On The Road Review: Volkswagen Touareg TDI

{youtube}JKVPZThQ2Bs&feature{/youtube} Sales numbers are the real benchmark for success in any new car market; if you can’t demonstrate growth, increase market share, or at least multiply profits, you will be eliminated by the bean-counters. Numbers can be manipulated, massaged and mutilated, but they seldom lie — they are the ultimate ‘you are what you are.’

For sales and product analysts it is plainly clear that the two-box crossover wagon format is here to stay for much more than a trend. Refined and distilled down to a distinct series of sizes — compact, midsize and full-size, all in various price ranges — these vehicles are often car-based, but almost always wagons that boast of fully independent suspensions that coddle occupants while providing a balanced ride and drive portfolio. Most of these crossovers have abandoned any pretense of being rugged off-road animals suitable for torturous terrain, instead combining today’s elevated state of electronic traction aids with viscous clutches and all-wheel drive systems to achieve credible ‘soft-roading’ status.


Of course, we also have seen a dramatic increase in the level of features, comfort and entertainment aids in today’s crossovers as well as luxury enhancements that used to be reserved for the super-premium class of vehicles. Buyers have grown to expect these improvements, and patrons are paying — dearly.

The last frontier has been how to achieve the desired levels of fuel efficiency that bureaucrats want while continuing to keep customer expectations of towing power, acceleration response, driving range and overall drivability within the paradigms that they have become accustomed too. This challenge is being met in varying degrees of success, with various technologies. This week’s Volkswagen Touareg TDI represents perhaps the best engineering effort thus far available to the masses.

For the uninitiated, the Touareg is Volkswagen’s midsize crossover offering. First developed with engineers from Porsche, this platform is the basis for both the uber-sports car maker’s Cayenne Crossover as well as Audi’s Q7.

The Touareg arrived on our shores in 2003, to much acclaim. Then available with V-6 and V-8 power, the Touareg broke ground on several fronts for VW — an automaker more known for its fuel-efficient cars rather than crossovers that could pull 7,700 pounds of trailer. In 2004, VW added a V-10 version of the Touareg — a turbo-diesel V-10 that made 553-pound/feet of peak torque and 310 horsepower. Although not available for sale in Maine, California and several other states at the time, the TDI V-10 made an appearance Downeast in 2006 and absolutely blew away any negative perceptions one might have had about the viability of a VW crossover, or, a VW crossover powered by a diesel engine. That Touareg was an all-star.

Fast forward to 2013 and Volkswagen has committed a lot of resources to its Clean Diesel, or Blue Diesel, program. Automotive consumers in all 50 states can now purchase turbo-diesel TDI versions of the latest Beetle while almost one-third of all new Passat and Jetta sedans are sold with TDI engines. The Golf also comes with TDI engines, plus VW may actually ship its latest diesel-powered Golf GTI — the GTD — to the States early next year.

The TDI version of the Jetta Sportwagon accounts for nearly 75 percent of all sales of that compact wagon, while the Touareg TDI shown here has displaced the V-8 model, leaving the Touareg lineup with the base 3.6-liter V-6 version, the 3.0-liter TDI and a new 3.0-liter V-6 hybrid model. The hybrid Touareg offers the most horsepower, 380 hp, while the TDI easily has the most torque — 406 pound/feet of peak torque that arrives at only 1,750 revs on the tachometer.

Each Touareg carries a new eight-speed automatic transmission, while all versions use a standard AWD drive-system.

Since the first-generation model, the Touareg has been a premium vehicle that is quite comparable to a Mercedes, Audi or BMW competitor rather than a Ford Edge or Nissan Murano or any of those similarly sized crossover wagons. The cabin is exquisitely detailed in our mid-level Lux trim, using rich-looking chocolate-brown leather throughout. Inlaid wood pieces, heavy stitching details and soft-touch plastics augment the VW’s presentation, while concise gauges, intuitive switches and buttons, plus precise switchgear, give the Touareg a cut-above feeling absent from some other rivals. Subtle things, such as how well the thick-rim steering wheel fits and feels in your hands, cements the positive impressions about the Touareg’s upscale interior design.

Seating is excellent as well, with a driver’s seat that created no discomfort after several lengthy travel days. Visibility also is generally very good, especially over to the right side of the vehicle. VW, however, has chosen to equip the Touareg with parking sensors that depict varying levels of proximity to obstructions rather than a clear back-up camera. I suppose that when the elements have blocked your rearward view, the sensors are still working.

Rear-seat occupants will revel in their space in the Touareg. The bench seat splits to glide back and forth for either more leg room or greater cargo room, while the seatbacks are also adjustable. There is a little bit of twisting necessary to gracefully exit, yet the head, leg, foot and hip room in the rear of the VW is excellent. In Lux trim, there also is a dual panel sunroof overhead plus a power liftgate outback.

