The Touareg TDI is not your father’s Oldsmobile. I know, because I unfortunately drove my father’s 85HP, 1983 Cutlass Cierra diesel when I was a kid. Since my dad was a glutton for punishment, this was not his first unreliable GM diesel; we also had a 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser with the infamous diesel V8. After about 30,000 miles, both our diesels smoked like a 60 year old hooker. Since potential clean diesel shoppers seem to fall into the 30-60 year old demographic, this is still the image that diesel brings to mind for many, not the reliable but low-volume European diesels from the 70s and 80s. If sales numbers are any indication however, BMW Mercedes and VW have been changing the tide of public opinion.
VW has been trying hard to overcome perceptions of diesels for some time with varying tactics. The old V10 TDI in the previous Touareg proved that a diesel could be fast and thirsty, the previous generation Jetta TDI proved diesels can be terribly slow but incredibly efficient. The new Touareg TDI is VW’s latest attempt to prove that 90% of Americans could live with a diesel every day. At 225HP, and 406lb-ft of twist they might just be on to something. For reference this more torque than the 380HP supercharged hybrid Touareg we tested in January SUV making it the “torquiest” Touareg on these shores. (European buyers are able to spec a 4.2L V8 which wins the torque award by a hair.)
The diesel Touareg receives the same high quality interior as the Touareg hybrid we recently reviewed. Dash parts are suitably squishy, panels are aligned with Germanic precision and if it weren’t for the two-letter logo on the steering wheel you’d think you were inside a modern Audi. American shoppers are unable to buy a Touareg on these shores with VW’s “Driver Assistance Pack” which in the Euro-zone contains radar cruise control and a blind spot warning system. This omission seems contrary to the obviously high-class interior and fairly hefty price tag.
Speaking of pricing, our Touareg TDI came with the $9,950 “Executive package” raising our tester to $57,500 from the $47,950 sticker worn by base TDI models. While this may seem a tad spendy, the 2011 Touareg TDI is a far cry in pricing from the last oil-burning SUV VW sold on these shores. One of the ways VW has accomplished this price reduction is by discontenting and bundling options together into packages. The base model is fairly well featured as it stands; the $3,850 “Lux” package adds 19-inch wheels, panoramic sunroof, walnut trim, leather seats with 12-way adjustable driver’s sear and electric rear seat releases. Stepping up to the “Executive package” we tested gets the buyer 20-inch rubber, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, keyless entry & go, parking sensors and the up-level Dynaudio sound system. All Touareg TDI models regardless of package have the easy-to-use VW RNS 850 navigation system with iPod/USB integration, Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio.
VW’s latest Navigation uses a bright, high resolution eight-inch color touch-screen display that is easy to read even in direct sunlight. The latest version of VW’s navigation software continues to be touch-driven in contrast to Mercedes’ COMMAND system, BMW’s iDrive and even VAG’s own Audi brand’s MMI. The screen layouts are logical and easy to follow, the 3D mapping is on par with most systems as well. I would prefer such a system to be mounted higher on the dash thereby increasing the ease of use (and lowering distraction) while driving. Compared to BMW’s latest iDrive however the VW system seems less polished. One of the oddities that turned into something of an annoyance during our week was the traffic notification system. It’s great that the Touareg’s telematics system receives traffic information, however unlike most modern systems VW chose not to overlay the map with colored lined to indicate traffic speeds on major highways.
The Touareg TDI uses the same engine as its close cousin the Audi Q7. First released in 2004, this 3.0 liter, 24-valve DOHC powerplant is well known in Europe and found under the hood of vehicles such as the Phaeton, Audi A8, and Porsche Cayenne. With luxury brands using this engine refinement is the name of the game. While I was unable to test cold-winter starts since I live in sunny California, morning temperatures were around 31 degrees the week the TDI slept in my driveway. Unlike diesels we all remember the TDI cranked just like a gasoline engine. On cold mornings I did notice a tiny hint of vibration and clatter when the engine first started, but after a few seconds the engine quiets down to a purr smoother than I thought a diesel was capable of.
