation changes - are the ease of entering destinations, and the second screen situated right in front of the driver. This one provides bare details on the route - to the tune of "turn left up there" - which is often all that the driver needs. It's good to have that information right in front of the driver.

Most vehicles with LCD screens use them as a way to set preferences and provide information, and VW's is no different, though most of this is done through the small instrument panel screen rather than the center console screen - not a big deal unless you want the passenger to do it. The control is mounted on the steering wheel and is rather awkward and not exactly self-explanatory; even with experience, we found ourselves often doing the wrong thing (usually, changing the CD track by accident). On the lighter side, you can set the usual lighting and locking features through a convenient menu system once you get the hang of it.


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