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First Drive: 2008 Touareg V8

Fresh from directing Volkswagen’s series of Safe Happens commercials, the king of one-take stunts Dan Bradley is spending his St. Patrick’s Day under the Brooklyn Bridge, setting up the climax of the upcoming The Bourne Ultimatum‘s final car chase. Three new, second-generation Touaregs were supplied by Volkswagen for this scene, and two were destroyed filming head-on collisions the previous day. The other will meet its end shortly. On cue, the third Touareg punts Matt Damon’s stolen NYPD Impala onto a concrete median, pushing it seventy feet before crashing into a utility truck, at which point a pneumatic ram launches the Touareg and Impala ass-over-teakettle, depositing them in buckled, twisted heaps on the ground.

The Bourne Ultimatum‘s New York chase marks the most prominent placement of Volkswagen’s Touareg in recent memory and, if sales figures are any indication, its flirting with stardom can’t come soon enough. The three vehicles wrecked in Bourne equaled a fifth of one April day’s North American Touareg sales, and hoists in stature from action films are fleeting. Something, obviously, had to be done.

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It’s been twenty years since the Range Rover introduced Americans to the concept that a truck can be both regal and capable – Queen Elizabeth in Carhartts, if you will – and since its introduction four years ago, Touareg has followed firmly in its tire tracks. Like the Range Rover, Touareg isn’t all about broad shoulders and bushland berserking. It is immensely coddling, isolating its occupants from both rutted undergrowth and the city’s concrete intestines with equal aplomb.

For 2008, Volkswagen pulled the covers off a refreshed Touareg, one that it believes is such a departure from the original that it’s referred to internally as Touareg 2. We had an opportunity to experience it firsthand in Spain, where we navigated the claustrophobic streets of Barcelona and the rocky, pockmarked foothills of Monserrat Mountain in the new Touareg.

New, as it applies to the Touareg, is a bit of a misnomer. “It’s a facelift,” says David Goggins, Volkswagen’s U.S. product and marketing honcho. “Of course it’s a facelift.” Exterior updates are limited to bolt-on parts. A new front end wears the Volkswagen corporate “waterfall” grille (chrome on V6 models, matte-finish chrome on V8s and diesels) flanked by polished “whiskers”, and curvier headlamps with scallops for the low-beam reflectors give Touareg VW’s familial design cues. Larger side mirrors are the high point of the truck’s flanks, while Touareg’s rump gets a redesigned spoiler on the roof’s trailing edge and a pair of new exhaust tips. New wheels and four new colors round out the revisions.

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Inside, there’s a larger color display for the trip computer sandwiched between the speedometer and tach, which can now show pressures at all four tires and, when off-road, how many degrees of steering input the driver is feeding. The power seat controls have also been redesigned so they fall readily to hand – a frequent grievance with the outgoing model. A keyless start and entry system is now available, allowing the driver to unlock the truck with a pushbutton on the door handle and start it with a switch on the center console. A ten-speaker stereo with single CD is standard, and there’s even a 620-watt upgrade from Danish loudspeaker builder Dynaudio, but multiple CDs still require trips around back to feed the optional rear-mounted six-disc changer. Models with navigation have an auxiliary input jack for MP3 players, but non-navigation models require a dealer-installed adapter that works only with Apple’s iPod. To VW’s credit, all Touaregs come standard with Sirius satellite radios and three months of service.

The old 3.2-liter V6 engine and 4.2-liter V8 were given their walking papers during the tail end of the 2007 model year, and were replaced by a 3.6-liter liter V6 and an upgraded 4.2-liter V8 cribbed from Audi’s Q7 – little surprise, as both trucks are built at the same plant in Bratislava, Slovakia. The two engines carry over unchanged into the 2008 Touareg and utilize direct fuel injection (known as “FSI” in Volkswagen argot) to simultaneously increase power and efficiency, resulting in 280 peak horsepower at 6,200 rpm with 265 lbs-ft of torque from the V6, while the V8 makes 350 horsepower with 325 lbs-ft of torque on call. Picking the V6 will set you back $39,320, while a V8 is $9,000 more but includes more standard goodies like Cricket leather, wood trim and adaptive HID headlights.

The top engine choice, a 5.0-liter V10 TDI, rests comfortably at a power – and price – stratum higher than its gas-powered siblings. Nothing about the ten-cylinder diesel says “moderation”, from its 310 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, to an oil capacity rivaling a bucket of driveway sealer, to the $68,320 price of admission. Only allowed in the 43 states that haven’t adopted California’s air quality guidelines, the V10 will be phased out by the end of 2008, making way for a 225-horsepower 3.0-liter diesel V6 that uses urea injection to achieve 50-state emissions compliance.

The brakes have been given an inordinate amount of love for the Touareg redesign, with two new features: The first is ESP dry-braking, which uses the brake pads to massage the rotors at specific intervals, wiping away water-film buildup when it’s raining. The other, ABSplus, lets the wheels lock up when on gravel or sand, creating little wedges of road material in front of the tires that shorten braking distance by up to 20 percent.

