Nagpur airport, 10am. After the hustle and hurry of India's big metros, smaller town India, naturally, feels a little sleepier. The cabbies hustle less aggressively, the cop tells the chaps badly parked in the airport to move it more gently. Passengers who are coming home move more languidly than the big city folks who handle their luggage carts as if they were land-bound aircraft, maneuvering deftly, swiftly and unflaggingly to their cabs and then hassling their drivers into getting to their hotels quickly.
Amidst this lot sits a trio of brown coloured Touaregs, gleaming softly in the watery morning light. Ooh, that's not good. It's forecasted to be an overcast, gloomy day and the cars are going to be hard to shoot. But then I slip into the driver's seat and these random reflections recede revealing a plush, warm interior. It isn't a startlingly new layout or anything - cover all the logos and you'd still know that the cabin came from the Volkswagen Group - it is instantly slotted mentally as a high-quality, well-made cabin. You note the floating question mark about the nearly white beige leather of the seats and how they will age, you glance past the big screen, sans navigation there isn't much use for it really - music playing over Bluetooth off an iPad and the LCD readouts for the twin zone front aircon are readable enough for me to not worry about the screen for now.
Now we drive the new family-faced Touareg to a place about 90km away near the Tulia Gate of the Pench Wildlife Sanctuary, where an off-road course waits for us. That's going to be new for me. I've driven the Touareg before, first at the Shanghai F1 track in V10 TDI form - massively (size), massively (torque), massively (body-roll-ey but devastating performance) impressive. Then a couple of years ago, I piloted one from Paris to the port town of Le Havre and back. And marveled at its composure on smooth Euro highways, as well how easy it proved to be to manage the size of the car on narrow two-lane B-roads with big trucks going the other way, just inches away from oncoming traffic.
But this one is a new car. The Touareg has always had a genetic bond of sorts with its brothers, the Audi Q7 and the Porsche Cayenne - the trio share the same jointly developed platform. The original one had a lot of off-road equipment - a low ratio option, a manually lockable rear diff etc. In the second generation it takes the high technology road and there's a lot of off-road electronics and a ride height adjustment available which, VW is very thrilled with the performance of. And intend to scare the pants off us at their off-road track.
But most SUVs, as you know, spend their time on the road and here the Touareg promises to be an accomplished performer. The roads from Nagpur to our destination were on the Jabalpur highway, which let us say was for all intents and purposes an off-road course coated in tarmac so worn that had it been denim, you could have charged a phenomenal premium for it.
But the VW now packs adjustable suspension. Switch from the sharper but not superstiff feeling Sport mode to comfort and the intense battering that the road is handing to the underpinnings fades away significantly, bumps reduce to murmurs and a bass backtrack. There is more body roll to be sure, but you are left in no doubt about the absorptive capacity of the suspension. The ride quality is really mature, robust in nature, being able to handle long high speed sweepers, well at least the only one on our route with a good enough surface to permit it, without extraordinary body roll or wallow in normal mode. And yet, through some really frightening holes, the Touareg is able to attenuate the shock to just a thud sound and a murmur you feel through the seats.
I think the weak link is the engine. There wasn't much chance to work the 245PS and 550Nm 3-litre TDI V6, but the few times I planted my foot into the firewall to accomplish a quick overtake, the response was adequate and alert though not mind-blowingly quick. Maybe the memory of the V10 TDI colours my impression a bit. In the hands of a chauffeur, though, this will prove to be an effortless, spacious, soothing city and highway workhorse. And the 8-speed automatic transmission Volkswagen are offering in this might feel slow with a more powerful engine - I'm guessing here - but it feels like it dances in step with the current engine, upshifting unobtrusively and downshifting quickly enough.
Some might snigger that the Touareg looks a bit like a cruelly hopped-up Passat with a panoramic sunroof, an impression not reduced at all by the presence of a Passat in the off-road parking lot in nearly the same colour. And the family grille is squarely to blame for this. VW's devotion to this design ethos is not perplexing but I would certainly have been happier with a more defined variation in its flavours. But on its own, the combination of straight edges and the inherent sleekness of this VW design philosophy works well for the SUV. It looks wide, secure and purpose-oriented. And even the deliciously curvy Cayenne haunch you spot when you let your eyes linger on the car somehow fits in. It's a good looking car, straddling the space between flashy and anonymous neatly. I think it would look more personable in white or black and would be alarmingly attention-seeking in sportscar red. I understand that that last colour is not an option. Thank god.
The off-road course, which we were now supposed to drive looked innocuous to start with. Then the German instructors told us it was carefully designed to push the cars to their limits. The limits of angles of approach and departure, of ground clearance over a variety of obstacles, of traverse angle. And of course, there was a giant hill where you would experience the hill hold and then the hill descent functions.
But when you teeter on three wheels, tentatively gassing the V6, waiting for the floating front wheel to pass the balance point at which point it will fall through six feet of air, you realise that SUV owners are clueless about what their cars can handle. Or at least that's the case for the enormously capable Touareg. On the traverse, where the car is sideways at nearly 40 degrees, over the moguls where the SUV alternately paws the air with a wheel before dropping (gently if you're an ace on the throttle) deliberately and carrying on, over the 'tidal wave', the SUV proved happy. And obviously, hill hold and hill descent work.
What is amazing to watch is that you only have two or three controls in all. One switch tells the car you're off-road. Another sets the ride height to normal, high (four bars on dash) or highest (five bars). A lock switch prevents the car from lowering itself past 30kmph but limits top speed to 70kmph and offers reduced ride comfort as a function of the extended forks. And that's it. You feel the brakes working on whichever wheel lacks traction, rerouting motive force where it can be employed. Ensuring that outside of our summer tyres struggling a bit on the unseasonal rain wetted loose surface, every prod at the throttle is met with a unruffled management of traction and the production of impeccable forward motion.
But as impressed as you are, the eyebrows really rise when you realise that these Touaregs have been working this course repeatedly over two days during the preparation of the course. They've fetched staffers to/from Nagpur airport, ferried us here today and lapped the course in relatively more brusque hands and will do this all over again tomorrow when the second set of journalists arrive for their chance to have a go at this. And that Volkswagen don't have a massive service setup here in the jungle that's always fixing broken stuff and keeping the show going. The Touaregs are just up to this sort of treatment. I'm, as you can tell, looking forward to the road test as well as some unhinged test of the Touareg which I'm sure we will come up with and then attempt.
In the meantime, the second generation Touareg is here. It will go up against its brothers as well as fend off its natural, global arch rivals, the BMW X5, Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz ML-Class (the new one features three rows of seats and will be assembled here so expect very strong pricing) and next year, the Lexus SUVs. The Touareg is built in Bratislava, Slovakia and is imported as a CBU. The V6 TDI will probably cost Rs 50 lakh, ex-showroom. It will, as per VW group policy, sit below the Audi Q7 in pricing terms. Volkswagen have a great, well-rounded product in the Touareg. The car itself has been in India on the quiet but it's under the radar nature until now has been one of the reasons you don't see many of them on the road. I think that is about to change.