Finding Itself: Volkswagen’s Second-Generation Touareg

When Volkswagen released the Touareg in 2004, no one really knew what to do with it. Marking VW’s first foray into the modern SUV market, the truck was solid and capable off-road, but inherited one thing from the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7 with which it shared a platform: an upmarket price tag. Customers weren’t expecting The People’s Car’s only offering in the off-road segment to start at $34,000, and figured that level would be reserved for the aforementioned luxury marques. To be fair, for that amount of money the VW offered a fair amount of features as standard, but for early adopters, this amount of gadgetry did come with quite a few electrical glitches, undermining the “luxury” tag Volkswagen affixed to the car. As the model years passed, customers started to understand what to expect when getting into a Touareg, and the glitches worked themselves out, but there was still some ambiguity to the truck’s image.

When Volkswagen released the second-generation Touareg for 2011, all questions were gone. The entry “VR6 Sport” model we tested comes with a decidedly luxury-level $45,600 price tag. And for that, even more equipment is piled onto the spec sheet. Back in 2004, we were swooning over the fact that the base model V6 came with heated leather as standard. Now, that feature is at risk of getting lost in a long list of standard luxuries. The standard features list on Volkswagen’s website is one that requires plenty of scrolling, no matter how big a monitor it’s viewed on. Punctuating that list is Volkswagen’s all-new massive eight-inch navigation system, Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming system with voice activation, HomeLink integration, and dual-zone climate control.

But just as toasty seats are just one of the many great features, those features tell only a small part of the 2011 Touareg’s story. The fit and finish of the interior meets Volkswagen’s high standards, then blows right past them. The materials are all soft-touch, and the fitment seems tight enough to be waterproof. The ergonomic, logical switchgear all falls easily to hand, but that’s to be expected from Volkswagen. From what our week showed us, gone are most of the electrical glitches; though we did manage to get the FM radio to only tune in one station, no matter which frequency it showed on the display. However, simply turning the car off then firing it up again seemed to fix the issue.

The exterior gets an upmarket makeover, too. Its front adopts the new VW corporate face, featuring LED daytime running lamps, and chrome trim abound. Under the hood, the VR6 uses the same 3.6-liter as the outgoing model, though that came as a mid-cycle refresh and added four-tenths of a liter and over 60 horsepower compared to the original Touareg motor. For 2011, the truck’s athleticism gains come from cutting over 200 pounds of weight, though the Touareg retains its truck-like driving feel. Do remember — even after a diet, this is 4711 pounds of metal. A new eight-speed automatic transmission that comes as standard does an incredible job at putting all 280 horsepower to work shifting that weight, while also increasing efficiency. Through our week with the car, we saw about 15 mpg, though that was biased heavily toward city driving. In our brief time on the highway, the Touareg felt planted and smooth at cruising speed. The eight-speed keeps the engine spinning slow and quiet, while updates to the aerodynamics and seals drops wind noise to new lows.

With the latest Touareg, Volkswagen seems to have figured out exactly what the truck stands for, though having the smaller, less expensive Tiguan now surely gives Volkswagen an opportunity to focus its range-topper toward more demanding customers. Customers, we think, have also come to accept a People’s Luxury SUV. The new Touareg isn’t just worth its price — we’d even consider it a bargain. But more importantly, it quells all confusion about the image of the car, and that’s a good thing. It may be close to stepping on the toes of Audi and Porsche, but we think VW showed just enough restraint to keep its whole group of platform-sharers happy.