Hollywood has a simple formula; badass characters drive badass cars. As you'd expect, tougher the said character, the meaner his ride. Take Vin Diesel and his flame throwing GTO from Fast and Furious or Clint Eastwood's prized Gran Torino that some unfortunate kid was stupid enough to try and steal. However no car ever captured my imagination like the jacked up, matt black VW Touareg from the movie Repo Men. The fact that these guys hacked artificial organs right out of their human hosts if they couldn't pay their instalments on time made them the type of people you don't want to cross. And that wicked Touareg turned their tough guy quotient up to eleven. To this day every time I see a first gen Touareg I feel a slight tingle in my kidneys.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe with the new Touareg; it doesn't quite make me go, 'whoa' when I see one in my rear view mirror. Sure the earlier car didn't look half as hazardous but it was still one of the most imposing SUVs on the road. The new one though has traded a lot of the visceral aggression for a cleaner more mature look but not sure if that's what buyers in this segment would approve of. VW's new design philosophy is all over the car, centred around the slim twin slat chrome grille and the Passat-ish headlamps. Besides being fully automatic these units use Dynamic Light Assist that monitors oncoming traffic and automatically adjusts the individual units to reduce glare. Very cool stuff. The hood is a clean design with two lines that start from the headlight and run neatly over the flared wheel arches.
The side profile has a bulge that runs along the length of the car at the height of the door handles. The clever use of a chrome strip along the base of the doors lends the side a classy, almost Porsche Cayenne profile. The rear is characterised by those flared wheel arches and wide haunches that accommodate Passat-like (again) tail lamps. Twin tail pipes, a subtle roof spoiler and a strip of chrome along the base of the boot lid lend it an air of classiness and again hark back to the Cayenne. All these Porsche similarities are understandable given the fact that theCayenne, Touareg and Q7 are all built on VW's PL71 platform.
The Touareg has grown insignificantly larger; it's now 41mm longer and 12mm wider but 15mm lower. However Volkswagen has concealed the bulk very well and it never feels as large or cumbersome as, say the Q7. Most impressive though is the 200 odd kilo drop in kerb weight depending on the variant. That's about a ten per cent decrease while torsional rigidity has gone up by five per cent.
Step inside and you enter a wonderful world of soft beige leather and classy chrome and wood finish around the cabin. Sink into the very comfy and supportive driver's seat and the first thing you'll notice is the very Audi-like instrument console. The centre console itself is a simple uncluttered affair that's dominated by a 6.5-inch touch screen that primarily handles the audio system, GPS navigation isn't on offer.
However the dumb-bell shaped array of buttons that sits just fore of the cup holders deserve special mention. These buttons control the air suspension, damper settings and various driving modes for on and off road driving. But more on that later. There's plenty of space at the rear thanks to a 41mm increase in the wheelbase to 2893mm and the rear seats themselves recline to make for a very comfortable cabin. There's plenty of luggage space on offer; up to 1642-litres of space with the seats folded, which can be done by a touch of a button. However there are a few sore points; the wood finish steering looks great but doesn't offer enough grip over long drives. The gear lever has simply been lifted from the cheaper Passat/Jetta. The cabin itself despite being well put together with premium materials is very VW, and just doesn't exude the same class as an Audi. The big issue though is the lack of a third row of seats.
Apart from its Dakar victories the old Touareg was most famous for setting a world record for towing a Boeing 747. The reason it could do that was the massive 5.0-litre V10 diesel that made 309PS and a monumental 750Nm of torque. Today the only engine you get is a V6 diesel so if you're in the business of hauling 155 tonnes of cargo look elsewhere.
For every other conceivable purpose the 3.0-litre V6 does an admirable job. This is the same unit that won us over in the Audi A4, A6, Q5 and Q7. Only here it makes an additional 5PS for a total of 245 and a very healthy 550Nm of torque. The engine is very smooth and refined with plenty of punch and even has a purposeful snarl when given the beans. And it makes the Touareg feel quicker than before thanks to the near 200kg weight saving over its predecessor.
The power is channelled to all four wheels through a new 8-speed Aisin automatic (not a DSG). The gearbox enables quick enough shifts and never hesitates to offer a downshift while also being much smoother in operation than a DSG. However the lack of paddle shifters is a dampener especially when you have a box as responsive as this.
When given the stick the Touareg lurches to the ton in a scant 7.43 seconds and tops off at 220kmph. The quarter mile run is blitzed in 15.46 seconds and all that torque gets it from 40kmph to 100kmph in just over six seconds. However the engine is at its happiest when cruising at high speeds. At 100kmph she's ticking over at a relaxed 1800rpm in 8th gear. Add in the fact that this is a highly refined engine and you have a car with excellent NVH levels. The car runs up to 180kmph effortlessly and then slowly but surely builds the pace till she hits top whack. Despite the eager performance the Touareg still returns 14.1kmpl on the highway and 8.9kmpl when crawling through city traffic. Very impressive stuff indeed for a car that weighs in at a substantial 2240kg (with 90 per cent fuel). It needs to be also noted that the Touareg is faster (10kmph more), quicker (by 2.23s) and more economical (3.1kmpl more) than the similarly engined Q7 thanks to the new Aisin gearbox.
Going fast in a straight line is all very well but what happens when you subject the Touareg to some lateral load? The previous generation, despite being one of the more road biased SUVs of its time still felt big and heavy. This one though is much more car-like and at moderate speeds you hardly notice the bulk. Set the dampers and gearbox in Sport mode and the Touareg is pretty settled going around the twisty bits. There's plenty of grip although the 18-inch 255 section Bridgestone Dueller tyres do tend to squeal prematurely which coaxes you into backing off. If you do push it too hard it rolls, even in Sport mode and the front wheels tend to push (predictably) wide. At the end of the day this is a tall heavy car and you feel it. The steering may not offer tremendous feedback but it provides enough feel for anything you can resonably throw at an SUV.
It feels like an Audi in terms of driving, especially when you sit in the roomy back. We found that Comfort mode suited the Touareg best in Indian conditions offering a pliant ride yet with that firm edge typical of VWs that prevents any sort of wallow or float. Out on the highway it felt rock solid even at considerably high speeds. The combined force of effortless power from the engine, excellent ride and comfortable interiors has resulted in an excellent long distance weapon. I'd go so far as to say this is one of the best highway cruising cars I've driven.
It's also very adept at going through the muck as Shumi demonstrated last month. The new Touareg, despite having dumped the previous car's mechanical locking rear diff and low ratio is still a very accomplished off-roader. First gear has a very low ratio to make up (sort of) for the lack of low-ratio transfer case, you can raise the ride height on the adaptive air suspension, set the electronics in off-road mode and the SUV does most of the work for you while scaring passengers silly while pulling absurd angles.
For those who may have driven the V10 TDi this car may feel a tad weak but considering its 7.2 second run to the ton, 220 top whack and 560Nm of torque it never feels underpowered. Efficiency of 8.9kmpl in town and 14.1kmpl on the highway is very reasonable for a car of this size and performance.
The VW Touareg makes a very compelling case for itself. It's a very capable car, both on and off the road. Despite the family resemblance to the Passat and Jetta this is still a good looking car and one that finds itself on a middle ground between discretion and flash and it's loaded with features. The Touareg will be launched by June-end with pricing in the region of Rs 50 lakh. I believe people today are starting to look for an alternative to the obvious and to that extent the Touareg is a good rival to the Audi Q7. But that said the Audi costs just Rs 4 lakh more, is equally hard to fault for anything, plus it is more imposing, has more presence, looks better, has posher interiors, a posher badge and seven seats. And therein lies the Touareg's biggest problem.