Touareg V8 TDi: Big-hearted flagship falling behind

The Touareg has always been the least visible of three sister models. Does a new and final update lift its image?


For: Impressive drivetrain, styling and engineering has sustained well.

Against: Lacks latest VW Group technologies, too expensive, only five seats.

Score: 3/5

EVEN though we’re now in a period of change, with the Q7 now having upgraded to the latest MLB generation platform that is for now only shared with a Bentley, you have to wonder how much poorer would Audi and Porsche would have been without the Volkswagen Touareg.

Sports utilities are utterly established as massive money generators and, for profit return and market penetration, the Q7 and Cayenne have long been among the top earners for their respective brands.

Yet neither would ever have turned a wheel, or proven so cost-effective to create, had not Volkswagen first determined to build the model featured today.

The Touareg, after all, provided the fundamental package that the more glamorous sister brands utilised to create their own cars. And the star brands probably did so with relative ease and low cost because platform development – the hardest part - was the parent’s job.

What thanks to VW for all this hard effort? None from the respective styling and marketing departments: The Q7, Cayenne and Touareg all dress very differently and the more glamorous marques are Cinderella sisters when telling the stories of their upbringing.

VW still profits in the long run - given the exotic brands feed its bottom line – and nothing will change going forward, because the latest MLB that underpins the Q7 and Bentayga now and will be the fundamental of a future Cayenne and Touareg is, at the end of the day, a VW property.

Yet, at the coalface level, does the Touareg suffer? Doesn’t a model that has always sat in the others’ shadows and locally has tended to lag behind the others for technology advancement look to be even more a straggler now that the closest rival sister brand has jumped to a whole new platform?

It’s a question we sought to answer when spending a week with the $135,900 V8 TDi flagship, recently refreshed for the line’s final run to the finish of sale, potentially set to occur in 2017.

Styling, image:

Long model lifespans are nothing unusual for sports utilities and one-tonne traydecks – whereas most cars last just eight years or even less on the production line, SUVs and utes might stick around for at least a decade.

Even so, it comes as a shock to be reminded that this Touareg is now in its 15th year and might be expected to remain alive for another 12 months. That’s an enormous stretch.

Of course over the years the Touareg has undergone some change that has involved introducing different powertrains, adding content and, in 2013, there was a big effort to sharpen up its exterior looks and refresh the cabin.

Such longevity doesn’t necessarily harm if the design is solid enough and, certainly, the Touareg doesn’t look too frayed around the edges, save for in one respect. More later.

One thing about the largest member of the German car maker's passenger vehicle range is that, over the years, it does seem to have downsized. Not in any kind of actual sense – the dimensions actually increased when this bodyshell implemented atop the chassis that dates back to 2002 – but in terms of at-the-kerbside impressions. When the Touareg was brand new, I thought it was utterly huge (the Q7 made the same impression). Now it is more akin to an extra-large Golf hatchback. Weird, huh?

The current body is more rounded than VW’s latest sedan silhouettes and even though the V8’s R-Line touches – of a unique bumper shape and oval tailpipes – plus the updated nose and tail designs with Bi-Xenon headlights and LED daytime driving lights that also affix to lesser Touaregs make this model more striking in appearance, it’s struggling to pass muster as the latest and greatest any more.

A cabin that underwent major enhancement in 2013 continues to look solid in executive and appearance two years on.

VW ergonomics are down at meat and potatoes level, right down to no-nonsense graphics and screen fonts of almost military grade – there’s nothing spectacular about the trim colours either; even though the V8 upgrades to soft Nappa leather and gets some woodgrain inlays.

Functionality is certainly not a problem and it presents a durable but obviously quality environment, but it’s age is highlighted by the finicky ignitions system – it’s better to keep the fob in your pockets and push the start button then make the mistake of inserting it into the starter located near the middle of the dashboard because this doesn’t always want to release cleanly.

Also, it misses out on USB outlets (connection cable only), the switchgear is a little last generation and though the eight-inch touch screen delivers sat-nav, Bluetooth, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensor displays and more, and also boasts 60GB worth of media space, it’s a bit cranky in regard to electronic architecture. Synching my iPhone was a cinch, but on two days out of our six day tenure the car declined to upload my phone’s directory and the only names on the previous call register were people I didn’t know. Also, the screen display is looking rather old hat now; a bit blocky and lacking in resolution.

