Few things during our 1300-kilometre drive across the otherworldly North African nation of Morocco could dissuade us from the conclusion that the Volkswagen Touareg is now a proper luxury SUV, capable of matching it with more desirable brands, and cutting some of them down to size.
Not the cities of Marrakesh and Ouarzazate with their armies of clapped-out Dacia cabs; nor the treacherous Tizi n’Tichka alpine pass; rocky riverbed snaking past the 11th century Ksar Ait-Ben-Haddou; or the dunes at Erg Chebbi, on the Sahara’s doorstep.
We do some amazing things in this line of work, seeing such places. But the flip-side of Volkswagen facilitating such an opportunity as this European customer event, was the chance it gave us to actually test the Touareg’s mettle. This was no safe, agonisingly stage-managed launch where the hardest hurdle is deciding which canapé to choose.
Let’s backtrack for a second; what are we talking about here? The previous two versions of the Volkswagen Touareg straddled the line between premium and mainstream, with a dose of 4x4 and towing abilities thrown in. But this iteration moves more upmarket, a crossover counterpoint to the Arteon.
Forget Jeep, it’s Audi that VW wants to cost sleep. Call it sibling rivalry, or brand building.
For starters, under that Q5-like body design is the VW Group’s ‘MLB’ longitudinal architecture, the same high-end platform that underpins vastly more expensive offerings from the wider company like the Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne, Bentley Bentayga and even the Lamborghini Urus.
And of course it’ll also be more expensive than ever, with Volkswagen seemingly daring brand snobs to look past the substance it offers, toward the style of its subsidiaries. A high risk, high reward ploy from Wolfsburg.
Yet there’s a heck of a lot of Audi in the new Touareg’s design. There’s also a large silver grille that some will love, and which others may find a little gauche, beside which sit available Matrix headlights trickled down from Audi’s best, with 128 individually controllable LEDs.
It’s certainly clean and elegant elsewhere, with perhaps the nicest view its rear end. The LED tail lights are intricate and full of presence, while the wide-spaced letters along the tailgate are a bit of a retro throwback.
The new Touareg is 83mm longer and 44mm wider than before, though the wheelbase is only up 1mm and the roofline is actually 7mm lower. Ground clearance is up 14mm. The modular platform cuts the kerb weight by around 50kg (1995kg), though the turning circle is up by about 30cm.
The cabin is a massive step up over the dated old car. The standard offer is a 9.2-inch centre touchscreen with gimmicky (for now) gesture control surrounded by hard keys for the climate control, plus analogue instruments ahead of the driver flanking a portrait trip computer.
But you can option an Innovation Cockpit that gives you a massive 15-inch pinching/zooming/swiping touchscreen, and the familiar 12.3-inch Active Info Display configurable digital instruments that show nav, music, et cetera. The array is technically two pieces of joined glass, and like Tesla or the Volvo XC90, most everything is handled by touch.
This can get annoying when it comes to changing the ventilation, but thankfully there’s a shortcut section that’s always affixed to the bottom section of the screen. It’s hard to deny the full-size Google Maps-style satellite overlays aren’t impressive, ditto the processing power.
It’s future-proof for at least a half-decade, and will be subject to updates. Few examples this side of a Tesla Model S’s touchscreen (or maybe the new Daimler MBUX system) have so impressed me – on scale at least – though the imminent Audi Q8 looks impressive.
On the downside, our car’s system required one hard reset, done by pressing the slick volume roller on the transmission tunnel for 30 seconds, after it stubbornly refused to come off mute.
There’s also a head-up display that projects onto the windscreen and a wireless inductive phone charger. Other niceties available as options are 18-way adjustable heated/cooled leather seats with pneumatic side bolsters, and massaging software with eight different preset options.
You also get four USB inputs including two in the rear. The base sound system is an 80W setup with eight speakers, but you can buy a 14-speaker/16-channel and 730W system with Dolby 7.1 standard sound. Good thing my driving partner and I had complementary music tastes…
The look and feel of the interior is luxury-aspirational too, with silver accents, ambient light piping, soft injection-moulded surfaces and less reliance on garish glossy black than many other high-end cars today. Perhaps deliberately, the tactility is still half-a-rung off Audi or Porsche, but so will be the price. That steering wheel is also a little cheap.
Driver assistance tech includes high-speed AEB, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist that actually works, auto parking, front/rear cross-traffic assist. Traffic Jam Assist basically drives the car itself in stop-start traffic, albeit of the first-world variety.
