Let’s talk about something big for a moment. Like an aircraft carrier. Something like the USS Ronald Reagan for instance: 95,000 tonnes, 332.8 metres long, twin Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors and four steam turbines… yeah, it’s big.
Now just hold that thought a moment because I think I have been driving the automotive equivalent of the USS ‘Ronnie’. Let me introduce you to the Volkswagen R50 Touareg.
Big, badass and beautiful, one hour behind the wheel of Volkswagen’s ultimate SUV will have you spoiled forever. Sure, it weighs 94,998 tonnes less than the Reagan, but its power and presence is irresistible. Behind the wheel, you begin to find the inner megalomaniac… and you’ll start thinking it might be time to trample Tasmania, or tow it further out to sea.
That’s the kind of power it’s got.
Have a look at the numbers: the R50 boasts the big daddy of diesels, a 5.0-litre bi-turbo V10, with 258kW and 850Nm of torque; it’s a bona fide nuclear bloody reactor. Haul? Does J-Lo have a big arse? The R50's engine is a fettled version of the standard Touareg’s V10 diesel that manages a respectable 230kW and 750Nm before the ‘R’ wand is waved over it.
Of course, all that engine – let’s face it, it’s truck size – and a comprehensive array of standard equipment, means that the R50 is a hefty beast with a kerb weight of 2642kgs. You’ll be thinking then that all that weight slung between the wheels will mean blunt performance, the thirst of a camel and the handling of a drunken sailor; but you’d be dead wrong.
The Reagan can handle a full rudder turn at max speed - that’s 95,000 tonnes at around 60km/h -resulting in a 15 degree tilt of the deck. Likewise, the R50 similarly challenges the laws of physics when punted hard into a corner; in fact the handling is astounding for a large SUV.
The Reagan is a floating airport, the R50 Touareg can tow a Boeing 747...
But it’s no crude beast of burden; the R50 is also a technological tour-de-force. Settle behind the wheel, adjust the infinitely variable electric seats, set the four-zone climate control, load up the CD stacker, fire up the 10 speaker Dynaudio stereo and just revel a moment in the soft Nappa leather opulence. If you have to spend a few hours on the Captain’s bridge, it might as well be a comfortable one.
Before moving off, select your choice of three suspension settings, comfort, normal or sport, a process handled by Volkswagen's Continuous Damping Control (CDC) system. Your selection determines the R50’s damper settings and ride height, which is controlled by the air suspension (and yes, you do notice the difference).
Comfort is the pick of the settings for everyday work (I’m a comfort kind of guy, so that’s the one I chose for most of my driving in the R50), but all three settings are well sorted and have their uses.
On suburban roads, the R50 is a surprise package in a number of ways. Any car with 850Nm on tap induces a certain amount of awe, even before pushing the start button. Our home grown 6.2-litre V8 HSV’s can only manage 550Nm and they are suitably quick, so my expectations of the hi-po Touareg were significant.
The R50 didn’t disappoint.
Give the right pedal a decent prod and the effect is almost immediate. The big diesel’s twin huffers pile on the boost in an instant and you ride a ferocious wave of torque. All 2.6 tonnes of R50 is shot down the road in a manner that simply messes with the head. On the flat, or up a hill, the effect is the same. The R50 under full noise from a standstill pins you to your seat: the torque off the line, combined with AWD, creates its own gravity field. According to Volkswagen, the R50 will belt from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds. I tried it once or twice... and then again just for good measure, and while I can’t confirm the official numbers (our Correvit timing equipment is still on layby) my ‘seat of the pants’ un-timed performance runs confirmed that the R50 is bloody quick.
The excellent ZF six-speed auto has a choice of normal or sport modes and gears can be manually selected via steering column mounted paddles, which, in the R50’s case, are the same metal ones that you will find in a Lamborghini Gallardo. To be honest, paddle shifts in an SUV (or any car for that matter) just don’t seem right to me, so after making sure they worked (they do), I left them alone. Unfortunately, their placement makes finding the indicator stalk a little difficult for first time R50 drivers, but you soon adjust.
