Many experts and car critics raised their eyebrows when Volkswagen took its first tentative steps into the treacherously fickle world of sports utility vehicles.
Wrecking yards are filled with the rusting remains of numerous failed attempts by leading car manufacturers to take a slice of this lucrative market.
But more than four years on, and VW – best known for solid, well-built and entirely reliable cars – has made a serious impression, although like, say, Volvo, the German company is still not synonymous with SUVs.
The Volkswagen Touareg, despite a tongue-twisting moniker that has probably done more harm than good on the sales front, has held its own against better-established four-by-fours, such as the Land Cruiser or the Mitsubishi Pajero.
And, moreover, it continues to win plaudits and applause from owners and rave reviews from the test track. Better still, despite approaching its fifth birthday, the Touareg remains a finer and more handsome vehicle than its fraternal twin, Porsche’s Cayenne.
For 2008, the Touareg has been given a new front, rear lamps and extra appendages, and while for the most part the wrapping looks familiar, there are a couple of thousand new parts.
This represents a major upgrade for 2008, and it’s officially dubbed the Touareg 2.
Volkswagen last year also gave the Touareg’s five power plants – two petrol, three diesel – a thorough update. As before, V6 and V8 engines are available, and they’re the latest – and biggest – that VW offers.
The V8 remains the same at 4.2-litres in displacement, but gains FSI direct injection that is primarily responsible for significantly raising power from 310 horsepower to 350 horsepower.
On the other hand, the V6 is a new engine that attempts to solve some shortcomings, and for the most part it offers enough poke to keep a vast majority of people more than happy on the mean streets of the UAE.
Last year also marked the return of the 5.0-litre V10 TDI to the Touareg line, and with the help of a particulate filter cleaning up the exhaust, it’s able to meet those strict new international emissions standards. However, the quality of diesel in the UAE means you’re unlikely to find one of these on the roads.
Back to the V6. Of all the engines available in the Touareg, this is the big seller, here and around the world. But for most buyers, opting for the lesser engine means trading off some of the things you want in order to save a few bucks.
In this part of the world, the V6 and V8 are available in three trim levels – with gadgety and gizmos from the wonderful side-assist radar, excellent sat-nav, to a reverse camera for those tricky parking manoeuvres.
And how did people ever live without the self-opening/closing boot?
I particularly liked the cornering headlights, which throw the beams around sharp turns so you can see exactly what you should be avoiding in the dark.
The exterior design of the SUV shouts quality and looks well-built enough to take to the battlefield. While not aggressive in its angles, like the BMW X5, the Touareg sits proudly next to more expensive vehicles, like the ubiquitous Land Rover.
On the roads, there was a niggling doubt in my mind the Touareg would be seen by the discerning car-buying public as, well, not a cool car to drive. Indeed, while the top-of-the-range models, with their twin exhausts and chrome exterior trim, turn heads effortlessly, I believed I would be committing car suicide by strapping a baby-seat and a one-year-old in the back.
Not true. Touareg is an excellent car, which has benefited from some minor updates, and the build-quality and road-holding make sure junior in the back is as safe as houses on the UAE’s seemingly lawless roads.
Protected by a solid structure and full complement of airbags and electronic safety devices, the Touareg is inviting, and its occupants, above all, safe.
The elevated driving position gives excellent visibility, and is lofty enough to see oncoming hazards without the feeling of being stuck in the cab of an articulated lorry.
Handling – so-often the Achilles’ tendon of SUVs – is affected by a little understeer, but that is compensated nicely by the VW’s always-on four-wheel-drive, meaning there is never a situation where you think you’re going to fly off the tarmac.
A six-speed automatic gearbox transmits controlled engine power to the wheels, and with its dynamic shift programme (DPS), recognises gearshift patterns of the driver, and adapts itself accordingly.
In basic terms, this means the car is as responsive to the throttle as you are, removing the time delay between pressing down on the accelerator and speed.
Ground clearance, especially for a luxury SUV, is impressive, both front and rear. And should you wish to tackle anything more severe than the speed bumps in Spinney’s car park, then the traction control, adjustable suspension and decent engine will give you the chance for some serious off-roading.
Approach and departure angles of 33 degrees means this SUV can tackle dunes or even a stray curbstone without it touching the bumper. Indeed, when you turn the knob for the levelling adjustment, the air suspension can raise the Touareg by as much as 140 millimetres.
This results in ground clearance of 300mm – more than enough for extreme off-road situations.
VW’s 4XMOTION all-wheel drive with electronic control distributes engine torque between the front and rear axle and, if required, to each wheel individually. If necessary, it corrects power distribution automatically several times a second. Impressive stuff.
The interior of the model test-driven by Emirates Business was wall-to-wall cream carpets, with lovely soft cream-coloured leather seats. It oozed luxury and technical prowess.
The dash of the top-of-the range model looks not entirely dissimilar to the bridge of the Enterprise, and when push comes to shove, the more buttons the better, I say.
More seriously, the cockpit’s knobs and whistles are placed well enough to be intuitive within a few days of driving.
VW’s ergonomics team has also placed every button in the most comfortable or convenient place, meaning this advanced piece of kit is never more complicated than it needs to be.
There are more thoughtful touches than you’ll notice at first glance, yet the learning curve is quick, the controls not daunting, and comfort remains high.
Ultimately, The Touareg is a luxury SUV with a rare blend of highway composure, refinement and off-road capability. Its trail-worthy ability, superior road manners, and five-seat cabin are enough to find favour with urban warriors or outdoor adventurers – and everyone else who’d like to be one.
Celebrating in VW style