By on May 25, 2011

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)

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38 Comments on “Review: 2011 Volkswagen Touareg TDI...”

  • avatar

    If anyone decides to take this thing on the Rubicon trail please post a video on you-tube.

  • avatar

    “smoked like a 60 year old hooker”

    Best line ever. My grandfather bought a chevy with that olds diesel engine. Really expensive mistake. Last GM he ever bought.

  • avatar

    Diesels? The only experience I have had with them is years ago of sitting behind city buses, eating all that smoky, dark, high particulate matter the tailpipe spewed when they eventually got going after making each stop, until I could either turn or pass them and stay away – far away.

    In recent years, the diesel pickups that roar away obnoxiously because their drivers think they’re in a NASCAR vehicle fantasizing.

    Semi’s – always.

    Cars? Only watching Mercedes through the years.

    Maybe they’ve become driveable now.

    EDIT: Oh yeah…a friend who a few years ago purchased one of the last diesel VW Jettas before diesel engines were banned here(?), proceeded to convert it to running on cooking grease, thereby voiding his warranty, having the system utterly fail, and spending who-knows-what re-converting to diesel only again. I think it runs pretty well, now!

    • 0 avatar

      They have become driveable. Consider this:

    • 0 avatar

      There are a lot of vintage Mercedes diesels around here. Being caught behind one is about as much fun as being caught behind a bus.

      What really chafes is that I have to waste a morning taking my late model gas car in to be smogged every 2 years while the reeking 190d in front of me is exempt.

      • 0 avatar

        I heartily agree. Are you in Ontario as well? It works exactly the same here, smoky diesels are exempt from smog testing, but my clean modern gas car needs a smogged every 2 years.

      • 0 avatar

        Bytor, NEW diesels are not exempt.

        The Drive Clean test for diesel is nonsense. It’s visual only. As in, start car, look at tailpipe and decide pass or fail.

    • 0 avatar

      Wow, you’re really out of touch with current diesel technology. You talk like we’re still in 1985. As of 2011, all diesel passenger cars and trucks that VW sells are 50 state certified and compliant with the EPA’s Tier 2 Bin 5 emission requirements. All on-road diesel is now Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel with sulfur at 15 ppm max (used to be 500 ppm). So modern diesels no longer shoot out black smoke like in the olden days. Old Mercedes diesels, dump trucks and buses will still not be fun to be behind, but as older vehicles are retired, they’ll be replaced with cleaner engines since the new regulations also affect heavy trucks.

      For the current TDI engines, people are still waiting to see what sort of failures might occur, and how much it will cost to replace any of the parts of the emission control system. Which is why I’m holding on to my Jetta TDI for a while longer.

      • 0 avatar
        Diesel Fuel Only

        If it’s an older diesel car and it’s smoking it can usually be traced to one of two sources:

        The injectors are clogged and need cleaning. See #2 below.

        Two, the poor quality diesel fuel used in this country back in the day. And the cheap brand stuff still sold. Really terrible stuff. Even our new and improved ULSD is not as good as what the Europeans get. Of course, there is a price premium that goes with all Euro fuels…

        California also has a higher diesel fuel spec than the rest of the US, if I am not mistaken, because of air quality regs.

  • avatar

    I’ll bet it was quite a relief not having to plug this puppy in every time you parked it!

  • avatar

    How much and How often do you have to fill up the UREA tank for the Rube Goldberg exhaust treatment system??

  • avatar

    The BEP is 75000 miles? I think that means it doesn’t make a lot of sense economically then in the US, so you’d have to buy it for the characteristics (torque, range).

    As for the Touareg, I like it, but not as much as the previous model. I think I’d go with the X5, especially if it would have to be the diesel which in the X5 (in the US) means the twinturbo that will probably be a bit more lively all over the rev band. Although if I’d buy an X5 it’d have to be a petrol version (sweet engines)…

    • 0 avatar

      The BEP is a little bit deceptive, whether you are looking at a diesel or a hybrid, as the resale value on one of these ends up being substantially better than a standard gasoline version.

