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October 31, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Touareg a diesel rhino, reborn for suburbia

New York Times News Service

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The VW Touareg TDI includes a glass roof and real-wood dashboard trim. (Volkswagen)

The last time I drove a Touareg TDI, it was the muscle-bound 10-cylinder version that VW slipped into the country for a few months at the end of 2006. A rhinoceros with a saddle, that Touareg had a twin-turbo diesel that was perhaps overqualified for the duties of a luxury SUV in contemporary America.

Do you really need 553 pound-feet of torque to pick up kale at the farmers' market? Only if you buy your kale by the ton. And even then, I think 406 pound-feet will get the job done.
That's the torque number for the current diesel powerplant, a V-6 that can also be found in the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne. The engine received some minor revisions for 2013, including a power bump to 240 horses and a new block that shed 55 pounds, but the 2012 model that I drove felt sprightly in its own right. (VW quoted a zero-to-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds for the 2006 V-10; the 2013 TDI is clocked at 7.9 seconds.)

This latest version of the Touareg was introduced for the 2011 model year and is up to 350 pounds lighter than its predecessor. It also benefits from an eight-speed transmission, which helps to maximize fuel economy and on-the-boil acceleration. If there were no such thing as a gasoline Touareg, you wouldn't miss it. Except, that is, where it comes to price, because the TDI carries a $3,500 premium over the gas model.

Volkswagen Touareg TDI Lux
  • What is it? A diesel-powered all-wheel-drive SUV that is the flagship of VW's American line.
  • How much? $53,225 base price. That's also the as-tested price because the Lux is, by definition, luxurious.
  • What's under the hood? Turbocharged 3-liter V-6 (225 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque) with eight-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive.
  • Is it thirsty? By SUV standards, it's a mileage champ, with EPA ratings of 19 mpg (city) and 28 mpg (highway). For 2013, those numbers rise to 20/29.

But even at its $47,800 base price, the Touareg TDI seems like a square deal. Given that you can push a Ford Explorer above $50,000 with options, and the brother-from-another-mother Porsche Cayenne diesel costs $56,725, the Touareg seems reasonable by comparison.

Although Volkswagen aggressively removed features and cut prices on the Passat, the Touareg remains confidently sumptuous. The Lux model I drove included saddle brown leather upholstery, real-wood dashboard trim and a 57-inch-long glass roof that bathed the interior in natural light. Urbanites will appreciate that you can limit the opening height of the power hatch, thus pre-empting hatch-on-ceiling violence in the cramped subterranean garages that are common in cities.

Volkswagen so knows its Touareg audience that the rear cargo area even includes elastic straps built into the wall. I suppose you could use the straps to secure any type of tall, tippy cargo, but they seem explicitly intended to keep your cabernet from rolling around on the way home from the market. It's as if Volkswagen ran a focus group that consisted entirely of Sandra Lee.

The driving experience is in keeping with the interior appointments, polished and serene except for a muted whistle from the turbocharger. If not for the relentless torque and relatively low redline (the horsepower peak arrives at 4,000 rpm), you might not guess you're driving a diesel. On that point, bright panicky warnings inside the fuel filler door beseech you not to fill the tank with super unleaded. I'm sure it will happen anyway.

If you expect your Touareg to go rock-crawling, it will fare better than its crossover competition, but the height-adjustable air suspension, low-range transfer case and locking center differential went out in the 2011 redesign. The all-wheel-drive system's default split of torque — 40 percent front, 60 percent rear — is the same as that of the high-performance Audi RS5, belying a priority toward on-pavement handling rewards. But if you find yourself driving on the beach, I'm sure the Touareg will comport itself just fine.

With its natty interior and distinctive combination of power and efficiency, the Touareg TDI executes a trick that eluded the Phaeton grand sedan, coming across as simultaneously unpretentious, yet just as upscale-covetable as its luxury-branded competition.

In 2006, I thought that the V-10 TDI would be seen as a high-water mark for the Touareg, but now we have a leaner diesel machine that's nearly as quick but squeezes out six more miles per gallon and costs about $20,000 less. (The 2006 model that I tested rang in at an inflation-adjusted $72,935.)

If you ponder the things that are cheaper now than they were in 2006, it's mostly a list of grim calamities like Las Vegas real estate and Lehman Brothers stock. Who knew that the Touareg TDI would join the happy flatscreen-TV side of the purchase-power chart? And a good thing, too, because kale isn't getting any cheaper.

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