Volkswagen never really got into the SUV craze up until the new millennium. Their North American competitors basked in the high-margin, high-demand craze that saw vehicles like the Ford Explorer take over North America’s suburban highways. When VW announced the development of the PL71 large-SUV platform around 2002, a lot of people were anxious to see what would come to market considering VW’s long-time successes with their cars. What the world would actually see was a serious collaborative result with Audi and Porsche that ticked off all the right boxes with a little something for everybody.
Named after a nomadic people, many had trouble with its pronouciation in the beginning. I call it the “twa-reg”. It was a handsome two-box design with lots of clean lines, excellent visibility, and tons of utility. There was a wide variety of powertrains available, and a legitimate low-speed transfer case gave it points with the off-road enthusiasts. Diesel was made available right from the beginning, with the insane bi-turbo 5.0L V10 diesel engine. This engine focused more on performance and towing ability rather than outright efficiency, so fuel economy and overall emissions could never be described as being good. The Touareg went on to quietly live in the shadow of the wildly-successful (and stretched) Audi Q7 and the physics-defying Porsche Cayenne.
I picked up the comically-large key fob and scoped out my 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Highline. The second-generation was introduced in 2010 and largely kept the same profile as the outgoing model. Upright side proportions and an upright rear tailgate means lots of squared-off room for your stuff. The low sills allow for great visibility in all directions, including over your shoulders in the rear quarters. The headlights and front fascia follow VW’s newest somewhat-conservative family styling, but it still looks like a Touareg. Fun fact: there are two intercoolers for the engine, nestled within the air dams under each headlight. You can see the familial link between the Q7 and Cayenne – not a bad thing at all. My tester came equipped with 275-section Pirelli winter tires on 20-inch “Mallory” wheels that do a good job filling out the large wheel-wells. Of note are the large multi-piston brake calipers sitting over very large brake rotors. The question of whether the Touareg was just the “working man’s” version of its two more glamorous cousins came up from time to time.
Inside, the Touareg features VW’s typically excellent interior, finished in a beautiful Saddle Brown – a great compliment to the handsome exterior. You sit upright with lots of space in every direction. The seats are comfortable, and it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position with lots of adjustment available including electric lumbar support. The 8.5” screen in the centre console houses satellite navigation, audio, and climate controls, but there are enough hard buttons to make everything logical to operate. The instrument cluster gauges are laid-out in usual VW fashion as well, with the familiar LCD screen in the middle. Rear seat occupants are treated to generous accommodations, and the available panoramic sunroof brings the outside light in. Out back, the power lift-gate provides access to a very square opening, and the second-row of seats can fold down at the touch of a button.
The Touareg is available with a choice of engines. Gone are the days of the V8 and V10, but the two V6s that remain make a lot more sense in most applications. The base engine is a 3.6L V6 of the “VR6” variety. It’s not a bad choice for those who prefer gasoline, but I think the more appropriate powertrain is this TDI engine. This diesel-burning 3.0L V6 puts out a little less horsepower – 240hp at 3500rpm but impresses with a stump-pulling 406 lb-ft of torque at 1750-2250rpm. Both engine choices are paired up with an 8-speed automatic, great for keeping the engine in the meatiest part of its wide powerband. You do pay a small premium for the diesel engine, but you do make up for it at the fuel pumps, with about a 25% gain in highway efficiency. Eighth gear sees the big oil-burning beast lumber along at 1500rpm – downshifts aren’t even required for passing. If you do downshift, the surge of torque is wildly satisfying and sometimes surprising considering the nearly-5000lb. curb weight. The other big bonus is the huge range the diesels allow. With a 100L tank, 1000km per tank is very possible depending on the driving you do. VW rates the Touareg TDI at 10.8L/100km in the city and 6.7L/100km (!) on the highway. In mixed driving, I managed an impressive 9.4L/100km.
