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by David Zatz
Imagine, if you will, a spacious SUV/crossover that provides the cornering of the Fiat 500, but with a smooth, luxurious ride and quiet, effortless acceleration. That is today’s Volkswagen Touareg, a car whose basics are shared by some Audis, the Volkswagen Phaeton, and the Porsche Cayenne.
While there are many family differences, the Volkswagen clearly benefits from being in the same stable as the Audi and Porsche. The downsides are the cost and the controls.
The Touareg, like Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, has an eight-speed automatic transmission, and three engine choices. Volkswagen’s 3.6 liter V6 is a pretty close match for Jeep’s, as is their V6 diesel. (Dodge Durango has these options as well.)
Volkswagen’s most powerful setup is no longer a V8 or V10, but a 380-horse hybrid-electric setup that fits between than the Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.7 and 6.4 Hemis. The electric motor (good for 47 horsepower and a whole lot of torque) is good for high breakaway torque, while the setup gets better fuel economy around town than any gasoline engine Jeep or Dodge have, by a good margin. Jeep does have a faster vehicle, the 470-horse SRT V8, which gulps down fuel but gets to 60 (or 100) much faster.
Volkswagen does well with its premium engines, but the base V6 doesn’t really offer any compelling advantage over the Chrysler V6. In our drives, the base engine’s gas mileage wasn’t anywhere near that of the Grand Cherokee, though power is similar, it takes premium instead of regular, and the car it’s in costs an extra $13,000. (For what it’s worth, the Audi version costs even more.) As a side note, it appears to take 5W30 oil, but the cap only says to use Castrol — a commercial endorsement in place of information.
When you get up to the high end, things change: the diesel is less powerful but faster, and gets slightly better mileage, albeit at a $9,000 premium. The hybrid easily beats the base Hemi in gas mileage and speed, and though it doesn’t do quite nearly as well in speed, it has better mileage by far, matching the Jeep diesel in city mileage and beating the two Jeep V8s on the highway.
One place the Touareg is clearly different from the Jeep and Dodge SUVs is in cornering. It takes sharp turns with aplomb, feeling like a sport sedan, not a large crossover. Bumps and poor road surfaces are very well cushioned, indeed, yet I’d bet that the Touareg will easily outperform the Dodge and Jeep on a road course.
If you like taking the turns very quickly, but want a cushy ride, the Volkswagen has a definite advantage over the Dodge and Jeep. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, nimble as it is, had much more of a feeling of being top-heavy, and didn’t filter out bumps and bad pavement as well. (That said, certain rough cement surfaces were both noisy and full of vibration.)
The Touareg is tuned so you feel the acceleration, but it’s still surprisingly smooth; we’re not sure how they managed it, but it feels as quick as our much-faster Chrysler 300C V6, while turning in a 0-62 time of around 7.8 seconds (the 300C is good for 6.6 seconds, but it’s much lighter).
How VW manages to get such good acceleration is an interesting question, since their Touareg is actually heavier than the Jeep Grand Cherokee — and larger, too, inside. (All comparisons on this page are between the Touareg and all wheel drive Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos, since the Touareg is AWD-only.)
The seats are comfortable and well-padded, better than we’ve come to expect from Chrysler even today. They have enough bolster to keep people in place, and are fairly similar in both rows. While the Touareg is large enough for a third row, Volkswagen was smart enough not to add one, leaving a large cargo area instead.
Legroom is immense — yet, according to Volkswagen’s and Jeep’s own materials, the Jeep Grand Cherokee actually has more interior space and cargo volume... and it weighs less. We also have the related Dodge Durango in the comparison: it’s larger, but that space is largely taken up by the rear seats, which can of course be removed. Durango has no diesel or SRT option.
The black interior is relieved by a full-length moonroof, not unlike the SkySlider used by Jeep; a single knob allows one to quickly open the roof to any particular spot, while a cloth sun covering lets in the light but not direct sun glare, and has express open/close buttons (or can stop at any given point). It does take a while to travel from one end to the other, as one would expect.
The side mirrors are nice and large, and fold in automatically (at least on our Lux) when the ignition is shut off. There are puddle lights, turn signals in the mirrors, and such, with large, bright warnings when you want to change lanes and someone is in your blind spot (or you forget to look). This is what Chrysler calls “blind spot monitoring,” but Volkswagen makes it much more obvious (and distracting, if it mistakes a phone pole for a pedestrian). The rear view mirror is dimmed during the day as well as at night.
