"Don’t worry, it’s all under control, just keep going slowly and don’t steer too much.” These were the words of wisdom that came from my jovial driving instructor, and on the face of it, the advice seemed perfectly straightforward and logical. The problem was, I was in the driver’s seat, at a seemingly impossible angle, with my door almost touching the side of an embankment; had it not been for my seat belt, I would have slid quietly out of the window, sideways.
In these circumstances, you tend to pay more attention to the involuntary clenching of your buttocks than to sage advice, but I forced myself to listen to the chap and followed his instructions. Sure enough, the Touareg inched forward, and as I turned right to exit the embankment, it was the instructor’s turn to be almost flush with the wall. “See, no problem,” he grinned and said. Indeed.
The new Touareg’s motto, in fact, could well be “No problem”. Volkswagen had set up an off-road obstacle course near the Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh, and at first glance, the course looked like a bunch of holes in the ground, with some large mounds of dirt thrown in. I can assure you, however, that when you’re attempting to drive a large SUV through said holes, they suddenly take on the dimensions of the Grand Canyon.
Some of the angles I encountered were so extreme that the Touareg literally had only two wheels on the ground on occasion, and when the wheels came down, they did so with a “Dhoomp!” that made me have visions of broken dampers and cracked alloy wheels. The Touareg, however, simply moved on to the next obstacle, without a fuss.
The chances of anyone buying the new Touareg and then indulging in this kind of tomfoolery are remote, but the point had been made — this is a vehicle that can do it, if called upon to do so. Take the fact that its ground clearance is adjustable from a default 205 mm all the way to 305 mm, at the twist of a dial — that’s pretty massive, and it allows the Touareg to go through pretty much anything (it also means you almost need a step-ladder to get into the car). Hill start and descent assist mean that when faced with a near-vertical slope (so steep that you can’t see the horizon), all it takes is a bit of throttle input to climb it; on the way down, the car literally descends by itself.
When you first look at it, though, the Touareg doesn’t seem like your average off-roader — far from it, in fact. The new car has a strong VW family resemblance (it looks a bit like a Passat on, er, stilts) but it’s also got itself a sharper, more aggressive outlook, which lends it more road presence than the older car. The rear end bears a distinct resemblance to the Porsche Cayenne, which isn’t surprising given their shared platform, and the twin tail pipes contribute to its sporty air; the car is also longer and wider than its predecessor, and it weighs in at 200 kg less too. This should lead to better acceleration times and fuel economy, but only a full road test will confirm that.
The Touareg’s cabin has been refreshed and, although it doesn’t have the same level of luxury as, say, a Range Rover Sport or Porsche Cayenne, it’s still very well finished, appointed and quiet. The combination of leather, wood, metal and plastic is of high quality, except for the hinges of the cover on one of the press-to-open storage compartments, which seemed a bit flimsy. You get a nifty panoramic sunroof, an excellent touchscreen stereo system with eight speakers, Bluetooth, USB and Aux-in, a raft of airbags and a full complement of safety features (ABS, ESP, ASR, EDL and so on), a rear-view camera, park distance control, cruise control, keyless entry and a whole host of other features. In terms of comfort, the seats offer very good cushioning and support, and the car’s increased width and length make for a roomy experience.
This is a big, heavy car, weight loss programme notwithstanding, but it’s no slowcoach — under the hood, a refined 3.0-litre, V6 turbo-diesel provides 241 bhp@3800-4400 rpm and 56 kgm@1750-2250 rpm, and the powerplant does a great job of propelling the Touareg; the 8-speed tiptronic ‘box (no paddles, though, and no low ratio available in India) is smooth and responsive, and the engine-gearbox combo ensures you’re never short of grunt when you need it.
The adjustable air suspension actually works rather well. On smooth, highway tarmac, with the suspension set to Sport, the ride quality was still quite good, and in Comfort, it was positively plush, with large potholes being soaked up comfortably. I didn’t get the chance to attack any corners, but the Touareg felt like it would steer in a neutral fashion if I had done so — and the steering wheel itself is meaty and nice to grip. Something this big also needs serious stopping ability, and the brakes (discs front and rear) do their job very well.
All in, the new Touareg is an improvement in every way over the previous model, and its newfound aggression should help it in the luxury SUV slugfest, in which it has had a very muted presence thus far. It’s a fine automobile (I once drove the older one from Singapore to Malaysia and was very impressed) and it presents itself as a genuine alternative to its German counterparts, such as the new Mercedes-Benz ML Class and the BMW X5. Indeed, if Volkswagen is aggressive with its pricing strategy, it could even target the smaller BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Land Rover Freelander 2. We expect that the Touareg will be priced between Rs 42 and 46 lakh, ex-showroom Mumbai, but whatever its final price, there’s no doubt that it’s an SUV that can be recommended.
The writer was invited by VW India to drive the Touareg near Pench National Park