Volkswagen Touareg international preview drive
Standing proudly on Volkswagen's excellent MLB platform, the all-new Toureg proves that fancy badges and exalted prices are no impediment to the new-gen Touareg’s ambitions.
It’s been eight years since Volkswagen’s last new-generation Touareg graced the planet with its inoffensively smooth but relatively unremarkable form – banishing the quality-control bugs of the original yet not quite achieving the authority to dominate a burgeoning SUV market. But that’s all about to change with this third-generation tour-de-force.
Beneath the new Touareg’s handsome sheetmetal lies the expensive bones of the latest Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus, and that bodes well for the hopes and desires of the largest, most sophisticated product Volkswagen currently builds. So why not head to the continent which inspired its unusual model name and see if the tough new Touareg really is a cast-iron fist in a lightweight velvet glove?
DAY 1 - Marrakech to Merzouga (the edge of the Sahara desert - 588km)
If word association is an artform, then the Wolfsburg wunderkind have taken that concept and concreted it into mass consumption. We’re about to tackle a four-day Moroccan desert extravaganza in Volkswagen’s all-new SUV – the third to derive its name from a nomadic Berber tribe from the Sahara region – yet this synergy is no brainwave of contemporary marketing genius.
The Touareg nameplate has evolved in much the same way as many models dreamed up by Wolfsburg since the 1970s, spritzing German engineering with a hint of the exotic. Passat (a trade wind), Scirocco (a hot North African wind), Eos (a Greek island), Lupo (Italian for ‘wolf’), Corrado (Italian for the male name ‘Conrad’) – you get the idea.
But with Touareg, the locality perfectly reflects the product.
To get a jump on Marrakech’s fatalistic peak-hour traffic, our seven-strong Touareg crew departs the hotel in darkness and begins a day-long trek to a desert camp not far from Rissani, 588km east. Once we’ve navigated the notoriously twisty and challenging Atlas mountains that border Marrakech, our German guides reckon it’s a relatively straight drive – “much like the Australian outback”, apparently, even though none of them have been there. It’s nothing of the sort.
Our steeds are identical metallic-silver Mk3 Touaregs, each underselling their fully loaded specification with smallish 18-inch alloys clad with knobbly General Grabber 225/60R18 tyres intended to play a crucial role once we reach the desert.
On the surface, there’s an R-Line package with Matrix LED headlights, a perforated-leather interior, a full-length glass sunroof, a top-spec 730-watt 14-speaker Dynaudio stereo, and an almost intimidatingly large ‘Innovision cockpit’ that fills the instrument binnacle with an Active Info Display and blends that seamlessly into a television-sized 15-inch tablet spanning the driver-focused centre console.
Yet underneath is where the real magic lies. Adaptive air-sprung suspension, active anti-roll bars at both ends, and the wonders of four-wheel steering manage to make the substantial Touareg feel like a much smaller car. It’s a testament to modern chassis engineering that a two-tonne SUV like this – albeit one that has lost up to 106kg in its model change-over – feels so creamily smooth and so effortlessly agile.
It takes hours for the mountains to subside as we pass through dozens of salmon-coloured towns, each contrasting against the amazingly varied, painted-backdrop landscapes that litter Northern Africa. Rocky red mountains, black volcanic plains, oasis-filled valleys bursting with date palms, velvet-green mountain ranges stretching to the horizon, and even snow. It’s a prehistoric pleasure palace filled with visual riches impossible to describe, or even illustrate, with the accuracy to do them justice.
All the while our Touareg is eating up the distance with staggering ease. Packing the most powerful turbo-diesel V6 currently offered in Volkswagen’s new large SUV, the 3.0-litre complies with strict Euro 6d emissions regulations and punches out a solid 210kW from 3500-4000rpm and a whopping 600Nm of torque from 2250-3250rpm.
Tied to an eight-speed automatic transmission with a delightfully ergonomic, palm-friendly gear shifter, at our 100-130km/h cruising speeds – contrasted with plenty of foot-flat overtaking past the stopped cars and animal herds that Morocco randomly throws at you – the Touareg’s trip computer is reading just over 9.0L/100km.
And this baby is quiet. Even on knobbly tyres, there’s a hush to VW’s largest vehicle that makes it feel expensive. With all those options, it probably is expensive, though not in the context of its pricier brand buddies.