My week with the R50 was a big one. Having recently returned from a weekend away with the TRD HiLux, (a vehicle that is intended for off-road use), it is quite clear that Volkswagen has not targeted this section of the market with the R50. The 21-inch wheels, shod with 295/35 R21 Michelin Latitude Sport high-performance rubber is the most obvious clue, should commonsense be in short supply.
What the R50 does purport to offer is big ‘petrol-engine like’ performance and cruising ability, genuine on-road handling, all combined with the efficiency benefits of a diesel. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo for the value conscious and environmentally sensitive – maybe?
A serious road trip was required to put things to the test.
Now, I am a big fan of the road-trip. It’s not just the McDonald’s breakfasts and bad roadhouse coffees that make a good one either, it’s that oneness between car and driver, having the time to really get the feel of a car, learn its quirks. The plan was to head out of Melbourne down the Western Highway towards Adelaide and then head south for Victor Harbour on the coast, via the Langhorne Creek wine district.
All up, around a 2000km round trip that would provide a good combination of highway miles and winding country roads. Of course, in Australia that also means plenty of trucks, grey nomads (and their caravans), changing speed limits and radar traps. Needless to say the cruise control was going to be a licence saver.
Heading out of Melbourne with a full tank of diesel, I cleared the outer suburbs and the R50 settled into a rhythm, loping along at the legal limit. Unlike most smaller capacity diesels, the R50’s V10 settled well into the lower rev range at highway speeds, unfussed and quiet. With the cruise control on, the torque from the big diesel saw the R50 taking the long steep hills between Anthony’s Cutting and the Daylesford turn-off in its stride. No need to drop out of sixth gear when you’re packing 850Nm.
No-one is going to tell you that the drive between Melbourne and Adelaide is a scenic one, and for good reason – it isn’t. There are infuriating interruptions from little towns (with 80km/h speed limits) and, being single lane carriageway most of the way, the trucks and slower drivers can be hard work (or a fun-filled challenge, depending on your point of view and the car you’re driving). Line the R50 up, drop in back to fifth manually, open the taps and even 18 wheelers are dispatched, calmly, quickly and most importantly safely. Power, or in the R50’s case, an abundance of torque, really is a safety feature on the open road.
Seven hours down the road and I was still feeling comfortable and alert, the R50 had proven its worth as a comfortable highway cruiser. Getting to Tailem Bend is easy, but cutting through the back way to Victor Harbour was going to require some directional assistance. Not one for reading instruction manuals, it was comforting to find that the R50 has one of the most intuitive satellite navigation systems that I’ve ever come across – one of the many features that make up the excellent RNS 510 touch screen system. A simple setup procedure soon saw the destination plugged in and a pleasant female voice guiding me to Victor Harbour, skirting the Langhorne Creek wine region.
Winding, hilly and narrow pock-marked roads were now the order of the day and an opportunity to test the R50 on roads better suited to well-sorted performance sedans. Hunkered down in sport mode, the R50’s suspension is noticeably firmer, the body roll noticeably reduced and the possibility of losing your licence noticeably higher. You can feel the 21-inch wheels thumping over imperfections in sport mode, but the trade-off is in the R50’s ability to take a bend. It is so sure-footed and planted in the way it feels, that you forget you are driving an SUV – the handling is performance car like. Rolling hills, sweeping bends and crappy road surfaces tested the R50’s mettle and it took it all in its stride, torque on tap for the uphills and a touch of understeer on the tighter bends on the rare occasion that I was brave enough to test its prodigious limits.
Even a biker on an old Ducati took an interest in the R50 as it stormed past. Catching up, he was content to slot in behind and watch the R50 carving up the curves, in a way that no 2.6 tonne SUV has any right to. Parting ways eventually at a Y-junction, he signalled his approval with a thumbs up.