Any time you have a vehicle that has a higher torque output than its horsepower rating, you can safely assume that A) the car or truck has ample power in reserve for passing, pulling, and playing, and B) that vehicle will be fun to drive swiftly or slowly. The Touareg TDI excels on both counts.

Cast aside all of your perceptions about diesel engines in cars, as the Touareg TDI behaves as well as — if not better — than the latest gasoline direct injection engines. You never smell any diesel fumes — urea-injection programming eliminates any noxious tailpipe emissions — plus the TDI engine is very quiet. You might hear a little bit louder idle if you were standing outside a cold Touareg TDI on startup, but inside, you never hear any of the typical clatter associated with diesels, and the Touareg is extremely quiet while accelerating or cruising at highway speeds.

But how does it run? Like a freight train with a rocket on its back.

Toe the TDI’s throttle and a firm push in your back is the strongest indication that you have summoned additional power. The eight-speed automatic seamlessly assists with the low-rev power produced by the 3.0-liter engine — a transmission that keeps the Touareg in the midst of its power-band for all of your driving needs. Heed the large dial on the right in the instrument panel though; the speedometer needle will sweep into triple digits before you have any clue that you are approaching illegal speeds.

And how is the fuel economy? Thought you would never ask…

The first long trip was all highway; late in the day, well over 300-total miles, more than 40-miles in a snowstorm, with perhaps a few speed limits fractured. The Touareg TDI returned 26-plus mpg. When the average speed hovered closer to a 60-65-mph average, mileage climbed to over 28 mpg — in real world calculations, not the slightly optimistic readings on the car’s trip computer.

This is a two-and-a-half-ton crossover wagon with full-time AWD driven energetically averaging 28 mpg. As with most VW TDI owners, exceeding the EPA mileage estimates for their vehicles is the norm, and this TDI — in patient hands — could easily average 30 mpg or better.

It also is quite impressive to climb aboard after refueling and resetting the Touareg’s trip computer; its total range is over 750 miles per tank.

OK, so there is the whole diesel vs. gasoline cost equation to calculate — and some buyers won’t get their fuel economy payback with the diesel engine — but know this: there are no performance reservations that would constrain anyone from savoring the joy that the TDI brings to the driving experience. The Touareg’s ride balance, adroit handling, quiet cabin and general versatility place it near the top of the pack — any pack. The TDI gives owners a very satisfying driving experience without compromise.

Bobbles, misses and hits include several oddities, often unique to German cars. There are dual sunvisors and the outside mirrors automatically fold in close to the car when you lock it, but there are no passive locks outside and the slippery keyfob inserts into the ignition where a push-button would work better. There are plenty of storage pockets plus an electric e-brake and one-touch up/down windows all around, but only one stage on the trip computer.

Overall, two thumbs up for the Touareg TDI. Swift, smooth, refined, powerful, comfortable, even thrifty, this midsize wagon has a lot to recommend itself.

In 2012, Volkswagen sold 10,553 Touaregs, a 28 percent increase over the previous year. Porsche sold 15,545 Cayennes, making the Touareg-derived crossover wagon the most popular Porsche of all. Audi sold another 11,000 Q7 wagons, an 18 percent improvement that reflects the greater expansion of the crossover market.

Touareg comes in Sport, Lux, Executive and Hybrid trims. Base power is a 280-hp 3.6-liter V-6 with EPA ratings of 16/23-mpg; the 3.0-liter TDI diesel V-6 is next with 240 hp for 2013 and 406 pound/feet of torque, while the hybrid model uses a 3.0-liter gasoline V-6 with battery power to make 380 hp. The TDI has EPA mileage estimates of 19/28-mpg while the hybrid’s rating is 20/24-mpg.

Base pricing starts at $43,375, with the TDI beginning at $46,875 and the Hybrid at $61,995. Tested TDI Lux lists for $53,225.

Lux trim includes: 19-inch alloy wheels, downhill descent control, eight-speed automatic, 12-way power front seats with memory, sliding rear seat with 40/20/40 folding seatback, tilt/telescoping multi-function steering wheel, Sirius satellite radio, navigation, park distance control, Bi-Xenon headlamps with LED driving lamps, rain-sensing wipers, power liftgate, trailering package. Also included are dual-panel panoramic sunroof, wood and leather interior with heated front seats and automatic climate system. New Volkswagens also come with three years of free scheduled maintenance.

The Touareg is built in Bratislava, Slovakia. Primary rivals include Mercedes M-class, BMW X3, Audi Q5, Infiniti EX35 and Jeep Grand Cherokee. All but the Infiniti will be available with diesel engines before the end of the year.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.