      Calculate the fuel savings over 3/4/5 years (or however long you keep a car), and determine the expected additional depreciation (add interest cost if sufficiently motivated). If the fuel savings are greater than the addition depreciation, it’s worthwhile for you — if not, stick with the base engine (unless you like diesels/hybrids for other reasons).

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        Harder to price, but definitely worth considering is that the purchase of the more fuel-efficient version of any vehicle (diesel, hybrid) also serves to hedge future fuel price increases during the time of ownership of the vehicle. IOW, the break-even point may be 75k miles at today’s fuel prices, but could be less if fuel prices go up (or, of course more, if fuel prices decline).

  • avatar

    Reliable and low-volume European diesels from the 1970s and 1980s? You’ve never owned a w123(or researched them,) have you? The only person that believes these cars reliable is the person that has never owned one, or is trying to convince themselves their car is something it is not.

    Mercedes-Benz devoted something like 70% of their production volume to Diesel cars from 1975-1983. It wasn’t until the w201 cars were introduced that they began to shift toward Gasoline again.

  • avatar

    Not sure why the Rubicon comment was included. I hope some believers show up with their AWD crossover VWs and learn about hype. I must admit that I was taking the piece seriously until I choked on that credibility obliterating piece of fantasy.

  • avatar

    60 grand (gulp)

    As a retiree on a relatively fixed income, I’ll have to leave this premium iron to you young guys.

  • avatar

    Nice review Alex. I am a bit surprised by your comment about the engine’s “relatively narrow powerband (compared to a turbocharged gasoline engine)” – could you elaborate? I’ve only driven a 4-cyl TDI (140hp 2.0 clean diesel) but my experience has been the opposite – torque curve on those is very broad compared to any gas-turbo I’ve driven.

    • 0 avatar

      Because that is the way it is.

      If you look at the torque curve of the 2.0L TDI vs 2.0L TSI, the Torque starts nice and low on both, but it starts falling much sooner(~2500 RPM) on the TDI and it stays relatively flat on the TSI almost to the point where the TDI redlines (where it has dropped significantly on the TDI) then the the TSI does start dropping and but keeps going for another 2000 more RPM.

      This is pretty standard diesel vs petrol behavior.

      Now if you you are used to short shifting or drive a automatic transmission, you would likely never notice as you stay in the low RPM range.

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      Exactly as Bytor says “If you look at the torque curve of the 2.0L TDI vs 2.0L TSI, the Torque starts nice and low on both, but it starts falling much sooner(~2500 RPM) on the TDI and it stays relatively flat on the TSI almost to the point where the TDI redlines (where it has dropped significantly on the TDI) then the the TSI does start dropping and but keeps going for another 2000 more RPM.”

      This is not a fault of VW but just a general characteristic of turbo diesels in general, and this is exactly why the 8-speed makes all the difference because it keeps the engine in that sweet spot like previous ZFs VW has used never could making the feel very liveable for an American used to a gasoline vehicle.

  • avatar

    Interesting that you compare the Touareg to the Durango a few times, because just last week I drove a Touareg with the VR6 engine to provide one reference point for the Durango I had for a week–review of the latter on Friday. The VW is a nice vehicle, but isn’t outstanding in any way (aside from the TDI’s EPA ratings) and its price tag is steep. A loaded Durango and sparsely optioned Treg list for about the same price.

    Reliability is a big unknown for both of these all-new vehicles. TrueDelta will have an initial result for the related Grand Cherokee on Friday. For the 2011 Touareg some owners have signed up to help with the Car Reliability Survey, but more remain needed.

    To help with the survey, with just about any car:

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      The comparison seemed almost inevitable, based mostly on the towing capacity of the vehicles. I can’t honestly imagine that much cross shopping, even with VW’s market position as a main-line brand, but it seemed to be a sensible comparison point in some respects. I look forward to your look at the Durango.

  • avatar

    How about throwing this engine/transmission combo into the A5, A7, and A6?

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve driven an A5 with the 3.0 TDI (albeit with a 6-speed manual) and an A6 with the same (with the Multitronic CVT). Very nice and refined indeed in the A6, but lighter weight of the A5 combined with the manual gearbox made it a very different animal indeed. There is so much torque that it’s challenging to shift smoothly at full acceleration …

      Of course, not available in North America. At least not for now.

