Moab has become the new "in" place for manufacturers to demonstrate the off-road abilities of their latest vehicles. Hummer did it when it debuted the H2 to the press last year, and Volkswagen followed suit this spring with the launch of its new V-6- and V-8-powered Touareg SUV.
That's right. Moab. Those of you who thought VW's new SUV would be just another crossover station wagon were mistaken. This five-passenger, midsize sport/ute can 'wheel, and VW showed off that capability by having a bunch of journalists drive the new SUV over Hell's Revenge. Granted, we did bypass Dump Bump, Potato Salad Hill, and the Tip-Over Challenge. But to the vehicle's credit, VW had one of its engineers drive a Touareg up Tip-Over to show it could be done with an experienced hand at the wheel. Otherwise we followed the same trail that the Jeeps do, led by local guide Dan Mick.
Not only did we traverse Hell's Revenge with little fuss, we did it with street air pressure in the all-terrain tires and without locking the center or rear differentials, a capability that's available via a dial on the center console. (Unlike other full-time systems, the Touareg's center diff doesn't automatically lock when the transfer case is in low range.) VW's 4xMotion full-time 4WD system and its Differential Control Module did a good enough job of proportioning torque via the center diff's multiplate clutch that we didn't have to lock anything up. At least we didn't on the slickrock, or on the dirt roads we drove in nearby Canyonlands National Park. We'll have to spend more time on different types of terrain to really explore the limits of this computer-controlled system, but our first impressions were good.
The 4xMotion system is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted one of three ways. Leave it in Drive and it'll seamlessly change gears up and down at fairly low revs to maximize fuel economy. Drop it into the Sport mode and the tranny holds gears into higher rpm levels for better acceleration. Or move the lever into Tiptronic mode and you can shift for yourself-push the lever forward to upshift, back to downshift.
You'll need to be in First gear and in low range to make use of the Hill Descent Control, which automatically cuts engine torque and applies the brakes to control the Touareg's speed when descending a steep hill. The system works well-it feels like the best compression braking you've ever experienced-and is far smoother in operation than a similar system on the '03 Toyota 4Runner. Experienced 'wheelers will want to use the pedals themselves, but that's another neat feature built into this system. If the Touareg's downhill speed isn't right for you, applying a little throttle or brake will change vehicle speed, not defeat the system altogether.
Speaking of throttle control, we found it much easier to modulate the V-6's gas pedal when crawling than the V-8's. For some reason the V-8 we drove wanted to surge forward under even the lightest pedal effort, not a good thing when you're trying to ease the nose of a brand-new truck up to a tall stairstep. The V-6, on the other hand, was very manageable and had enough beans (220 hp/225 lb-ft) to pull the 5,000-pound-plus vehicle up low-speed obstacles.
On the road, however, the 310hp V-8 was our hands-down favorite. Smooth, quiet, and powerful, it was obviously meant to cruise at Autobahn speeds. The V-6 did all right on the street, but the difference in output was heightened by more noise and vibration coming from under the six's hood.
What else does the new VW offer four-wheelers? We really liked the optional air suspension system, which gives the Touareg adjustable damping rates and adjustable ride height. The damping can be put on "auto" mode, which uses wheel acceleration sensors to monitor road conditions and automatically adjust suspension valving. Or you can dial in a "sport" setting for a firm ride, or "comfort" for a soft one.