At night, interior lighting, via fashionable LEDs, is somewhat dim, though there is a very bright front dome light that illuminates the center console nicely, and separate lights for the foot wells. You can leave the dome light on, but I don’t recommend it. The various lights work via toggle, with no indication of whether they’re on or off, though you can figure it out. (The child locks are electronic, incidentally, and dimly backlit.)
The dashboard is neat and clean, and while the speedometer goes to 180 mph, it’s still easy to read due to a large size and sensible markings — even if it is a little busy due to having both mph and km/h markings (no GM-style switch to move from one to the other, here).
There is an option to show one’s speed in the opposite way as the main speedometer, in a smaller display — km/h if the big dial is in mph, and vice versa — and when cruise is locked in, the speed appears both as a pair of dots around the speedometer dial, showing the possible range, and as the locked-in speed, in small print. Going up and down appears to be done in 2.5 mph increments.
Hard controls have elegant if hard to read backlighting, from the AWD controls (on-road vs off-road) to the headlight switch, which now includes a position for “off” and one for parking lights.
Backlighting is white, not the egregious red or the comfortable amber used by Volkswagen in the past. White seems to be the new compromise between readability and night vision (especially since the digital informational displays are invariably designed separately, with white lettering).
Unlike many cars, including Chryslers, the print on the trip computer and large center-console monitor is large enough to be easily read under all conditions. This includes the odometer, trip odometer, outside temperature, gear, time, street name, and such.
Eventually, no doubt, owners get used to things like the four way plus end-of-stalk-knob wiper/washer, but the stereo and voice control systems are primitive, and the 8,000 rpm tachometer is a clear affectation when the redline is marked at 6,000 rpm. For that matter, — a 180 mph speedometer? Really? The top speed is likely around 130-140, respectable, but leaving lots of space on the dial. (Even if it’s slightly over 140, there’s a digital speedometer option on the gauge cluster, so they could just give you a standard 0-120 sweep and make at-a-glance judgments easier).
In Volkswagen tradition, the temperature and fuel numbers are not hidden. Temperature is shown in degrees Fahrenheit, and fuel in fractions. There are some odd gadgets, including a digital compass showing the car on a degree scale with North at 0 and, for example, West at 270°, perhaps more information, less readable, than you need.
In Touareg, “Lane Assist” vibrates the steering wheel to let the driver know they are about to leave their lane, if they seem to be drifting or don’t signal. It worked subtly and as expected; it does not, as Jeep’s system does, counter steer. It works starting at 65 km/h; and detects the lane even if there is only one lane marking, though faded paint makes it useless. There’s supposed to be a visual alert but we never saw it, even when showing the lane assistant in the dash (manually selected); that just shows when it was active.
There are two different rear parking displays, one that’s fairly common, and another that’s more bizarre. There is also an “in lane” feature (see sidebar), and an “optical parking” feature which was somewhat hard to figure out. Jeep has these features in Cherokee but not the higher Grand Cherokee. Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango both have the adaptive cruise control with adjustable distances.
Sound insulation is similar to the Dodge and Jeep, though the latter have louder engines.
Where both Jeep and Dodge have clear advantages, other than price, is in the user interface, and I’m not just referring to the stereo. Volkswagen has put a lot of money into the body and suspension, and taken it away from some of the controls, as well as making some, well, a little bizarre.
The lettering on the digital information displays is quite large, yet the lettering on hard controls is fairly small, particularly on the climate control. There are knobs for both left and right temperature (with an automatic pushbutton; the setup works but having buttons for the fan is cheaping out on a car of this price, and the symbols and words are just too small for rapid reading. The same goes for the headlights and the cryptic symbols on the stalks, though one gets used to that (and to the steering wheel controls).
Volkswagen uses a Toyota-style cruise control stalk, but unlike most companies that use one, they put it on the left, and made it so short it’s usually hidden by the steering wheel. All the stalks are very busy, with push, pull, up, down, and tip controls. (In case you’re wondering, the left-hand control includes the brights (push/pull), turn signals, and parking distance settings on the tip. The cruise has the speed (up/down), cancel, off, and resume (push/pull), set on the tip, and distance on top. On the right, there are front and rear washers and rear wiper (push/pull), front wipers (up/down), and speed (slider on top).
