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km : First Drive

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19 March 2010

When the Touareg was first launched in 2004, Volkswagen was already fashionably late to the SUV party and needed to make a solid impression. While most of us expected the archetypal suburban utility vehicle, VW instead introduced a vehicle with the off-road worthiness of a Range Rover and the comfort of the best luxury sedans, genuinely impressing everyone with its ability to take passengers comfortably to the farthest reaches of terrain. With a true low-range gearbox, locking center and rear diffs, electronically adjustable ride height, variable rate shock absorbers and a plethora of electronic gizmos, the Touareg was a much larger tour de force than any of us expected — it even captured Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award in 2004. So after selling close to 500,000 units since its introduction the time has come for an all-new second generation. Bigger and stronger, yet lighter and more economical, the new model has received significant improvements; after driving it in Europe we can report that it is a worthy sequel to the original.



The 2011 Touareg is significant in the bigger picture for the Volkswagen Group as it shows VW is serious in its commitment to build an even better product, while improving fuel economy at the same time. VW claims an impressive 20 percent fuel economy improvement across the board in a vehicle that’s slightly larger — overall length is up 1.5 inches, all of that within the wheelbase, and width is up half an inch, although height is down a half an inch. Despite the lower, wider and longer proportions and a chassis that’s five percent stiffer, overall vehicle heft was trimmed by more than 400 pounds over the outgoing model.. The increased solidity coupled with numerous noise, vibration and harshness reductions results in an average reduction of two decibels of interior noise. Volkswagen stressed that these types of improvements are just the beginning in all new and future products.



So, first impressions? It would sound cliché to say the new Touareg looks better in person, but in the light of day, far away from the auto show turntable, all the new lines and proportions blend well. The truck looks like it went to fat camp and emerged tighter, taughter and considerably more fit than it did before. VW’s new corporate design language plays well on the Touareg with a more squared off look, sharper corners and an overall lower, wider and more masculine look. Whereas the last Touareg tended to look a little bloated, the new one has a bit more purposeful look that should resonate with buyers. Like most VW products, the detailing is exquisite, from the LEDs in the headlamps to the subtle surfacing in the sheetmetal. The design team spent some long hours sweating the little stuff on this one.



Moving to the interior you find more of the same attention to detail. In fact, quite a few of the journalists in attendance commented on the Audi-like interior bits. Whereas the last-generation Touareg felt a bit cramped inside, the new model benefits quite a bit from the extended wheelbase — particularly in the back seat, where there’s an additional 2.6 inches of legroom. The larger exterior dimensions are only part of the equation though as the entire floor structure was lowered approximately two inches as well. Volkswagen also redesigned and reshaped nearly every interior panel to maximize space efficiency. Existing Touareg owners will notice the increased roominess right away. Shoulder room is up over two inches, elbow room is up another 1.75 inches and front seat travel also increased two inches. In addition to the extra rear seat legroom, the rear bench itself can be slid forward and back six inches to give the rear hatch area more flexibility. The only glaring omission is the lack of a third-row seating option. Volkswagen says the Touareg and its platform-mate the Porsche Cayenne both offer a more “sport” oriented SUV and that there are other projects in the pipeline better suited to a family-hauling utility vehicle segment.



New climate controls appear to be borrowed from the Audi Q7 and a new eight-inch RDS-810 touch screen provides a welcome upgrade to the navigation and entertainment system. Volkswagen has added a seven-inch TFT full-color screen between the tach and speedo dials that is color-coded and provides additional information on infotainment and navigation functions for the driver. This new screen is very sharp with vibrant colors and provides quite a bit of information at the driver’s request. All in all, the new Touareg represents a significant upgrade to what was already a very nice interior.



The bigger news is in the drivetrain department, where Volkswagen is offering one gasoline engine, two diesels, and an all-new gas-electric hybrid. The 276-hp 3.6-liter VR6 is the base engine and gets minor tweaks largely to help improve emissions and economy. New fuel management, a new fluid honing process, new piston rings and lightweight forged pistons round out the changes to the venerable narrow-angle engine. The 236-hp 3.0-liter V6 TDI continues largely unchanged with a stout 405 lb.ft. of torque on tap. In Europe, the V10 TDI has been replaced by a 4.2-liter V8 TDI with 335 hp and a whopping 590 lb.ft. of torque. The V8 TDI gives nearly all the same power advantages of the outgoing V10 TDI but in a package that meets strict European EU5 emissions and boasts improved economy.



All of these engines will be mated to a new AL1000 eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission. This new box offers smoother shifts, a larger spread of gear ratios and the flexibility to have two overdrive gears that reduce rpms at highway cruising speeds up to 35 percent. In Europe, this transmission is also integral to a new stop-start engine (which isn’t coming to the U.S. for now). All three engines offer a stop-start function that turns off the engine when the truck comes to a complete stop and restarts the engine as soon as the brakes are released. Volkswagen spent a significant amount of time to ensure this feature is as transparent as possible and in our experience it was surprisingly unobtrusive. Simply roll to a stop and the engine silently shuts down. Release the brake and it seemingly zips right back to idle without a hint of starter noise.