Two other new gadgets – a power tailgate and rear parking assist – are standard across all models.

The Touareg provided to us was a V8 model loaded to the gills with every option, including VW’s slick air suspension that allows manual adjustments to Touareg’s ride height, from a 6.3-inch squat for loading to a full 11.8-inch stilt walk for off-roading at speeds below 12mph.

After a quick check to make sure we had enough gas, Volkswagen set us loose in the free-for-all that is rush-hour Barcelona, where we were easily the largest vehicle on the road. Touareg is wide through the hips – wider, in fact, than it is tall – but it never felt hard to place on the road, even on the comically narrow Spanish streets where angry three-piece executives riding angrier two-stroke scooters flit and buzz and dart into traffic holes that are just large enough to fit them, and even some that aren’t.

The city fell away after twenty minutes, leaving gaping stretches of highway where Touareg settles down into a quiet, deceptively placid, ride; the air suspension’s comfort setting soaking up pavement breaks and washboarded grooves that would have turned traditional SUVs into buckboards. Above 87mph, Touareg squats down an inch, lowering its center of gravity and firming up its dampers until there’s as much suspension play as a CN rail car.

Steering is – regrettably – muted by the electrohydraulic power steering system, partly because it’s been damped so off-road obstacles don’t wrench the wheel out of the driver’s hands, and partly because a 5,300-pound truck, even with low-profile 45-series tires, is a slave to its own inertia. Expecting sports-car reactions from a SUV is madness, but Touareg’s steering wheel phones in any communications between the seat and the road.

That 5,300-pound weight is the result of Touareg’s extremely stiff body shell – hike one tire up on a rock so the truck teeter-totters back and forth, and the sunroof will still slide back, the doors slam with a reassuring thunk and the power tailgate will motor open and close in a smooth ballet of technology. It also means that shocks can be firmed and spring rates increased without the body going jiggly, so Touareg echews the traditional SUV’s under-damped propensity to turn into a happy drinking bird in strong crosswinds, semi-trailer eddies and quick maneuvers.

Braking is, likewise, supremely confident. With 13″ vented discs front and rear, Touareg is able to haul itself down to a dead stop without undue drama or getting up on tiptoe – perfect for those times when, say, verifying that the air suspension hunkers down above 87mph and an asthmatic Peugeot 205, chuffing like an exhausted horse, scampers out from the shoulder without looking. The oversized brakes, in addition to the heavy curb weight and reinforced chassis, means that all Touaregs are rated to tow 7,716 pounds.

After seventy miles of avoiding city cars breathing hard in the right lane, we arrived at Les Comes, a 10th-century villa on the outskirts of Montserrat which, surviving a fire in 1986, turned its two square miles of craggy outcroppings into a playground for off-roaders. The conglomerate mountain rock could almost be from another planet, and it’s there we discovered that, unless you are truly brave, you’ll never learn the extent of the Touareg’s off-road development.

With the air suspension dialed to full height and the transfer case put into low gearing range, Touareg – on its all-season tires – climbed its way up mossy and wet stones; crawled lengthwise across 45-degree embankments that had us seeing trees out the sunroof and ambled its way down a 1/4 mile stretch of mountain face without touching the brakes as its hill-descent control maintained a steady 6mph. Touareg is almost too competent in this sense, so utterly capable of dominating whatever peeks over the hood that obstacles come and go without so much as a clammy palm, let alone a puckered sphincter.

As it sits, Touareg occupies a unique niche in the market – engineering fit for royalty at proletarian prices, with the ability to turn novice off-roaders’ ham fists into sirloins of pork. And people who can appreciate that something overbuilt for the trail is nigh indestructible in the suburbs are, in a nutshell, who Touareg is built for.

As long as there are buyers who want something which is not merely adequate at its job, a vehicle which wasn’t sketched to meet the minimum requirements of a committee, which hasn’t been focus-grouped into inoffensive, underwhelming tedium, there will always be a market for Touareg. But with competition from car-based crossovers pressing down hard, the question remains as to whether or not enough of those buyers remain to keep the model afloat; and that might yet prove that there are some obstacles that not even Touareg can surmount.

Some Like it Dirty: Volkswagen’s Dakar Touareg 2

If you had asked me to describe the three jobs that I most imagined Hell to be like, the list would read something like this:

  • “Personal hygiene assistant” at a camp for the morbidly overweight
  • Porta-john cleanup duty in the wake of Woodstock ’94
  • Strapping myself into a Dakar Race Touareg and flying off mountain ledges at speeds which make even the hardiest testicles retreat up into their host

    I was running that list in my mind as a member of the Dakar Touareg support team handed over a scuffed and bruised helmet. He noticed my apprehension at its mangled condition. “Don’t vorry,” he chuckled, clapping me on the back with a huge German hand, “zat is just from ze roll bar!

    This wasn’t going to be as bad as I had thought it would be. It would be worse.

