By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
There are three mid-sized (and real-deal, with off-road capability) German-brand crossover SUVs that consume not much more fuel than many current economy cars.
The fuel, of course, is diesel.
And the three are: VW’s Touareg TDI — subject of this review — and its rivals, the BMW X5 diesel and the Mercedes ML350 BlueTec.
Each approaches or even exceeds 30 MPG on the highway — exceptional for 5,000 pounders that can also pull their own weight (and then some) behind the hitch.
So, which one to pick?
A lot depends on how much you want to spend.
And how much you’d like others to know you spent.
WHAT IT IS
The Touareg is VW’s mid-sized/two-row crossover SUV, kin to the Porsche Cayenne (actually, the source from which the Cayenne sprang).
The Porsche has been criticized for being a gussied up VW — and the VW has been criticized for being too expensive for a VW.
Base price for the TDI-equipped Touraeg is $51,610 — vs. $61,700 for the diesel-powered Cayenne.
On the other hand, a TDI Touareg is priced lower (a lot lower) than a BMW X5 diesel ($57,500 to start).
Then again, there’s the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec — which begins at $51,790.
You might also want to cross shop the diesel-powered Audi Q5 (it’s slightly smaller, a notch up from a compact-sized SUV) and/or the Q7 (slightly larger, almost full-sized).
VW has added several new options and trim packages, including a 10th Anniversary Edition, a bird’s eye-view camera system and LED exterior lighting (with the Executive trim and also standard with the Touareg hybrid, which will be reviewed separately).
On the merits, the equal of its rivals — better, in some categories (e.g., it can pull 1,000-plus pounds more than an X5 or Benz ML).
Luxury feel inside — but tastefully “quiet” on the outside. Allows you to run a lower profile than its flashier-looking/richer-repped rivals.
No diesel exhaust fluid (DEF).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The Touareg’s chief weakness is not mechanical or functional — or even equipment-vs.-equipment. It’s the “VW” badge on the tailgate — and the TDI’s $50k-plus MSRP.
Rather than try to compete directly with the prestige-badged competition, VW might be better-advised to try undercutting them.
How about a Touareg with that superb TDI engine — but maybe vinyl rather than leather seating, a few less bells and whistles — and a base price around $45k?
UNDER THE HOOD
When the Touareg was launched ten years ago, it was the only largish crossover SUV available with a diesel engine. The Mercedes ML and BMW X5 were gas engine-only until about 2007 and 2009, respectively — and the Audi Q5 (and Q7) did not exist at all until about 2007.
Today, the Touareg’s got competition — but it still has an ace to play. Unlike its rivals — including corporate kin from Audi — the TDI Touareg doesn’t need an IV drip of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to cut the emissions mustard.
No current VW diesel does.
Another happy deficit — so to speak — is the Touareg’s curb weight, which is just under 5,000 pounds while its rivals are over 5,000 pounds. In some cases (that’s you, X5) a lot over.
This helps make up for the Touareg’s slight power deficit relative to its rivals. The VW TDI engine makes 240 hp at 4,000 RPM and 406 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2,000 RPM, vs. 240 hp at 3,600 RPM and 455 ft-lbs. of torque for the ML and 255 hp at 4,000 and 413 ft.-lbs of torque at 1,500 for the diesel-powered BMW X5.
All three deliver the ying-yang of very good acceleration and excellent (for vehicles of this type) fuel economy.
And it’s a very close race, both stopwatch-wise and MPG-wise. Each one is capable of getting to 60 in the low-mid sevens — and each one is capable of almost (or even slightly better than) 30 MPG on the highway. The VW rates 20 city, 29 highway — vs. 20 city, 28 highway for the ML350 BlueTec and a class-best 23 city, 31 highway for the X535d.
The BMW’s mileage, however, should be put in context of its base price — which is thousands of dollars higher than either the Touareg’s or the ML350 BlueTec’s.
Standard with the TDI engine is an eight-speed automatic and two-mode (on-road and off-road) all-wheel-drive. The BMW X5 diesel and Benz BlueTec also come standard with AWD.