The transmission shifter is interesting as well; pull it down once for Drive, twice for Sport, presumably to save the cost of a button. The manumatic is more sensible, shove it to the right (and the display shows the gear), then forward to move up a gear and back to move down a gear. Sport mode seems to be identical to normal mode — shift quality and speed seems the same — but it apparently drops one gear down for faster responses. Generally, Sport mode seems unnecessary, given the fast kickdowns and general responsiveness. On the highway, Sport kept us in 7th gear, while Drive kept us in 8th.
There’s no cup holder cover, which is an affectation anyway. A knob allows one to easily switch into off-road mode, which shuts off the forward sensors.
The air conditioning is inadequate, requiring the blower to be on noisy mode much of the time, while still not cooling the SUV even in moderate (87°) weather — and on the highway. The huge moonroof (whose fabric cover was shut at the time) probably contributed but VW should have boosted the system’s capacity to compensate.
Now, let’s look at the stereo. Volkswagen uses a proprietary cable which attaches to an extension for your iPod or iPhone, with different cables for the old 30-pin and the new attachment, and presumably other cables for Android devices. There’s also a generic one for headphone jacks. This could all be replaced by a USB port, like Chrysler uses. However, if you want to be clever and put your music onto a cheap SD card instead, the car has two SD card slots, a CD player, and a hard drive; these go into the glove compartment. Pull the yellow lever, wait a while for the unit to slowly descend, and they plug right in and are quickly recognized.
Moving from album to album is unreasonably hard. Like Fiat, Volkswagen is organized around, and demands, playlists, so verbally telling the system to play a particular album or artist won't work. (Not that it often works on our Chrysler, but it’s supposed to, and presumably for people with just the right voice, it does).
So let’s say you’re listening to something and you want to change the record. On a Chrysler you press Browse, then use the knob to quickly go through artists or albums, or you press the steering wheel button and say “Play artist Dave Dudley,” and you very quickly get something by Credence Clearwater Revival or some other random artist. On the Volkswagen, you press Selection, then the ever so tiny folder-up icon, then if you want to change artists you press it again, and then you can use the relatively small but knurled knob to go up and down. Or, if you want to waste time or crash, you use the up and down buttons, which move you one album or artist at a time. (There’s also a scroll-bar button for moving rapidly but imprecisely.)
Ah, but what if you just want to quickly change the bass or balance? Then you press the physical Setup button, then Sound, then Treble-Bass (say), then you get nice analog-style displays and you can press the point on the scale where you want to be. Too many steps, but you get there.
There are some nice features, including physical/digital duplication and a special button just for traffic reports. The sound in our Lux was good but not great for new cars, and some Jeep/Dodge systems beat it, while others don’t match it.
One oddity is the ignition switch. Like Chrysler, they have a “keys stay in your pocket” pushbutton starter. Unlike Chrysler, they have a place to shove your keys in the dashboard if it's summertime. However, if you shove ’em into the slot, you can’t use the pushbutton; you have to start and shut off the car with the odd-feeling “turn right to start” setup.
We found out, when the car took our key and wouldn’t give it back, that there is also a “turn left to start up” function, and a “grab your key and don’t give it back” feature that eventually went gave in and unlocked the key. (When you put the key in, various systems audibly unlock.) And, oddly, the ignition key always defaults to the same position, instead of showing its status by its angle.
There are two positions rather than the traditional three — on/off rather than on/accessories/off. There's a sort of accessories-on if you don't have your foot on the brake when you switch to Start, just as on Dodge and Jeep, but it activates the fan and such. There’s no basic “radio and power outlets only” position.
Speaking of not showing status, it’s impossible to tell whether or not the doors are locked; there are no visible indicators at all. This is an odd cost savings in a car that sells at a high premium (compared with domestic competitors; it’s cheaper than the similar Audi).
The seat fold-down is a bit odd; to one side in the spacious cargo bay, one finds a pair of little electrical switches (many of the switches, dials, and knobs, not to mention the door handles, are undersized, though there’s plenty of space for them). These release the seats so you can open up the rear door and move them into place. The real way to do it is via the mechanical lever, so why have the switches at all? The nice thing, though, is that you can then push the seats down until they are locked level with the cargo bay.
There is no control to unlock the gas cap — because it doesn’t lock.
As for advantages over the Jeep and Dodge, there are quite a few. First is the triple seat memory rather than dual in the Mopars. Second is the automatic mirror fold-in, not available on most Jeep or Dodge trims. There’s a place to put your key, as we mentioned.