    After my graceless entrance over the Touareg’s door bar, the German latches the five-point harness and cinches the slack out of it until I had become one with the passenger seat. To my left is Volkswagen factory driver Mark Miller, who had just clinched ten of 14 possible stage victories in the Dakar Rally and led the event for eight days until a broken rocker arm in the race truck dropped the team out of first place. He has the satisfied look – and the gregarious demeanor – of a man who realizes his fortune in being paid to do what others would sacrifice for a chance to volunteer at.

    “You all set?” he asks me though his helmet mic. I take a quick stock of my appendages before turning and nodding.

    “Let’s do this.”

    The BFGs bite into the soft Catalan sand and the Touareg rockets off, far faster than a 3,900 pound truck with only 285 horsepower from its 2.5-liter five-cylinder TDI should. The diesel makes a muted roar in the background, drowned by a tortured warble from the turbocharger and the rattling of every panel, harness and riveted pane of Lexan fixed to the chassis. The Touareg’s twin shocks do their best to be compliant as we mow down underbrush with wild abandon.

    Reality is inverted when riding in a rally truck. After spending the morning trundling over rocks in production Touaregs with the engines just off idle, careering over piles of brush at highway speeds seems unnatural and more than a little disturbing, in the same way that a semi truck which says “Neutrogena” on the side is. The considerably narrow cone of the considerably alert screen of my considerably terrified mental radar is focused five hundred feet down the path, where the Touareg will be in less time than it took to read this sentence. Time and space gets compressed. So does my spine.

    None of this fazes Miller, who is no more tense than he’d be driving to the store for milk. His arms aren’t locked and his body is flowing in rhythm with the undulations of the chassis. It’s at this point I realize he’s been trying to chat me up over the headset, and the blood pounding in my ears had tuned him out. Miller realizes this, too, and a smile spreads across his face. He hews the steering wheel right and the Touareg darts outside of the trail, barreling off a dirt ledge to fly for a few seconds before dropping five feet to the ground as my intestines unknot themselves from my brain stem. As the truck regains its purchase, Miller throws the Touareg into a quick pendulum turn around a ninety-degree bend, kicking up a spectacular rooster tail of dust that blots out everything in the mirrors.

    As the Touareg continues to pummel the terrain and Miller works the sequential gearshift, I realize that I’ve worked through my fear and have found elation on the other side. I am whooping with excitement, a deep, genuine laugh that comes from somewhere under the lungs. Two laps later, the ride is over and we coast to a stop at the support tent. The same beefy German who secured the harness helps extract me from the roll cage and unstrap the helmet, and I realize that my hair has matted itself into a briquette underneath my head sock. Back on the ground, I turn to shake Mark Miller’s hand, but another journalist waiting in the wings had already been strapped down and the pair was off, just a distant plume of dirt and the whine of a compressor turbine in the distance.

    You haff a good time?” asks the German.

    “I can die a happy man,” I tell him, plunking the helmet into his hand, before turning and walking off into the warmth of the yellow Spanish sun.



    For more photos related to the Dakar Touareg, click on the link to our gallery at the right.


  • Statistics: 2008 Volkswagen Touareg 4.2 V8

    Base Price- $48,320

    Destination- Not Available at Press

    Major Options Prices-Lux Plus Package (Keyless access, Keyless start/stop, Dynaudio sound system, Four-zone climatronic climate control, Heated rear seats) – $3400 Technologie Package (Upgraded sound system, Rear-view camera, Auxiliary input jack for sound system, Six-disc CD changer in cargo area, Navigation system with remote display in instrument cluster) – $3350 Rear Differential Lock – $700 Four corner air suspension with continuous damping control (requires Lux Package on V6 models)- $2750 Trailer hitch- $500

    Price as Tested- $59,020

    Technical Specifications:

    General:

    Weight- 5300 lbs

    Length- 187.2 in

    Wheelbase- 112.4 in

    Width- 75.9 in

    Height- 68.0 in

    Track, F- 65.2 in

    Track, R- 65.7 in

    Drag coefficient (Cd) – .41

    Engine:

    4.2-liter 90-degree V8, 40 valves

    Bore- 84.5 mm

    Stroke- 93.0 mm

    Compression- 11.0:1

    Max Power- 350 hp @ 6200 rpm

    Max Torque- 325 lb-ft @ 3000-4000 rpm

    Fuel- 91 Octane Unleaded Gasoline

    Fuel Economy, city/highway- 12/17 mpg (2008 EPA standard)

    Drivetrain:

    Drive Layout- Front Engine/ 4XMOTION four-wheel Drive

    Transmission- Hydromechanical automatic; 6 Forward Speeds

    Chassis:

    Front Suspension- Double wishbone independent, height-adjustable air suspension with six ride heights and three damping settings

    Rear Suspension- Four-link independent, height-adjustable air suspension with six ride heights and three damping settings

    Steering- Electromechanical power rack-and-pinion

    Front Brakes- 330mm vented rotors

    Rear Brakes- 30mm vented rotors

    Wheels/Tires- 9Jx19 alloy wheels, 275/45R19 all season tires, 197/75R18 inflatable spare tire



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    For more photos related to this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.


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