DAY 2 - Dunes baby (65km)
The day’s schedule transcribes a not-so-large loop from our desert glamp-camp on the outskirts of Rissani to the genuine sand mountains of Erg Chebbi. Looks like a piece of cake. It isn’t.
‘Training’ begins in some neat little sand valleys and foothills dwarfed by the actual mountain we’ll later be scaling. And it’s bucketloads of fun, providing you keep your right foot fairly active to prevent the Touareg from getting stuck. That’s the foundation of successful sand driving.
To prime the Touareg for mini-Paris-Dakar fun, we press the central ‘SYNC’ button in the drive-mode dial next to the driver, then tap ‘Off Road’ on the central Innovision display, then ‘Sand’. This enables the ESC stability control to be completely disabled because momentum is your friend in conditions like this.
On the baby bumps, the 210kW/600Nm Touareg devours the terrain. You actually need to back off a bit because the diesel V6 has so much grunt, allowing the driver to “feel” the sand, according to our sandal-wearing German instructor ‘Weilo’, rather than tear the bejeezus out of it. But to scale the real sand mountain near our lunch stop, we need every ounce of output the Touareg has.
Now, I probably should mention that I loathe heights. For me, they’re nightmarish. Childhood memories of being stopped at the top of a Ferris wheel or being taken to the viewing deck of Sydney’s Centrepoint tower aren’t comforting ones, so scaling a 60-storey-high sandhill that rises outta nowhere from a vast sandy valley isn’t a bucket-list scenario. I offer to go first.
Once our Touareg has navigated a sharp lower ditch, I lock it into second gear and keep my right foot pinned. The big Volksy claws its way right to the very top. Only at the last minute, as I catch a glimpse of the tiny silver Touaregs still parked at base camp, and the vast canyon surrounding us that marks the border of Algeria, I freeze and bog the thing.
The unsettling vision of the lead Touareg parked at an extreme angle, with a sand mountain peaking at a dizzying point in the sky can do that to anyone afflicted with vertigo. But a bit of digging, full height on the air suspension and full lock on the four-wheel steering pries it free. And hill-descent control on the way down at least takes some of the responsibility away from my quivering fingertips.
Back on flatter surfaces, the Touareg continues to bound energetically along over yumpy sand dunes and slidey dirt tracks to our overnight stay in a Rapunzel-like castle hotel in the Berber camp Ksar Bicha. This is camel-riding country, with some of them looking prettier than a man wearing lippy. It’s also where old Renaults go to die.
Among the hordes of Renault 4s, 5s, 12s and 18s still plying the streets, and every African farming animal you can name, the glimmer of the LED running lights on our new Touareg fleet acts like a beacon for attention, even when covered in dust. Yet the only heat our German guides ever cop is from other Germans abroad, emailing the Volkswagen address on the rear window to question why respectfully driven, super-clean SUVs are polluting the Moroccan landscape.
DAY 3 - Ksar Bicha to Boumalne Dades (274km)
A bit of rain never hurt anybody and it certainly isn’t enough to stop the all-wheel-drive Touareg from powering its way to Boumalne Dades on the edge of a desert plateau in the upper Dades Valley, more than 1500m above sea level. What the moist and misty landscape does do is provide time to appreciate the Touareg’s lush furnishings.
Riding on virtually the same (2894mm) wheelbase as the new Porsche Cayenne – 100mm shorter than a seven-seat Audi Q7’s – the third-gen Touareg is blessed with an abundance of vision and interior space, especially up front. Featuring heated and cooled 18-way electric seats in our R-Line version, and a commanding mise-en-scene unfolding beyond the big Volksy’s broad bonnet, it’s an incredibly pleasant place to spend time.
This car’s Dynaudio stereo is a cabin-filling delight and Volkswagen’s now-generic three-spoke leather steering wheel continues to feel like it’s designed for your anatomy, especially when all four wheels are doing the steering. There’s an easy, breezy confidence to guiding this turbo-diesel Touareg, and if you’re careful with throttle inputs, it’ll deliver a fuel-consumption figure as low as 6.0L/100km. But then it’s also surprising fun when you’re having a lash, without any detriment to its superb refinement.
Parked at the pretty-in-pink Xaludes Dades Hotel, I remove empty chip packets and luggage from our back seat and inspect the new Touareg’s rear confines. Our fully-equipped test car features dual-zone rear climate control, air vents in both the centre console and the B-pillars, and a flip-down panel with a 12-volt outlet, a pair of USB ports and a wall-plug outlet-type slot.
