2008 Volkswagen R50 offroad review

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2008 Volkswagon R50 offroad review

It's time the ultimate Touareg took the ultimate challenge

Review by: Karl Peskett Photography by: Paul Brockbank

It's nice to push the boundaries once in a while. To do what most wouldn't dare to do. So when you're offered a $130,000 four-wheel drive to test, it's just complacency and pure laziness to drive it around the 'burbs and say what a nice car it is. What we really want to know is what it can do, not what it's supposed to do.

Also, a personal bugbear of mine is the term SUV. It's so, um American, I shudder every time I hear it. So this time, the Volkswagen Touareg R50 is going to be called a four-wheel drive.

Why? Well, when you hop in, you'll notice the low-range gears, a centre locking differential, and height-adjustable air suspension. Yep, it's apparently well equipped for going off road.

Then you notice the 21-inch wheels, spoiler kit, and massive brakes. It's seeming like a full-sized, mechanical, metallic oxymoron. How is it possible to have something that is brilliant on the road, and yet can conquer off-road as well?

Those few paragraphs were the rationale behind this review. I mean, why give this vehicle the capability, when it's not going to be used?

You'll remember our Hummer review from a few months ago. Alborz got egged, and I tried to not put a scratch on our press car. The same track where we found that the H3 is actually decent off-road, was our destination for this test - the Mundaring Powerline track.

We'd all found out that the R50 is a stunning road vehicle. On the highway leading out to the track, it became obvious that the R50 will exceed all your expectations of the capabilities of a 2.6-tonne vehicle.

It's the torque that really blows your mind and 850Nm is some serious grunt. When you're overtaking, the push you feel from behind is all the convincing you need that 850Nm is what you need. Couple it with that seriously smooth ZF six-speed gearbox, and the drivetrain is a delight. However once the blacktop finishes, the challenge begins.

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Several people gathered at a designated meet point, and we made our way inland, this time opting to start halfway up the track as the first half is mostly flat, with no real challenges. We were keen to get going as soon as we got there.

Starting out on the gravel track, it was time to see how much fun this car can be. ESP off, a couple of Scandinavian flicks, and you're feeling like the car handles as well as something 150mm lower. Then, when we clicked the paddles back to second to give it some beans, the transmission locked in gear, and wouldn't change up.

Uh, oh, the last thing we need is a faulty gearbox. No matter what we tried, it wouldn't change up or down, even when we pulled to a stop. So, stop the engine, restart, and instantly all gears were available again. An anomaly? It seems so, as the rest of the day, the gearbox performed faultlessly.

The next quizzer was when we regrouped at the crossroads of the Powerline Track. "What pressure are we going to use in these tyres?" There's no spare supplied with the car. Sharp rocks and 21-inch Michelins are decidedly not a great combo. After much deliberation (and plenty of head-scratching) it was decided that 25psi should do the trick. Standard pressure was around 45psi, so just over half seemed reasonable.

After all, there's very little sidewall, so any flex you can have is going to be good. It's better to have the tyre mould around rocks, rather than putting all its weight on any sharp points, thereby piercing tread, or sidewall. You can see from the photographs how it works but was it going to be enough? Was there flex to still be effective?

The other concern was that the rims would get completely scratched. As it was, the journalists who had tested this car previously had quite obviously kerbed it at some stage, however we weren't about to add to it.

Once the pressures were set, the next step was to change to low-range, and centre diff-lock, as easy as flicking a switch. Now, set our ride height and again, a simple flick. It's not as quick as some airbag systems, by any means - you'll be holding the dial to the left for quite a while, while the system lifts the car - but it's no less effective.

Once at the desired height, the highest, naturally, you simply press the lock button on the console, and that's it you're set. If you reach too high a speed, the system will automatically unlock, and drop the car, however for the terrain we were traversing, we'd never reach that.

So it was time to get going. We began over rocky terrain, with a touch of marble-gravel. You can use the hill hold, or in our case, left foot braking, as sometimes you'll need to hold the car in position while adding a touch of accelerator, to (very) slowly creep up the hills. After all, we still want our tyres to remain puncture-free.

Left in Drive, the gearbox behaved very well, with shifts when and where you'd like them, even in low range. Sandy sections were a breeze, even with the ESP on. Coming up to hills, though, the stability control is absolutely necessary.

Beginning at the base of a slope, it's a matter of slowly approaching the ramp, rather than slamming the front bumper into the bottom of the hill. Don't forget, the R50 has a lower front lip than the standard Touareg, however that extra suspension height takes away a lot of the worry.

Flick the paddle back to first, and gently ease the accelerator on. As soon as there's some slip, the ESP takes over and stops the spinning wheel, while allowing the gripping wheels to continue supplying forward motion. Sometimes it's a concert between all four wheels, and you seem to be hopping about on the spot. Don't give up and back off though. Keep pressing on, and the clicking and grunting happening underneath you makes it happen.

Thankfully the turbos spool up quick enough to not be hindered by the clamping of wheels. Usually in a diesel car, any braking intervention completely kills boost, and the revs die, only to have to wait for what seems like years to spool up again. Not so the twin-turbo V10 monster. The torque just keeps on coming.

Couple the effective ESP with the centre-locking differential and low-range, and the R50 has zero grip problems. So it's left to ground clearance. Thankfully, the approach, ramp-over and departure angles are all very good. Normal off-road level is 220mm, but it can be raised to an "extra level" setting at 280mm.

Sure, it's no Land Rover Defender, but considering how adaptable it is, and where its real focus lies - on road efficacy - it's mighty impressive. The centre of gravity is very low, too, so you never feel as if the car will roll.

The R50 conquered the track effectively. It climbed, descended, crossed, and slid through almost all sections - the exception being some downhill descents that you just knew were a challenge for everything except highly modified four-wheel drives.

The four-zone climate control was running non-stop. The engine was never turned off for the whole time, either. Yet the temperature gauge didn't move a millimetre. The seals also prevented dust entering the cabin.

For a stocker, the R50 is everything you'd need, and then some. The incredulous look on the faces of those with us, kind of gives you the idea that the R50 is an impressive piece of kit. They watched with awe and even trepidation, expecting something to go wrong but thankfully, nothing did.

The tyres flexed enough, the suspension lifted enough, the engine proved its worth, and the interior kept us comfortable and calm. That's why we've rebooked the R50 for a 2000km road trip, later in the year.

Being able to walk over boulders on three wheels, yet accelerate and hang onto the road better than some sports cars, the R50 has my vote as one of the most versatile vehicles ever made.

How does it Drive:
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