Model Rewind: Volkswagen Touareg

With the passing of the North American Volkswagen Touareg, let’s take a look back at this groundbreaking (for VW)  model.

Educated guessing. When any automaker enters a new market they can research data for years, but there has to be an element of “this seems like a good idea” when it comes time to make important decisions. The thing is it takes many years to launch an entirely new vehicle. What is hot now may not be when the car hits showrooms.

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Volkswagen’s first SUV, the Touareg, should have been a home run when it was released in North America as a 2004 model. It was very well received by auto journalists the world over; it was Car and Driver’s Best Luxury SUV for 2003, Motor Trend’s Sport Utility of the Year for 2004, and most notably, Four Wheeler magazine’s 2005 Four Wheeler of the Year. They praised the T’reg for its smooth and supple on-road ride, its incredible off-road ability, its technologically advanced AWD system with multiple drivetrain ‘modes’ for different environments, and above all, its exceptionally luxurious interior. While it weighed a lot and had a hefty starting price of $35,000, the general consensus was that it was worthy of the higher price. Very impressive press for a “first try.”

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So why wasn’t the Touareg the sales success the early press predicted? It may come back to the educated guesses made in the development process. You see, there was a time when the paramount feature of any truck-like vehicle was its off road prowess. Back in the 90’s the emphasis for SUVs was almost entirely on approach and departure angles, water-fording depth, suspension travel, and ground clearance. These 90s trucks were, well, trucks. They were workhorses masquerading as station wagons.

While early SUV buyers in the 1990s loved the go-anywhere possibility these early ‘utes offered, they quickly grew tired of the poor ride and handling and the lousy fuel economy. Manufacturers reacted to the change and rolled out unibody “crossovers.” So while the press seemed to love the Touareg, if you go back and read reviews, they compare it not only to the Land Rover Discovery and the Volvo XC90, but also to the Acura MDX and the Nissan Murano CUVs. And almost all reviews mentioned the lack of a third-row seat. This shows how quickly the market moved during the early 2000s: from being able to climb every trail to being able to get the family and the grandparents to the family reunion.

It’s also interesting to note that one magazine stated a Jetta-based CUV could have been an option for VW to enter this market; that was a 2003 article.

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The nice thing is the Touareg was a damn fine vehicle. Sedan-like handling on streets, and rock climbing abilities off road. And the options! Adjustable air suspension, specific terrain modes, four-zone climate control, rich Nappa leather, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and much more. VW’s first SUV hit the market with a competitive V6, a torquey optional V8, and a bonkers V-10 TDI engine with enough power to pull a Boeing 747. For Volkswagen enthusiasts that had to shop elsewhere for an off-road vehicle, they now had an incredible and ridiculous credible option. Forbes magazine took a stock Touareg V8 to Moab Utah and the truck traversed the trails without breaking a sweat. The T’reg was the real deal.

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With all the positives, the Touareg never achieved sales success as a Volkswagen. The Touareg allowed Audi to offer the long wheelbase Q7 model (with a third-row seat) that buyers flocked to. And of course the basic Touareg architecture begat the first SUV from Porsche, the Cayenne. Purists cried at the thought of a Porsche truck, and execs cried tears of joy at the new found profits. So while the truck of People’s Car company never quite caught on, it did bring successes to its siblings. So educated guessing can work out in the end.