  • avatar

    Mercedes Diesel reliability…. I drove my ’83 300SD (large body small engine) 140K miles in 8-9 years. Never tuned or put a drop of oil in the engine between oil changes. I did need two new vacuum pumps during that time (no engine vacuum to run all of the then non-electric door locks, HVAC
    vent open-close gadgets). Also needed a new transmission at about 100K. Car looked new and ran as horribly slowly on the day I sold it as it did new. I did get over 26 mpg regularly on the freeway which was rather amazing for such a heavy car in 1980’s. Also then diesel was cheaper than regular unleaded.

  • avatar

    Thanks for reminding me why I buy used. $50K – $60K for an SUV? From Volks-frigging-wagen? It is to laugh.

  • avatar

    This must be the perfect car for the current Usa.
    You can have your cake and eat it to.
    Big and frugal.

  • avatar

    According to the VWoA 2012 order sheets:

    Executive trim in VR6 and TDI is “currently unavailable.” Trims in the VR6 and TDI are now Sport, Sport with Navigation, and Lux.

    6 CD in-dash changer now available but only without navigation. With navigation there’s only a single CD player available.

    Rear view camera is now deleted in the Sport trim.

    I personally think that what you get with the Cayenne over the Treg is perhaps worth all that extra $$. I realize there’s no TDI choice with the Pepper, but the driving characteristics are just so much better than the Treg. The Cayenne actually lives up to the ‘sport’ part of SUV. In addition the Treg’s brakes are pathetic by comparison. Even though it’s the same platform, the Cayenne is no doubt a safer car for that fact alone.

    Sure, Porsche’s options are wallet killers but if you’re disciplined, a decently optioned Cayenne (V6) still gives you more good stuff than the decontented Treg, which isn’t exactly cheap either. Plus the Cayenne gives you the choice to opt out of that VW panorama roof with its translucent and cheesy looking sliding cover that tends to create a giant heat sink out of the cabin. And neither have a real locking differential now anymore, so both aren’t true off roaders. I think I’d rather have a castrated off road SUV with at least an emphasis on the S and not just the U.

    The Treg still costs quite a bit even though it’s less than the Cayenne. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of decontenting going on now with a USA bound VW. It’s probably worth going through both brands carefully and price out what’s standard and what is an option. Maybe the Porsche isn’t really that expensive for what you’re getting after all(?)

    • 0 avatar

      The Porsche starts at $48K with the gas engine and that also gives you something I don’t think is available at all on the Touareg, A Manual Transmission.

      For that reason alone, if I was in the $50000 car bracket the Porsche would be my choice.

      • 0 avatar

        I was actually just about to purchase a V6 Cayenne and the main decision was the manual transmission.

        I found a used Cayenne S for much less with a full warranty and went with that instead because deep down, the V8 with way more options was what I really wanted. :-)

  • avatar

    After about eight months, it is ok. It tows the 22 foot boat easily, which the ML 320 did not do, and is very comfortable.
    VW still cannot fix the erratic driver’s seat, the rep is “unavailable”. The mpg is about the same as the AMG’s.
    I was puzzled by the behavior of the all wheel drive system in about eight inches of snow; not linear at all.
    Personally I’ll stick to gasoline.

  • avatar

    Pardon me for asking, but what is a collapsible spare tire?

  • avatar
    Diesel Fuel Only

    “While the new Durango is average for the pack with EPA numbers of 14/20, the Touareg boasts an EPA rating of 19/29”

    And does anyone think that the Durango’s real-world FE is anything near 14/20, as opposed to the TDI’s 27.7 observed in this article?

    If my folk’s Dodge truck is any guide, 15-16 per tank will be the norm.

  • avatar

    I had to drive a VR6 around for a couple hours last week, and I really liked it. Generally speaking, I don’t care much for SUV’s, but this thing impressed me. In my opinion, it’s driving dynamics are HUGLY improved over the previous model and the V6 was surprisingly strong. I was impressed by the ride.

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