One Tough SUV

VW's Touareg blends off-road chops and luxury.

Let's just say I never expected a vehicle like this from Volkswagen, a brand better known for its quirky little Beetles and youthful Passats. But VW's Touareg sport-utility vehicle, which went on sale this summer, is no car-based crossover, no Passat wagon on steroids. It's a real SUV, with full-time four-wheel drive, designed to be driven off-road. There's even an optional suspension to raise it nearly 12 inches off the ground, enough clearance for the biggest bumps and boulders (and an inch more than the Hummer H2.)

It's also a luxury car, with all the refinement of a Mercedes-Benz (CDX ) or BMW. At a base price of $35,515, or $41,315 for the V-8 version, it's the most expensive car VW has ever sold in the U.S. But, unlike its German competitors, the Touareg's base models come loaded with such standard features as dual-zone climate controls, a sunroof, heated seats, and rain-sensing wipers. The Touareg does not stint on safety equipment, either -- with standard antilock brakes and skid control and with front side-impact air bags and side curtain bags to protect your head.

The interior is VW's best yet, with comfy leather seating for five (standard on the V-8, part of a $2,200 premium upgrade on the V-6) and an instrument cluster with jewel-like, chrome-rimmed gauges. Yes, that's real walnut and real aluminum trim. The one gaffe inside is the optional ($2,350) navigation system. It's a primitive design that uses the in-dash audio CD player -- so you have to choose between maps or music.

On the road, the car feels heavy, and it is. The Touareg tips the scales at more than 5,000 pounds. I thought it took too much pressure on the accelerator to get it going from a dead stop -- but once moving, it was surprisingly agile. Handling is more responsive than I expected from such a heavy vehicle, and it takes corners and curves with aplomb -- and none of that tippy feeling common to SUVs as tall as this one. It's a smooth ride on highways, but things can get a bit bumpy on bad city streets.

Where you pay for the weight, of course, is at the pump: The V-8 gets 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 18 on the highway, and the V-6 version is only a mile or two better. Worse, Volkswagen recommends using premium fuel.

About the name: It's pronounced tour-regg, and VW says it's named after a tribe of nomads in the Sahara called the Tuareg (pronounced twa-regg.) Whatever. VW's first-ever SUV, with its upscale polish and its go-anywhere comportment, is bound to set a higher standard in a field increasingly populated by crossover SUVs that get their muscle from souped-up styling alone.

By Larry Armstrong

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