The R50’s brakes are worthy of a mention, to put it simply they are massive, more akin to something you expect to see on a GT2 Porsche, rather than a fancy family hauler. However, even brakes as big as the R50’s have their work cut out for them. You can feel them working hard and the harder you work them the less effective they feel. There is no getting around the fact that 2.6 tonnes is - well - 2.6 tonnes.
Out on the track (don’t laugh, this R50 sported four nicely feathered tyres and a curbed rim, from a recent VW R-Series press day at Phillip Island), I’d expect the brakes to be the weak point, despite their impressive proportions.
Performance car enthusiasts will find it takes a while to adjust to the one missing ingredient; an exotic exhaust note. The R50 has what is best described as a diesel locomotive feel to it. At idle there is little diesel clatter, instead the big alloy 5-litre oiler emits a mechanical whirr, like a pint-sized locomotive idling in the shunting yard. Under the whip, the mechanical whirring transforms into a purposeful roar. It’s by no means unpleasant, but if you are used to large capacity high performance petrol powered cars, then it will take some getting used to.
The best part of a day and 800klms later I arrived in Victor Harbour. The entire trip had been made without stopping for fuel, in fact the R50 returned an average of 10.4 L/100km over the course of the week that it was in my care. Astounding fuel economy given the performance, size and weight of the R50.
Priced at $134,990 ‘off the rack’, the R50 rather oddly represents some kind of performance SUV bargain. Sure, you can buy quicker European SUVs; Porsche's Cayenne Turbo and BMW's X5 4.8-litre V8 will show the R50 a clean set of heels. Closer to home, our own Ford Territory Turbo is also quicker.
But there is nothing that comes close to offering the R50’s enthralling blend of ‘tough as nails’ looks, stump-pulling torque and wonderful on-road dynamics (all the while sipping rather than slurping the good oil). It’s the smart answer for those looking for a European performance SUV that combines style with substance and performance with efficiency.
Outrageous in concept and execution, the R50 is a belter.
The Last Word
“The R50 is a hoot. With that much diesel under the bonnet you’ll be able to slip on a blue singlet and some stubbies, bolt on an air-horn and hang out in roadhouse restaurants.”
- Aggressive styling
- Massive torque
- Car-like handling
- On-Road presence
- Brutal acceleration
- Superb (optional) stereo and sat nav system
- Fuel efficiency
- Buying new tyres would be a bummer
Price of standard Touareg R50 - $134,990
Price as tested - $147,660
Options fitted to test vehicle
- Dynaudio 600W premium audio with 10 channel amplifier and
10 speakers - $2,690
- Automatic opening and closing tailgate via remote and button on
tailgate - $1,490
- Electric glass sunroof, slide and tilt adjustable with sunblind - $2,290
- Satellite navigation system (RNS510) with rear view camera - $6,200
|Engine||R50 V10 TDI|
|Type||10 cyl ‘V’ bi-turbo diesel|
|Cubic capacity||litres/cc 5.0/4921|
|Max power, kW @ rpm||258 @ 3500|
|Max torque, Nm @ rpm||850 @ 2000|
|Fuel system||Bosch EDC 16 with unit injectors (Pumpe Düse)|
|Emission level||EU IV|
|CO2 emission||333 g/km|
|Gearbox||6 speed Tiptronic automatic with Dynamic Selection Program (DSP)|
|Suspension||Air suspension with 3 damper settings: Automatic, Sport & Comfort|
|Variable ride height||• Loading level 140mm |
• Road level 195mm
• Off-road level 220mm
• Extra level 280mm
|Low range gear ratio||2.66|
|Performance||0 – 100km/h, seconds 6.8|
|Fuel consumption||Combined, L/100km 12.6|
|Fuel tank capacity||100 Litres|
|Tare Mass||2532 kg|
|Towing Capacity Braked||3500 kg|
|Towing Capacity Unbraked||750 kg|