The VW Phaeton was the answer to a question no one asked: who wants to buy a $70k Volkswagen? Marketing mishegos aside, "Piech's folly" is a superb car: relatively quick, preposterously quiet and completely comfortable. Lest we forget, VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech is something of a master engineer. He was directly responsible for Porsche's 917; a race car so dominant they canceled the entire race series. Piech also willed the Bugatti Veyron into existence. The Touareg V10 TDI was born from the same world-crushing crucible as the Phaeton and the Veyron. So, how does the uber-oil burner measure up?
NASA's Saturn V rocket burns fuel at the rate of 20 tons per second. The V10 Touareg isn't far behind. Volkswagen laughably lists the 5,825 lbs. SUV's city mileage at 15 mpg. But there's a real time fuel economy meter informing the pilot that even gentle acceleration results in a wallet-draining 3.6 mpg. Get this: it won't display any lower.
The trade off for such irresponsible fuel consumption: power: endless bucketfuls of forward momentum. The Touareg sports a 5.0-liter, 90-degree diesel V10 with an 18:1 compression ratio fed by twin turbochargers. The diesel-fed mega-mill is capable of an impressive-for-a-diesel 310 horsepower. Pfffft. The oil-burning Touareg stumps-up a mind-numbing 553 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2000 rpm.
In any gear, on any incline, on any surface capable of providing what's laughably called "traction," a gentle toe flick sends the Touareg TDI hurtling forward as if it's strapped to the back of a pulling NFL guard. The big VW may not be as quick as the (slightly) lighter Lotus Elise– the TDI Touareg hits 60 mph in 7.5 seconds– but the feeling is equally thrilling. Breaking Newtonian laws always is. And if you're interested, the SUV tops out at 144 mph.
I can read your mind: here we are again in Muscle Car Land. In other words, "stick a monster engine in a Sub-Zero and it'll go like Hell– and handle like a refrigerator." Before 2006– when VW redesigned their off-roader with some 2500 parts– you would have been right. When Farago drove the pre-'06 Touareg TDI, he called it The Mother of All Nose-Heavy Pigs.
I have no clue how the lesser new Touaregs handle, but the big diesel is shockingly competent. True, the steering, brakes, air suspension (and engine) are all over-boosted. There's an artificial numbness to the driving experience that's about as far away from "driver's car" as Lincoln Town Car. That said, I was bombing down curvy roads at 80 to 90 mph in absolute control. Roads that challenge my Subaru WRX at similar speeds.
Much of this surefootedness comes from the mammoth 275/45/R19 tires and the uber-trick AWD (now called 4XMotion) system. But the aforementioned air suspension also deserves maximum credit.
Switching between modes in a car with adjustable suspension is normally an unclothed emperor endeavor. When a professional driver screaming around a test track tells you there's a big difference, you tend to believe them. Not so with the Touareg. Twisting a knob gives you access to six levels of ride height as well as Sport, Auto and Comfort modes.
Select Sport mode and the Touareg hunkers down and amps-up the road feel (to the point where there is some). Comfort raises the car up a few inches. The ride quality goes from pavement-pounding to hydro-cushioned Citroen. Pushing the three-ton hulk over some of North Eastern Los Angeles's worst pavement was surreal. Short of a hovercraft, no vehicle should be that smooth on such crap.
Oh, I almost forgot. When it came time to craft the Touareg's interior, VW's accountants were bound, gagged and stuffed in a broom closet. It's fabulous. From the Porsche-quality leather and stitching to elegant dash materials to the stout switchgear, not a single corner had been cut. Even the glovebox is impressive. Not only is it spacious and air conditioned, but there's a separate compartment for the eight-pound owner's manual.
I can't overemphasize this SUV's all-encompassing solidity. The parking brake pedal sports a re-enforcing piston. Should the trailer hitch fail, I have no doubt the luggage tie downs could substitute.
In sum, the redone Touareg isn't much of a looker, sucks pricey diesel like poets chug wine and (our tester) retails for an astounding, irrecoverable $79,650.
Obviously, the Touareg V10 TDI is a ridiculous anachronism. And yet, aesthetics, badge, environmental responsibility and price aside, it's the finest all around car I've ever driven. Every trip is a special occasion– even if most of them end-up next to a trucker pumping diesel. The pudgy Volksie retains a sense of nobility that comes directly from the hand of Piech. I'm honestly sad that because of gas prices, we'll never see the uncompromising likes of the uber Touareg again. At least until next time.
(Volkswagen furnished the test vehicle, gas and insurance.)