In practice what you notice most about all of this is how seamless the whole experience is. The new transmission is buttery smooth with gear changes, and the computers always seem to choose the optimum gear at all times. The spread of ratios also means the engine has to work less and this translates into less overall noise. All three engines are capable performers with the V8 TDI taking top honors in the power department. Gobs of torque push you hard into your seat and mess with your head a bit as the acceleration seems far greater than it should be for something this big and heavy. The base gas-powered VR6 doesn’t offer the neck-snapping torque of the V8 TDI, but it does move the Touareg better than you would expect — thank the eight-speed transmission for that. Our favorite is the V6 TDI, as it offers the best fuel consumption, more power than the gas V6 and a far lower price tag than the premium V8 TDI.



Another important powertrain change is in the all-wheel-drive systems. The old 4xMotion system with low-range gear reduction and locking center and rear diffs is now an option and will only be available in Europe (again, for now). The base Touareg in Europe and all US models will get 4motion with a torsen differential from the Audi Q7. Since the air-suspension is tied into the 4xMotion system, this also means all US-bound Touaregs will have standard coil springs and hydraulic shocks with no option for the air suspension. The removal of the 4xMotion and air suspension, which the majority of Touareg owners probably never really needed, shaved a substantial 150 pounds of weight off the vehicle and reduced drivetrain losses as well, contributing to improvements in fuel economy.



What undoubtedly received the most attention at the launch, though, was Volkswagen’s new hybrid drivetrain. In the Touareg (and the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, which shares the setup) a parallel hybrid system was chosen. The hybrid module is integrated between a supercharged 328-hp 3.0-liter V6 gasoline engine and the new eight-speed automatic transmission. The system integrates a dry clutch mechanism as well as a 51-hp electric motor to boost the supercharged V6, which is borrowed from Audi’s S4. To make it compatible with the hybrid setup, the air conditioning compressor and water pump have been replaced by electrically-driven units. The hybrid module delivers a maximum of 221 lb-ft of torque.



Unique to this system is a clutch mechanism that permits the car to shut down the engine any time you are coasting at speed but keeps the hybrid drivetrain running to supplement power needs. Electricity is stored in a 174-pound high-capacity nickel metal hydride battery consisting of 240 individual cells residing in the spare tire well. That change means the hybrid rides on run-flat tires, which are also designed for low rolling resistance. Additionally, the hybrid uses an electro-hydraulic steering system and a regenerative braking system that can re-charge the batteries during braking to further increase efficiencies.



The hybrid system permits the Touareg to be driven purely on electric power without the combustion engine up to 31 mph. In practice this works, however the Touareg is neither small nor light and if you want to keep up with quick-moving traffic, you’ll need to press the accelerator down often enough to activate the gasoline engine. The hybrid also has an acceleration “boost” mode that permits you to take advantage of the full power of the engine and the full power of the hybrid drivetrain resulting in the potential to tap into 374 hp and a healthy 427 lb-ft. of torque. This “boost” mode is so much fun to tap into that you’ll quickly start to negate the positive benefits of the hybrid system by mashing the right pedal all the time.



Overall we found the hybrid to be pretty seamless and well executed for VW’s first effort. The coasting features that shut down the gas engine just plain work without an ounce of thought on your part, just as they should. In fact we often found ourselves looking down at the tach just to check when the engine was running and not running. If we had any complaints it would be that the brakes are too sensitive. While we are able to adjust to the sensitivity to an extent, this was a complaint voiced by all the journalists that drove the car. VW said the vehicles on hand were early production models and the final version will get tweaks before launch, so there is still time to work that one wrinkle out. Outside of that, VW’s first hybrid reflects some serious thought and work on refinement. The ultimate test though will be to see how VW prices the hybrid model, especially against the V6 TDI model.



The European models also boast a staggering number of electronic driving aids from lane departure systems to cruise distance control that will actually stop and restart the vehicle in stop and go traffic. It is a bit unnerving to think that people could rely on the vehicle to largely drive itself, and Volkswagen of America obviously feels the same way since most of these systems aren’t coming to the US. Final specs for American-market vehicles are still being worked out, but look for the 3.6-liter V6, V6 TDI and Hybrid models to be available around October this year. We’ll have drive impressions of the U.S. specific models in September before launch.



The new Touareg is a major step up from the current model — the weight and economy improvements being the most significant. We also found the new model to be flatter around curves, tighter in the steering rack and with less dive and squat. Like the fat kid in your high school who’s now a personal trainer, the Touareg has grown up and matured into a leaner, more athletic, more focused machine with vast improvements that everyone can benefit from.


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