The VW’s system toggles through several interesting — and genuinely useful — displays on the center stack-mounted LCD display when the off-road setting is engaged. These include a digital rendering of your steering angle, the grade of the descent or ascent, a digital compass (if you go really off-road — beyond the mapping knowledge of the GPS) and an aircraft-style altimeter.
Ground clearance is 7.9 inches — a bit less than the X5 (8.2 inches) but both the VW and the BMW stand much taller than the more on-road-intended Mercedes ML, which has only 5.2 inches of ground clearance.
The VW easily out-tows its rivals, with a max rating of 7,700 pounds vs. 6,500 for the ML and 6,000 for the X5.
ON THE ROAD
Having more than 400 ft-lb.s of torque at your command is a real treat — especially when it’s not necessary to rev the engine much to access it. For a sense of proportion, the Touareg’s gas engine (a 3.6 V-6) only makes 265 ft-lbs. Many V-8s do not produce the torque that the TDI produces (and forget about close to 30 MPG on the highway).
What it all means is that the Touareg pulls hard — and right now. So hard — if you floor the accelerator — that you’ll swear you got air under the front tires. The hood rises on the torque swell, the front suspension decompresses. If this were a rear-drive vehicle the tires would be smoking about now. Which is likely why VW — and the others — pair these torque-monster diesels with all-wheel-drive.
But you quickly learn that it’s hardly ever necessary to give the Touareg more than about half pedal. More is fun — but rarely needed. This easygoingness is one of the TDI’s most appealing attributes — after its modest appetite. It is like having a really big friend with you when you go out to a dive bar in a bad part of town. The TDI’s abundant — but never frantic — power de-stresses the drive. All that immediately accessible torque cuts the reaction time between your depressing the accelerator and the actual acceleration of the vehicle to nearly nil. Merges — even in heavy DC Beltway traffic — become less about timing it.
You just do it.
On the highway, the TDI settles down to about 1,800 RPM in eighth (top) gear at 60-something MPH. Again, it is not necessary to rev the engine much to reach higher speeds. Even at 80-something, the revs. are about 1,000 RPM less than they would be in an otherwise identical but gas-engine vehicle. Now you know the reason (one of the reasons) why diesels are so fuel-efficient on the highway.
Speaking of which: Note that the Touareg hybrid maxxes out at just 24 MPG on the highway. The reason is simply this: electric batteries drain fast when under constant load — as when trying to push a 5,000 pound vehicle through the wind. In a hybrid, that means the gas-engined side of the powertrain is forced to step in to pick up the slack. Hybrids are in fact fuel-inefficient at highway speeds — and if you do a lot of highway driving (and care about your MPGs) should therefore not be on your shopping list.
The diesel, on the other hand, most definitely should be.
As mentioned earlier above, the VW TDI does not require DEF (urea, also called AdBlue and other trade names). Its rivals do. This means they have an additional tank (in addition to the diesel fuel tank) that must be occasionally topped-off. The DEF is injected into the exhaust stream to chemically convert the exhaust into compounds less noxious. VW’s diesels are not “dirty.” If they were, VW would not be able to sell them. They just don’t need DEF to run cleanly.
One more nice thing — and to be fair, this is just as true of the other diesel-powered vehicles the Touareg TDI competes with: Start-ups are immediate (no waiting for glow plugs to warm up, as in the Old Days). There’s no chuffing, no smoking, no obnoxious Kenworth-at-idle rattling, either.
And — you’ve got legs.
On a full tank, the Touareg can travel almost 800 miles (765.6 according to the EPA). In part, this is because the VW has a larger tank: 26.4 gallons (vs. 24.6 for the ML350 BlueTec, which not surprisingly has a slightly reduced highway range of 688.8 miles).
Still, they’ll all go farther — much farther — than anything otherwise comparable with a gas engine under its hood. This should ease your mind if you have any concerns about diesel fuel availability in your area. Besides which, you’ll need to re-fuel less often — which is another perk of diesel ownership.