There’s also the Arteon’s Emergency Assist that leaps into action if you ignore prompts to touch the wheel, first by tugging the seatbelts, then by slowly coming to a stop autonomously with hazard lights on. Embarrassing if you’ve fallen asleep…
There’s also a camera and radar sensor-controlled warning system to detect pedestrian and bikes on the edge of the road, and activate the emergency braking, plus an optional thermal image camera (infrared) at the front of the car registers infrared radiation coming from a living organism ahead and projects it on the Active Info Display.
The new Touareg has more space than before, with 810L of cargo space in the rear expanding to 1800mm with the back seats folded. However, it’s 77mm narrower between the wheel housings in the rear, and the fuel tank is 10L smaller, at 75L.
One downside is the fact that, despite being about the same size as a Toyota Kluger, the Touareg remains – like the Jeep Grand Cherokee – a five-seater only. There’s a chance this has been done to give Audi a VW Group monopoly on seven seats. At least that back row has plenty of space.
The Touareg will launch with diesel engines only, all versions of the familiar 3.0-litre turbo V6. The Launch Edition model due round April/May will use the Amarok’s 190kW/500Nm Euro 5 version, because it’s already been tested against our NEDC fuel cycle (as opposed to the more modern European WLTP cycle that VW now prioritises).
From late 2019 this engine will be joined by two Euro 6 versions of the same engine, making 170kW/500Nm and 210kW/600Nm respectively. All are mated with an eight-speed automatic with torque converter, and are rated to tow 3.5 tonnes as before.
A V8 TDI is expected, while a turbo petrol six is being considered. The PHEV version is up in the air for Australia.
We only drove the dialed-up 210TDI, which has ample muscle and will use 8.0L/100km of fuel without fuss, while promising good towing and a snappy 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.1 seconds.
However, it’s got a large turbo and we noticed a propensity for lag as it spools, which means you need to pick your moment for sudden moves. A sorted sequential bi-turbo arrangement would nip this in the bud.
There are a number of optional dynamic additions engineered into the new model, including rear-wheel steering (the back wheels go in the same direction at high speeds to improve stability, and the opposite way below 37km/h to reduce that turning circle) and multi-height air suspension that can jack up the body by 70mm. You can also lower the car from the tailgate for loading.
This latter system, in tandem with our test car’s small 18-inch wheels and General Grabber 4x4 tyres, assured a supple ride which Australian cars with lower-profile rubber may not quite manage.
There are also Audi Q7-style electromechanical active roll stabilisers on the options list, running off a 48V onboard electric system and reducing lateral roll and understeer by countering cornering forces and keeping the body more parallel to the road.
Off the black stuff, the Touareg remains extremely competent. Low-range? No dice, just a short first, hill-descent control, on-demand 4WD and an off road software mode that sends the engine torque to whichever end of the car needs it. It’s point and shoot.
Yet we managed extensive driving through the Sahara’s fine sand (with tyres running 15 PSI), across mud-and-rock-laden river beds, and more. Like a Land Rover Discovery, it just beats nature into submission. Clearance is 215mm, wading depth 500mm, and the maximum climbing gradient is 60 degrees, which you can monitor on the Active Info Display.
For enthusiasts, there’s also an AWD package with various ESC/throttle modes that vary by surface (ice, sand etc), a larger 90L fuel tank, and an underbody protection system with radiator, tank and battery guards, reinforced underbody protection, and stone protection. Given another person in the VW party tore the from bumper from one car over a gnarly root, a front bash plate is recommended.
The only real complaint we had with the Touareg's 4x4-ing was the panoramic sunroof’s effect on body rigidity. It creaked and groaned most of the journey. We’d eschew this feature on the options list if we were planning regular bush sojourns.
So, thoughts. It’s pretty clear the new Touareg will be pricier than before, especially once you start dipping into those options (which will be grouped into digestible packages).
The outgoing model kicks off at $74,990 for the Monochrome and costs $85,490 for the V6 TDI version. The base version of the new car will almost certainly start in the $80k range, putting it between a Grand Cherokee at one end and the BMW X5/Audi Q7/Range Rover Sport at the other.
We don’t know all pricing and spec details yet, and VW Australia is still working through the final details. Watch and wait for the launch…
But, this being said, it’s impossible to dispute that the only thing about the Touareg that isn’t definitively ‘premium’ is its badge (ok, and its steering wheel). It’s as good off the beaten path as ever, and highly competent when towing, but also brings new levels of luxury and tech.
It’s almost too accomplished in some ways, especially if you’re looking from Audi’s vantage point.