It’s mega-roomy in there too, with copious amounts of legroom and foot space, though not the vision enjoyed by the front occupants. The outer rear passengers stare more at the backs of the fore-aft-adjustable front headrests than the direction of travel, though with plenty of recline in the rear-seat backrest, you could spend many hours resting your eyelids back there in air-conditioned comfort. And the Touareg’s vast cargo space plays a fine supporting role.
DAY 4 - Return to Marrakech (329km)
Our final day is the first time we require the second height setting on the new Touareg’s adaptive air suspension – raising it by 70mm. We peel off the Road of the Kasbah and head for a rocky river bed that runs through the UNESCO world heritage town of Ait-Benhaddou.
It’s a rocky, stream-strewn path littered with boulders that could snag the undercarriage – even with 258mm of total ground clearance (13mm more than a Q7) – but with eyes peeled it’s like playing on a swing-set for the knobbly-tyred Touareg.
Hundreds of stairs and a panoramic vista from Ait-Benhaddou’s 17th-century pinnacle are followed by a 71km off-road thrash that takes us the long way to the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass and a late lunch in a delightful little café-restaurant called Assanfou. A clean western dunny is the reward, along with an Italian espresso machine, a proper coffee and cracking food. Perfect preparation for our final leg down one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
The 110km journey home to Marrakech retraces our day-one exit strategy, snaking through the Atlas Mountains on the glorious but treacherous road called the Tichka Pass. Built as a military road by the French in 1936, it reaches almost 2300m above sea level and features ominous reminders that it doesn’t suffer fools, with many sections of Armco hanging over the edge.
Given my love of heights, I focus intently on the road ahead, which is a riot. Perfectly surfaced sections, some with overtaking lanes that enable full use of the Touareg’s pace (Volkswagen claims 0-100km/h in 6.1sec and 238km/h flat out) and the unexpected poise of this SUV’s chassis in Sport mode, Segway straight into something reminiscent of a goat track.
To give them some credit, the Moroccans are upgrading it – and the bits they’ve finished are superb (take note Australia!) – but there’s no such thing as OH&S in Northern Africa. More like survival of the fittest, of which the TDI Touareg is far more suited-to-purpose than some of the kamikaze-like driving surrounding us.
Word on the walkie-talkies quickly warns of the madman in the patisserie van, hell bent on winning the Moroccan grand prix and the downhill bobsled, as well as getting his fresh croissants to market. It’s wincingly entertaining. But the hit-and-miss mess that is peak hour in Marrakech isn’t fun. Getting the Touaregs back to the hotel undamaged is a feat in itself.
What all that chaos doesn’t do is distract from the excellence of the new-gen Touareg. Even on the least-suited tyres possible, it feels polished and rewarding to drive – favouring effortlessness over sportiness but that’s the USP of an SUV like this. Low-speed turbo lag and transmission dithering aside, its breadth of ability is tremendous.
Based on our Moroccan adventure in a full-specification vehicle, the third-generation Touareg stands out as the first product since the Mk7 Golf of six years ago to truly encapsulate all of Volkswagen’s sophisticated qualities into one incredibly dapper, relatively egalitarian package.
This new-generation Volkswagen SUV is a premium proposition with class-leading build quality and technology, unhindered by the pricing legacy of its branding …. though we won’t know what our new Touareg will cost until its launch date approaches next May. Australia won’t see a full range then either – that’ll occur later in 2019.
There’s no doubt a fully-stocked Touareg won’t be cheap, but in the context of its DNA relatives, there’s a strong chance this disruptive VW version won’t be popular at family get-togethers.
Audi must be saluting the engineering gods for not making the Touareg a seven-seater, and Porsche must be hoping its Wolfsburg parent doesn’t do a proper R version because this lovely VW SUV has the potential to successfully cross the floor in both directions.
2019 Volkswagen Touareg 3.0 TDI 4motion price and specifications
Price: From $70,000 (estimated)
Engine: 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6
Power: 210kW at 3500-4000rpm
Torque: 600Nm at 2250-3250rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, AWD
Fuel use: 6.6L/100km
Having completed an Arts degree in English Literature and Film, Ponch started out at Hot 4s & Performance Cars magazine in 1997, honing his distaste for bodykits and commercial doof-doof, before editing Australian Volkswagen magazine, then kicking off a 17-year career at ACP/Bauer as Staff Journalist for WHEELS in 2001.