AT THE CURB
The Touareg is a bit shorter — and slightly wider — than the X5 and ML350 and has a shorter wheelbase (113.9 inches) than either of them (115.5 inches for the X5, 114.8 for the ML350). This makes it appear somewhat more compact than either of the other two, even though they all have about the same overall footprint.
Inside, the Touareg has noticeably more front seat legroom than its rivals: 41.4 inches vs. 40.3 for the Benz ML and 40.4 for the BMW X5. In the second row, the VW and BMW are virtually the same: 36.7 inches for the Touareg and 36.6 for the BMW. The Mercedes is the clear standout here, with a segment-best 38.4 inches of legroom.
Neither the Mercedes nor the VW offer a third row, though. You can order that in the X5.
Cargo-wise, the Touareg falls in between the ML and the X5 — with 32.1 cubic feet behind its second row and 64 cubes total when the second row’s folded down — vs. 22.9 cubes with the second row up and 66 cubes with them folded down in the X5 and the ML’s segment leading 38.2 cubes with the second row standing and 80.3 when they’re folded flat.
Trim-wise, the TDI engine is bundled with additional features — including the otherwise optional Navigation package, keyless entry/ignition and a “hands-free” power tailgate actuator. This is done to help soften the blow of the $7,040 price bump from the base Sport trim ($44,570) to the Sport TDI. It is part of VW’s marketing strategy — a strategy also practiced by BMW, Benz and Audi — to position the diesel-powered variants of their various models as “top of the line” — or at least, not “base” models.
Interestingly, the reverse is true in Europe — where diesel engines are marketed as economy engines (understandable, given that fuel costs $8-plus a gallon over there) and typically offered in base trim versions of whatever the vehicle happens to be.
Arguably, VW would be smart to offer the TDI in a less “contended” trim that undersold BMW and Benz instead of trying to compete directly with them. As nice a vehicle as the Touareg is, it is a much tougher sell at $50k than it would be at $45k.
For 2014, VW is offering a 10th anniversary edition, which — with the TDI engine — includes all the bells and whistles that come in the Lux trim (19 inch wheels in place of the otherwise standard 18 inch wheels, full-roof panorama sunroof, folding outside mirrors and upgraded leather interior surfaces) plus unique-to-this-edition paint palettes, LED lights and badging.
The rang-topping Executive trim goes a step farther — with 20 inch wheels, heated steering wheel (and rear seats), VW’s new “surround view” close-circuit camera rig and a fantastic 10 speaker Dynaudio sound system. Again, all very nice — but also, very expensive. The TDI Executive I test-drove stickered for $62,670.
At this price point, the diesel is less about economy of operation than it is about long highway legs and effortless light-throttle acceleration. Which, come to think of it, are luxurious rather than economical attributes.
So, why buy the Touareg rather than its prestige-branded rivals? That is the question — for VW as well as potential buyers.
The lesser (the nonexistent) hassle with regard to DEF could be one reason. Who wants to deal with DEF? With having to worry about whether the DEF tank is running low (or empty, in which case, the vehicle’s computer may put the engine into “limp home” mode — or maybe not even let you drive at all — until the DEF tank is refilled)? It’s an aggravation — and people who spend $50k-plus on a vehicle tend to not appreciate being aggravated by their purchase.
The larger-than-others tank capacity (and range) is another consideration in the VW’s favor.
And the Touareg is just a really nice truckster — without any flaws or faults that one could point to vis-a-vis the others in this class.
Possibly, also, you are someone who doesn’t want the high-profile that comes with the prestige brand. The VW may crest $60k when optioned out — but it is still when all is said and done a VW. Whether fair or not, there is a stigma associated with the blue and white spinner (and the three-pointed star). Which of the three is more likely to get keyed in a parking lot by a vengeful proletarian? Or more likely to get cut off in traffic, out of spite?
How much is not having to worry about that worth to you?
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’d still like to see a $45k TDI Touareg. Better yet, a $42k TDI Touareg. I’d bet Mercedes and BMW would not like to see such a Touareg.
Which is precisely why VW ought to build it.