Out on the road the 225HP and prodigious torque are more than adequate to get the Touareg moving on a short freeway onramps. Our own 0-60 test executed in 6.97 seconds which is fairly close to what other publications have recorded and significantly faster than VW’s own 0-60 claims. I can only conclude that VW doesn’t want to show up the base Cayenne which is advertised at [an untested] 7.1 seconds to 60 with a professional driver and a manual and 7.4 seconds to 60 for slushbox drivers. Even if Porsche has underrated the stoplight performance of the Cayenne, these are some impressive numbers for an SUV that tips the scales at 4,974lbs as tested. Turbo lag is minimal for a diesel, that is to say it reminds me of driving a 1980s turbo car: the lag is there but it can be a pleasant companion. Probably the biggest reason the 3.0L V6 is so livable is the new 8-speed ZF automatic transmission. The ZF 8HP45 employs close ratios to help keep the engine in its relatively narrow power band (compared to a turbocharged gasoline engine). The resulting feel seems well suited to the diesel engine while the same transmission in the hybrid left me occasionally asking what was wrong with the 6-speed.
Off road, the TDI is (as one would expect), an excellent companion having well suited gear ratios and abundant torque at low speeds for crawling up steep inclines. The problem of course with the Touareg as a true off-road vehicle is the sales demographic in the USA: buyers of the previous go-anywhere SUV thought “anywhere” meant suburban outlet stores instead of the downtown mall. Because of this lack of demand and a desire to keep weight and costs down, all the fun off road bits aren’t sold in the USA. Not only did VW decide to keep the more capable 4xMotion 4WD system with low range a Euro-only option, but the adjustable-height suspension remains off-limits for American Shoppers. US buyers are also treated to a fairly ridiculous looking collapsible spare tire. Still, the factory ground clearance of 7.9-inches and full-time AWD 4Motion system are more than adequate for even a journey on the Rubicon Trail.
With the demise of the old Explorer, and the death of all GM’s GMT360 variants, most mid-size SUVs sold in the US no longer contain the RWD based drivetrains that permit moderate towing capacities around 7,000lbs. If you are searching for a vehicle that is suitable for commuting on weekdays and towing your Eddie Bauer Airstream or horse trailer with two ponies on weekends, a mid-size diesel SUV makes plenty of economic sense. The diesel Touareg is rated to tow a segment leading 7,700lbs which is nothing to sniff at. In comparison: the Mercedes ML350 BlueTEC is rated at 7,200lbs and the BMW X5 xDrive35d is rated at 6,500lbs.
If American metal is more your thing, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango twins can tow almost as much (7,400lbs) but must be equipped with the thirsty 5.7L V8 to do so. Rounding out the tow-capable SUVs, are the V8 Nissan Pathfinder (7,000lbs) and Lexus GX460 (6,500lbs). Our tester was not equipped with a class three hitch, but my local VW dealer as kind enough to loan me a Touareg TDI properly equipped for some mountain towing fun. 4,000lbs of bricks in a 2,100lb trailer proved no problem for the Touareg’s 406lb-ft of torque. Again making the Touareg the livable to tow is the 8-speed ZF automatic. Anyone who has tried towing a heavy trailer uphill with an old Dodge Ram with the old Cummins engine and 4-speed transmission knows the pain of finally hitting the power band only to have the transmission upshift and leave you back at square one.
Of course any of the competition we mentioned will tow a trailer comparably well, but the Touareg TDI’s advantage is fuel economy. While the new Durango is average for the pack with EPA numbers of 14/20, the Touareg boasts an EPA rating of 19/29 which is a touch higher than the BMW and Mercedes diesel SUV offerings. During out week with the Touareg we averaged 27.7MPG in mixed driving on the first tank, an impressive 30.5MPG on a 160-mile road trip, and 16.5MPG while towing two-tons of bricks. Compared to the base V6 Touareg, this represents a 24% increase in observed fuel economy for a $3,000 premium. Out here on the left coast, the cost of premium to fuel your base Touareg averaged $4.41 on 4/18/2011 and diesel was $4.48 (according to the CA Energy Commission), making the break-even point somewhere around 75,000 miles depending on your driving style.
As our 1050-mile week with the Touareg drew to a close I realized that it had only visited the diesel pump once during the week for an expensive 22-gallon fill-up eking 610 miles out of the first tank. VW has managed to create what GM failed to with the Tahoe Hybrid: An SUV that delivers good mileage with or without a trailer attached that has a bit of off-road cred tossed in (just in case). That being said, the high cost of diesel and the relative uncertainty of what is undeniably still a niche market in America should be a concern for shoppers. Still, if the era of high-fuel prices turns out to be our permanent future, VW’s TDI SUV makes a compelling alternative. If you’re shopping for a Touareg, just walk right past that base V6 model on the floor and give the TDI a try.
Volkswagen provided the test vehicle, insurance and a tank of diesel.
Performance statistics as tested:
0-30: 2.2 seconds
0-60: 6.97 seconds
Average economy: 27.7MPG (observed:30.5MPG Highway)