Driven: 2008 Touareg VR6

Volkswagen was fashionably late to the SUV party with its Touareg SUV in 2004, but the truck more than made up for its tardiness with its combination of off-road capability, style, and European refinement – traditionally the hallmarks of Land Rovers – at prices competitive with domestic offerings. For Touareg’s fourth birthday, VW revisited its sport utility, giving it a subtle refresh and changing enough pieces that it is now given the title of “Touareg 2”.

Early incarnations of the base model Touareg were criticized for being ponderous; although the 3.2 V6 provided ample power for hot hatches and family sedans, it left VW’s largest vehicle wanting more. This time around, VW responded with a 3.6-liter direct-injected V6 mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission (the 4.2-liter V8 gets a bump to 350 horsepower, thanks to direct fuel injection, and the 310-horsepower V10 diesel is carried over). The resulting 280 horsepower won’t move mountains, but it’s plenty for a satisfying highway cruise.

Seamless shifts and peppy throttle response allowed passing of many a semi truck; the resulting sense of superiority kept us from slowing down. And, lo and behold, people yielded when they saw the car coming. The sight of the Touareg charging up a highway exit ramp caused a couple in a Volvo Cross Country to panic as they idled at the toll coin basket. Glancing nervously in the rearview and scouring pockets and cupholders for change, the VW’s visage psyched them out so thoroughly that they charged off with the toll unpaid, blowing through a traffic light on the other side of the toll plaza. “Maybe it was the big-ass chrome grille,” remarked my co-driver.

That massive shiny maw does have a more noble purpose; on first glance, the grille is the most obvious change. Touareg had been all but forgotten as the other members of the VW family received distinctive new front end treatments; now, the V6 proudly reestablishes Touareg’s place in the hierarchy with its attention-getting facade (matte chrome distinguishes the V8 FSI and V10 TDI trim levels).

Other body changes are subtle but comprehensive. Chrome eyebrows frame the resculpted headlamps, and our test car came equipped with the automatic, self-leveling Bi-Xenon option (included in the Lux Package). A more cleanly-integrated front bumper shares current VW styling cues, such as aggressive black mesh inserts and contrasting lower trim housing halogen projector fog lights. The updated taillights also share familial traits, a dark red glaze that’s not quite smoked, and devoid of the tacky clear lighting trend blighting the rear ends of several of Touareg’s competitors. Crowning the hatch is a sharp upper rear spoiler.

According to VW, the side mirrors were redesigned to improve airflow, a mere bonus compared to the mirrors’ ability to illustrate blind spots. The turn signals stretch across the front of the housing, visible to other motorists but hidden from the driver’s view so they don’t produce distracting reflections at night.

While the exterior’s curb appeal lies in its simplicity, flaunting clean lines like a badge of honor, the interior takes the opposite approach. Touareg’s cabin is often praised for fit and finish; this latest incarnation is no exception. However, although the materials are clean and classic, there are simply too many. The dash is a swath of textured plastic (our example was an unflattering brown) and trimmed with just about every material available: smooth plastic, brushed aluminum, the ubiquitous chrome, and heavily-lacquered walnut. Although the cool metal tones are harmonious with the Reed Green Metallic exterior, they seemed haphazard amongst the cockpit’s otherwise earthy palette. The “Cricket” tan leather seats are comfortable, and the 12-way power controls are easy to reach and intuitive.

Buyers of luxury SUVs craving the latest electronic gadgets won’t be found wanting. Every plane surrounding the driver, including the steering wheel, is peppered with controls and buttons and knobs controlling everything from the standard satellite radio and rear parking assist to the keyless start, four-zone climate control and trip computer functions. At night, those controls glow red; the blurry icons were so distracting that the only button I really wanted was one that would disable the others. Prospective buyers should set aside several hours to thumb through the owner’s manual, making heads or tails of the breadth and depth of features at their fingertips.

The most useful novelty on the Touareg isn’t in front of the driver at all – it’s the standard power hatch, which fully opens and closes by the touch of a button. It’s the best darn thing! I was so dazzled by this bit of whimsy that I found myself wondering if the mechanism could be retrofitted to the 2007 Rabbit currently residing in my garage. (Time will only tell.) The hatch also provides two 12v power outlets, a 110v outlet, and 31 cubic feet of cargo space.

Our test vehicle boasted the Dynaudio upgraded sound system (part of the Lux Plus Package) which includes 10 speakers, a 10-channel amp, and an in-dash Sirius satellite radio tuner. The omission of an auxiliary input or CD changer was startling on a vehicle marketed as providing ultimate driver comfort, but they, as well as an integrated iPod solution, are available on their own or with the Technologie Package (which also includes a rear-view camera and DVD navigation system). The Lux Plus package, which can be ordered only on top of the Lux package, boosted the MSRP of our tester to $46,300.

All that gadgetry provides an insulating effect on the highway (especially those of the flat, smooth, and sparsely-policed variety) but metropolitan drivers are likely to have their hands full with more immediate concerns. Though rural roads are where Touareg feels most natural, urban obstacles give VW’s engineering a chance to shine. It’s responsive and takes turns with ease, reminiscent of driving a much smaller vehicle; the taut steering is an absolute blessing on city streets where space is at a premium. The standard 4XMOTION four-wheel drive system keeps all corners planted through the tightest maneuvers. It was navigating the streets of Chicago where Touareg felt most like a driver’s car; not insignificantly, it is also where omission of a manual transmission across all Touareg models is most consequential.

The shift in trends away from true SUVs to soft-roader crossovers has taken its toll: VW sold 578 Touaregs in July of 2007, as compared to 636 of the outgoing model in July of 2006. It seems that if the extra 40 HP doesn’t entice owners to upgrade, exterior updates on the Joneses’ ’08 down the street might not make an impact. Also, Audi’s similarly priced and equipped Q7, of which 1,661 were moved this July, may be cannibalizing sales.

Despite lagging Touareg sales, Volkswagen has shown that it’s not ready to relinquish market share just yet. The Tiguan, a smaller crossover SUV, will join Touareg in Volkswagen’s lineup when it goes on sale in May of 2008.

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