The dual sun visors are a nice touch: the first one pulls out of the way, and there’s a second one, so if you’re on a twisting road, you don’t need to constantly fight with visors. The same design is used on both sides. The visors are a bit small, but having two of them is still a nice touch that Chrysler used to have. They also push into their holders, instead of the odd push-past-pull-back design many cars have.
You can see in our charts above how the Touareg compares at each level with Dodge and Jeep counterparts, but what comes standard?
First of all, all Touaregs come with all wheel drive, shaming Jeep, which still makes rear wheel drive the standard on its Grand Cherokees. Our Lux had 19-inch wheels. Safety systems include side airbags for the front, side curtain airbags for front and rear, bright xenon headlights (in front, the brights are supposed to adapt so they don’t blind other drivers, shining around them but not at them). There is also a side assist lane change assistant, known to Mopar folk as blind spot protection; either way, it alerts you to someone in your way when you change lanes.
The audio came via a decent eight-speaker system that we found to be quite good but not as good as some of the Jeep and Dodge systems we’ve used. The touch screen is a full eight inches and seemed just as large as the Jeep 8.4 inch display. Graphics seemed more modern and nicely done.
We already mentioned the various stereo interfaces and such; as with just about every car, there is mobile phone connectivity. It also had leather seats, with dual-zone automatic climate control and a cooled glove box. The front seats were power adjustable (12 ways up front) with power lumbar support. There were front and rear foot well and map lights and illuminated vanity mirrors along with map lights.
The tailgate could go up manually or with power; it went down with power, given a shove or press of a button.
The electric parking brake is a bit of a nuisance but since most people don’t actually engage their hand-brakes properly, we can see why they use it. We could not figure out if it could be set up to automatically engage when we shifted into Park.
The usual gadgets were all present: cruise, trip computer, garage door opener, express power windows, LED daytime running lights and taillights, and front fog lamps. These also doubled as corner lamps.
The final features, again all standard on Lux, were power adjustable/folding/heated exterior mirrors with memory, an auto-dimming rearview and driver’s side exterior mirror, rain sensing wipers with heated washer nozzles (a life-saver at times), and — a hitch.
You can get a cheaper Jeep Grand Cherokee, but to outfit it roughly the same way would cost $46,450, still $10,000 less than the Volkswagen. (Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited AWD with Luxury Group I, $4,6200, and Trailer ow Group IV, $795). The Jeep would actually come with more standard features, including vented seats.
The warranty is better than Chrysler’s, with the same 3/36 standard bumper-to-bumper provision but a 10/100 powertrain setup and a 12 year corrosion-perforation (rust through) guarantee. Roadside assistance comes for three years or 36,000 miles. Volkswagen provides a year’s worth (or 10,000 miles) of free maintenance.
The sole option on our car was the driver assistance package, at $2,500. This included adaptive cruise control with “front assist” (warnings and automatic braking as needed), the lane departure warning, and a heated steering wheel.
Despite having to be shipped from Europe, the destination charge is actually lower than that of Jeep or Dodge, at $910. The total, then, came to $56,580.
You may wonder where it all came from. The car is assembled in Slovakia, as are 31% of the parts. The engine is from Germany, along with 36% of the parts. The transmission is a Japanese Aisin unit. US/Canadian parts were about 1% of the content — the owner’s manual? At the time of writing, no crash tests had been done.
Overall, in many ways, the Touareg is like the late Routan minivan. That van was essentially a Dodge with Volkswagen styling, high trim, and better tuning, and for extra money, buyers could get a sportier, more elegant-looking minivan than the Dodge.
Even with the base engine, the Touareg feels fast and is more responsive than it should be, by the numbers; the diesel and hybrids both have gobs more torque (admittedly the diesel has less horsepower) and are both faster and use less fuel. The diesel handily beats the Jeep/Dodge diesel, while the hybrid easily beats the Jeep/Dodge 5.7 Hemi (though it doesn’t come close to the Jeep SRT, nor is it as thirsty). The problem is heavy fuel consumption if you stick with that base engine, and high cost if you don’t.
The Touareg costs far more than the Jeep and Dodge equivalents, unless you compare hybrid to SRT, but you do get better cornering, greater comfort, different styling that we found nicer than the pricier Audi, and some neat features. The downsides are higher prices, fewer dealers, frustrating telematics, poor air conditioning, some weird places where VW decided to cheap out, and other quirks.
The ride/handling combination of the Volkswagen, and the attraction of the hybrid option, shows that Jeep has its work cut out for it with the upcoming WK3 — and that Chrysler has a high bar with its new crossover.
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