The other Touareg issue that will remain hanging like an albatross is that cabin space isn't excellent. There's a good deal of first and second row room but given the overall proportions of the car (4.8 metres long, 1.94 metres wide) there could be more. That, and there are only five seats on offer despite other competitors offering up room for a couple more. It does have a decent-sized boot, with a minimum 580 litres’ capacity, yet it’s no to hear that the next generation model will be a seven-seater. It’s what people want.

Still, it scores a full suite of airbags (driver and front passenger, front side, driver's knee airbag, rear side passengers, front and rear curtain airbags) and the usual safety acronyms, including stability control, tractions control and ABS.

Powertrain, performance

Perception that Porsche and Audi the performance brands and VW is more of the country plodder is blown apart by Touareg having retained the ‘old’ V8 TDi whereas the others have gone to cleaner, but no meaner, diesel V6s.

With 800Nm and 250kW, the VW flagship’s 4.2-litre generates 50kW and a massive 200Nm more than the most muscular version of the new 3.0-litre six that slots into the Q7.

For sure, the Audi has a power-to-weight advantage – lightness being one of the chief benefits of the new MLB platform – and it’s geared to move more quickly, albeit only initially. Also, it expresses significantly fewer exhaust nasties and burns a lot less fuel than the eight-cylinder, which is rated at averaging 9.2 litres per 100km (against 5.9L/100km for the Audi). But if you can live with that shame then the Touareg is still the one.

If there is one thing big diesel engines are good at, it's pumping out loads of torque. This 4.2-litre has effortless pulling power when you stand on the accelerator. But it's equally impressive to just cruise around town in. At low revs it pulls the Touareg along with a minimum of fuss. We didn’t engage in any towing, but I daresay it’d be fine for most Kiwi weekend challenges this side, perhaps, of towing away your neighbour’s fully-grown windfall pine trees.

Transmission type also differentiates the Touareg; whereas every other modern VW runs with an automated manual direct shift gearbox, this car keeps on with the eight-speed orthodox automatic. Like the engine it is married to, this ZF device has also been around for a fair while now but that hardly matters. A box designed foremost for luxury cars, it has an excellent shift quality and keeps the engine burbling along at low revs, right in the meat of the torque band.

Driving appeal:

Heavy-duty old-school four-wheel-drives were clearly not a template for VW when it drew up the Touareg and, accordingly, there’s not a lot that’s truly truck-like about its dynamic demeanour.

At the same token, the VW also knows its place within the tripartite arrangement with Audi and Porsche; accordingly even with the R-Line treatment that delivers a sports suspension and 21-inch rims, the ride is neither as plush as the Q7’s nor as intensely sporty as Cayenne’s.

That’s not necessarily a shortcoming and having 4Motion permanent four-wheel drive is an obvious plus, but it does mean there’s a level of body sway through corners and you notice its considerable weight (over 2000 kilograms) when you try to slow down for corners. Despite some built-in slackness to the steering, the test car felt responsive at turn-in however. Yet it emphatically feels like a big SUV when really pushed than the latest Q7 does.

The air suspension and adaptive damper control lends more influence on the ride than handling. Whether it be in normal, comfort or Sport mode, the technology has talent for absorbing bumps.

The fuel burn might be expected to increase were the car taken somewhere truly dirty, yet even though VW embraces a utilitarian image, there’s less impetus to cut new tracks with a car such as this than, say, with the Amarok utility.

Two of the ride height control settings are for beyond-seal – the others being loading and ‘road’ levels – and an off-road function which employs ABS and hill descent assist to garner traction is potentially enough of a substitute for the absent low-range setting for the transmission to suit most users. Yet while the drivetrain’s muscularity would potentially get it through some sticky situations, it hasn’t the right tyres (including a space-saver) for really tough terrain. The 3500kg towing capacity is probably of greater relevance along with, if you are a boatie, a wade depth of 580mm.

How it compares

Not well, basically. The V8 is certainly a special engine, but the money that VW asks for this model is too much when every other rival, save the Land Cruiser 100-Series, is more modern and equally, if not better, equipped.

The biggest threat comes from within the family enclave. The latest highest-powered 3.0-litre V6 edition of the Q7, a far more modern car, sits square in this price zone. Actually, the standard trim model is almost $6000 cheaper than the Touareg while the S-Line that accesses a lot more advanced technology, including a heap of driver assists that are not going to show into Touareg until its next generation, is just $2000 more. And that’s a seven-seater car. You can guess which will hold the superior residual value.

The Touareg deserves respect for being a landmark car, but I suspect it’s last year of sale is not going to be an easy one.