Curbside Classic: 2004 Volkswagen Touareg – Rebel Without A Cause

Volkswagen, which quite literally means “people’s car” in German, was founded on the principal of making the automobile attainable to everyday working people by means of the economical and humble Beetle. While that was a reasonable way to start, as its customers grew wealthier, Volkswagen grew to meet their needs and retain their business with larger and more luxurious automobiles — so much so that by the early 2000s, VW was selling a near-$100,000 W12-powered flagship that competed directly with its Audi A8 corporate sibling, not to mention the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series et al.

Yet all brands have a ceiling, and for Volkswagen, the Phaeton exemplified this to the highest degree. Given its positioning and expected low volume, the flagship Phaeton never had any massive sales expectations, and more or less flew below the radar as anticipated for a car of this class.

Similarly, and to a more meaningful extent given its perceived greater potential, VW’s other vehicle with luxury ambitions and unremarkable success was the Touareg, the brand’s first mass-market SUV. Released at a time when gas was cheap and SUVs were something Americans couldn’t get enough of, it’s surprising that the Touareg didn’t find much acceptance, with sales dramatically falling to minuscule figures after its initial hype.

Introduced late in 2002, the VW Touareg was the product of a joint-venture between Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche, with the goal of creating an SUV capable of superior on-road handling and off-road capability. The results of this joint-venture ultimately manifested in the VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, and Audi Q7, with only the Audi riding on an extended wheelbase to accommodate a third row.

All featured standard all-wheel drive, though the Q7 and Cayenne were tailored more for on-road comfort and performance, whereas the Touareg boasted the greatest off-road capability. Only the Touareg featured a standard two-speed transfer case and automatic locking center differential, allowing up to 100 percent of power transferred to either axle, along with automatic hill-start control and automatic downhill assist.

Furthermore, the Touareg boasted an available locking rear differential, as well as adaptive air suspension with semi-active damping control providing a range of 5.5 inches of height, from load-level at 6.3 inches to X’tra at 11.8 inches.

The Touareg offered a multitude of engine choices over its first generation’s 2002-2010 run, featuring 3.2L V6, 3.6L V6, 4.8L V8, and 6.0L W12 gasoline engines, and 2.5L I5, 3.0L V6, 5.0L V10 turbo direct injected diesel engines, with each offering and output depending on market and model year. Mated to either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, depending on engine, output for most was impressive for the decade. Unfortunately, the Touareg’s hefty curb weight limited both acceleration and fuel economy. In North America where the inline-5 was never offered, only the 3.0L turbodiesel manage to average above 20 miles per gallon in real world testing.

Fitting of its price point and positioning, the VW Touareg offered a host of standard comfort and convenience features, with the base North American-spec V6 model including genuine wood and aluminum trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, side impact and side curtain airbags, dual-power front seats, heated front seats, leatherette upholstery, and power moonroof. V8 models added leather upholstery, 12-way power front seats, extended wood trim, and side rear sunshades, while the V10 added items including xenon headlights and air suspension as standard.

In typical German fashion, an überabundance of extra-cost options and packages were available, their contents ranging from premium stereo, navigation, heated steering wheel and heated rear seats to push-button keyless access, power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, rear parking sensors, and passenger seat memory — and this was just for 2004. Later years of its first generation saw new available options including rearview camera, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, iPod adaptor, adaptive bi-xenon headlights, front and rear obstacle detection, and a power tailgate, the latter two of which became standard by 2008.

Throughout its first generation, the VW Touareg generally received favorable reviews, though it never proved a showstopper in the luxury SUV market. Ride quality was praised for its comfort and composure, though from a handling perspective, steering was criticized for its somewhat vague feel, and in cornering, body roll was more prevalent than in other German competitors. As aforementioned, acceleration and fuel economy were both hampered by the Touareg’s curb weight, which depending on engine and options, could tip the scales at over 5,800 pounds.

While its interior received high marks for fit and finish, it was also criticized for complex controls and inferior ergonomics. Notwithstanding this, the Touareg’s interior was overall a pleasant place to be, with comfortable and supportive seats, ample space, vault-like levels of quietness, and convenience features galore. As expected, the Touareg’s off-road capability was universally applauded.

Despite its many praiseworthy qualities, what could not be overlooked was the fact that the Touareg was a luxury SUV from a non-luxury brand. Aimed squarely against other luxury SUVs with luxury brand credentials, the Touareg forever faced an uphill battle, something further aided by the fact that it wasn’t significantly less pricey than luxury-branded competitors. In many ways, the Touareg was like the one kid at a snooty prep school who didn’t come from a well-known and high-powered family, but merely an “ordinary” one.

Therein lies the Touareg’s trouble: its positioning and price. At least in North America, VW positioned the Touareg as a competitor to the BMW X5 and Mercedes ML (and confusingly, its Audi Q7 platform mate), and priced it accordingly for its six- and eight-cylinder models.

While the Touareg may have been a few thousand dollars less expensive than a comparable X5 or ML, to the discerning luxury SUV buyer, the Touareg’s cost savings didn’t necessarily translate to greater value, as Volkswagen didn’t carry the same prestige and experience as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi.

The Touareg’s failure is something more profound considering that sales of the similarly-sized yet more prestigious and more expensive Mercedes M-Class and BMW X5 held steady during this time, as Touareg sales nosedived. Even more astounding is the fact that the Touareg’s own far more costly platform mate, the Porsche Cayenne, began outselling the Touareg in the United States in 2006, and has done so every year since.

Ultimately, the Volkswagen Touareg was an ambitious effort and an overall competitive one, having all of the on-paper qualifications enabling it to find the same success as its sibling and competitors. Unfortunately, product planners severely miscalculated the Touareg’s ability to break VW’s image as a value brand, and buyers sniffed out its lack of luxury pedigree from miles away.

Best exemplifying Volkswagen’s ceiling, the Touareg was ultimately withdrawn from the North American market in 2017, after nearly 15 years and two generations of underwhelming success. In North America, the Touareg has effectively been replaced in North America by the larger and more value-oriented Atlas, a car whose success is yet to be determined.

In other markets, however, the Touareg has had somewhat better success. A third generation Touareg is set to debut soon, promising even greater levels of luxury that arguably surpass that of its siblings, as if the Touareg’s ambitions weren’t as aggressive enough.

Photographed: Whitman, Massachusetts – January 2018

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