People have noted how expensive diesel is these days – while they are correct, it’s important to keep in mind that diesel is a much more power-dense fuel. A single litre of it can do so much more and get you farther down the road. While the impact on your wallet may not be much different nowadays compared to the gasoline model in day-to-day costs, having access to such a huge range between fillups is worth considering. There may be times where your body needs to stop for a break before the Touareg TDI does. There is an AdBlue diesel exhaust fluid reservoir that lives under the spare tire that does need to be topped up periodically.
In terms of driving dynamics, the Touareg TDI doesn’t surprise, considering its size and heft. The steering remains hydraulically-assisted, but don’t expect sports car levels of feedback here. It is accurate and does the job well. The sport suspension from the R-Line doesn’t actually change very much – comfort at low and high speeds remains excellent at all times. The impressive-looking multi-piston brakes also do the job, but brake feel isn’t great – one would almost describe it as being a little numb. The Volkswagen CC we recently tested felt the same way; it might just be a Volkswagen family thing. The TDI engine exhibits only a little bit of turbo lag before full boost comes on – first gear is short enough to mostly mitigate this. I never got a chance to take the Touareg off-road, but aggressive approach and departure angles (Jeep lingo here) and short-ish overhangs make for good credentials should you need them. There is no dedicated switch to enable the low-range transfer case, just a rotary switch near the shifter that enables “Off-Road mode”, which translates to electronic features such as hill descent control, and remapping of the ABS, throttle response, electronic differential lock, and transmission behaviour.
I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to put the Touareg through its paces by helping some friends move across the city. They are a young married couple – both teachers – and had a lot of random gadgets that needed to be moved. I folded the rear seats down and loaded up box after box. One small issue of note: while the cargo area is usefully shaped, the load floor is not completely flat with the rear seats folded down. There is a small step you need to get over when pushing boxes forward. Other than that, the Touareg swallowed up an impressive amount of stuff that young couples like to accumulate.
Thanks to the premium market positioning of the Q7 and Cayenne, it’s safe to assume the Touareg’s pricing wouldn’t be far off. My TDI Highline tester came very well equipped, with the aforementioned satellite navigation, full-leather seating surfaces, heated steering wheel, bi-xenon HID headlamps, 20” wheels, comfort access, the list goes on. It has pretty much everything one would expect for the price. My particular car also had the R-Line package, which adds many sporty cosmetic touches, such as brushed aluminum interior trim, tailgate spoiler, paddle shifters for the transmission, sport suspension, and the all-important R-Line badge on the front fenders. The Highline TDI itself stickers for $61,475, and the R-Line package adds another $3,475, which brings you to a subtotal of $64,950 as tested.
It’s a pretty decent value in itself considering the standard and available equipment, and also considering how the Touareg’s cousins ask for considerably more once you start checking some option boxes. A base Audi Q7 TDI, for comparison is right around the same price, but is about as well equipped as a loaded-up Touareg. You do get the third row of seating standard if that’s what you’re looking for, and then there’s the badge in the front grille. The Porsche Cayenne, while sharing similar underpinnings is easily the enthusiast’s choice, but it’s almost too easy to hit the $100,000 mark if you get excited with the options. The BMW X5 xDrive35d sits somewhere in between the Q7 and Cayenne, again, depending on the options selected. The dark horse in the room is the excellent Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel, new for this year. It matches the Touareg TDI in a lot of respects and is worth a look.
I’ve never been a big SUV kind of guy. I gravitate to smaller vehicles for their superior driving dynamics and overall efficiency. I think a good wagon can provide almost all of the cargo capacity while being much better to drive for the times you’re not moving houses. However, I can give credit where it’s due – the VW Touareg is an excellent SUV, and the TDI powertrain is the logical choice and makes everything better. The answer to my earlier question on whether the Touareg is just a working-man’s Audi or Porsche: not really. It’s different enough to be looked at by a slightly different target audience, but still upscale enough so you don’t feel like you’ve sold yourself short. Good job, Volkswagen.
2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Gallery