First Drive: 2004 Volkswagen Touareg Women with money to burn, your vehicle has finally arrived. That is until the Porsche flavor is released... By D. John Booth So secret that there's still not a press release on its technical specifics, the sport-utility that looks like a Volkswagen but goes like a Porsche won't go on sale here until next June and won't even be officially released to the North American motoring public until the North American International Auto Show in January 2003. But the Touareg (named after a band of nomadic African merchants who make their living distributing salt) looks to have an immediate impact when it goes on sale here in the United States next year. For starters, it'll be the first SUV to offer one, and possibly two, engines with more than eight cylinders. Though it won't be available initially, the Touareg will eventually offer the 6.0-liter W12 that we'll see first in the top-of-the-line Phaeton sedan. It promises 420 horsepower, more than either BMW's X5 4.6iS or Mercedes-Benz's AMG-tuned ML55, with Volkswagen claiming a 0-to-60 time of fewer than 7 seconds. The other multi-cylinder engine is the V10 turbo diesel Volkswagen has recently developed. As if its 313 peak horsepower isn't enough, the engine boasts 553 pound-feet of torque. That's good enough to propel the approximately 4,900-pound SUV (final specs haven't been set for much of the Touareg including final weights for the specific models) to 60 mph in fewer than 8 seconds. And while the W12 guzzles gas to the tune of 15.4 mpg, the turbo diesel gets an econocar-like 23.8 mpg. Whether we get it will depend on whether VW can clean up its exhaust particulates to California's liking and more crucially, according to new CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder, the acceptance of the American public for any diesel engine, no matter how sophisticated. The two engines that will be available right away are a 220 hp 3.2-liter V6 that gets the Touareg to 60 in fewer than 10 seconds and the 4.2-liter V8 that now sees duty in Audi's top-of-the-line A8. It pumps out 310 horsepower and accelerates the SUV to 60 in fewer than 8 seconds, but neither engine can match the diesel for fuel economy. Of the two engines that will first be available, we prefer the V6. Likely to be substantially less expensive than the V8, it doesn't feel dramatically less powerful. More importantly, it's got adequate torque and will have no trouble keeping pace with Mercedes' ML320 and BMW's X5 3.0. The V8 would also find commendation if it weren't for the exemplary performance of the 5.0-liter turbo diesel. Wonderfully smooth and tremendously powerful at low rpm, the V10 is one diesel that feels more sophisticated than its gasoline equivalent. In fact, because it's turning far fewer rpm at peak power than the gasoline-fed V8, the TDI actually makes less noise. Only at idle does the typical diesel clatter intrude and even then, it's mostly heard by those outside the cabin rather than the Touareg's passengers. Besides, maybe a butch engine like the V10 TDI is just what Volkswagen needs to convince the American motoring public that its new SUV is the real deal. And though we didn't try the W12-powered Touareg, we did sample that engine in the Phaeton sedan, and the V10, at least for SUV purposes, was still our motor of choice. All of the engines will be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that features a paddle-shifting Tiptronic function. The paddles, located behind the steering wheel, are large and more easily manipulated than the typical steering wheel-mounted buttons. A six-speed manual is offered in V6 models in Europe, but there's no official word whether it will be sold in North America. Despite the obvious sophistication of its powertrains, Volkswagen is convinced that the Touareg will see more offroad duty than comparable SUVs. That's why all models will offer minimum approach and departures angles of 28 degrees. That's better than most SUVs but still behind the Range Rover and Hummer H2. The Touareg's transfer case normally splits torque 50/50 between the front and rear axles. But an electronically controlled multi-disc clutch can send 100 percent of the power to either axle. Of course, there's a low range set of gears in the transfer case, accessed by a rotary dial on the center console. The only choice is all-wheel-drive high or all-wheel-drive low, though there are additional settings to lock the center and (optional) rear differentials. Though a locking front diff is available in Europe, North America won't be seeing it until the second model year. There's even going to be what Volkswagen calls an Extreme Offroad package that will feature an air suspension for more ground clearance, superior departure angles (to 34 degrees, says VW) and increased suspension articulation as well as additional skid plates and more aggressive tires. We got to test the standard models on Volkswagen's offroad test facility near Wolfsburg, Germany. Considering that VW has no history of offroading, the Touareg handled the bumps, hills and uneven tracks with aplomb. But none of the course was as challenging as the one Land Rover tests on, so the educated guess is that the Touareg won't quite match the segment's perennial offroad leader. Suspension is independent at all four wheels with double wishbones all round. Air suspension is offered that includes an on-board air compressor that can inflate the 195/75R18 spare in the event of a flat (optional is a rear swing gate that incorporates a fullsize spare). In the current stage of development, the standard tire fitment for the V6 is 235/65R17s and 255/55R18s for the V8; 275/45R19s are optional. The big surprise are the front six-piston Brembo brakes, surely a case of overkill in an offroad-oriented vehicle. Indeed, braking performance is incredibly sharp and unlikely to fade. At low speeds, however, the Touareg feels all of its 2½ tons with rather sluggish steering. Once above 15 mph, however, the Touareg seems to shed about a ton of that weight and feels far sportier. The extra cylinders of the V8 make it a little less fleet than the V6, but surprisingly the V10 feels no worse than the 4.2-liter eight-cylinder. In any of its guises, the Touareg is still not at the BMW X5's level, but the handling definitely shows a certain Germanic "touring" heritage. Externally, Volkswagen calls the Touareg "individualistic." If that doesn't make a vision of offroading pop into your subconscious, think of the new Volvo XC90 and add a couple of inches of length behind the rear wheel. Inside, the decor is very reminiscent of the BMW X5, but there's much more trunk space. Also, the center console, which houses the air conditioning and audio switchgear, has been cleaned up significantly. All Touaregs will come with six airbags as well as antilock brakes. What? No flower vase?! Since the Touareg is so far from production, pricing hasn't been set. But the U.S. arm of VW says we can expect suggested retail prices that "range from the low to mid $30,000 to about $60,000." Whether that top figure is for the V8 (making it seem a tad overpriced) or the projected W12 (making it a relative bargain) is unsure. Considering that the sure-to-be-more-expensive Porsche Cayenne shares the same platform, transmission, suspension design and all-wheel-drive system and differs mainly in the engine, suspension tuning and the transfer case's torque split (the Porsche directs more power to the rear axle for sportier oversteer), it makes the Touareg seems even more cost effective. Volkswagen expects to sell 25,000 Touaregs annually. It may be late to the party, but initial inspection says that all those loyal VW aficionados will snap them up promptly.