We Test The VW Touareg TDI – A Cleaner, Greener Diesel SUV

My husband fondly remembers his 1980 Volkswagen. The Rabbit Diesel L cost him a total of $252 per month – $206 for the lease and $46 for fuel; much less than the monthly $280 spent for gasoline alone to drive his 1974 Ford Torino. Back then, truck stops were the only places to buy diesel, but he didn’t mind since the savings were worth it. At that time, his VW was practical for his lifestyle and was only sold after his business grew to the point he could afford a luxury brand.

He, like others, did not associate Volkswagen with “luxury” and later on he correctly predicted the demise of the Phaeton because of it.

Some things have changed – diesel is readily available now at corner stations. Some things haven’t – the opinion that a Volkswagen is a practical vehicle, not a lavish one.

When the company introduced the Touareg in 2003, sales were less than stellar. Six years later, the 2009 3.0 L V6 Touareg TDI (Turbo Direct Injection) wants to change that perception.

With 23 per cent of all Canadian Volkswagen sales being diesel, the company hopes this SUV is the best of both worlds: A well-appointed mid-sized SUV with the practicality of a money-saving alternative-fuel vehicle and lower emissions.

Federal emission legislation’s deadline for lowering the sulfur content of diesel fuel for use in on-road vehicles was Aug. 31, 2007.

This has encouraged both fuel and car companies to work hard at providing consumers with a cleaner product: a fuel that does not emit the clouds of black smoke and sulfur-like odour the diesels of the past were known for.

As the sulfur content of diesel was lowered the price of the fuel crept up to surpass the per-litre cost of gasoline in the winter of 2007.

Diesel drivers didn’t revolt because the improved fuel consumption and increase in mileage made the vehicles still cost effective – an alternative to going “hybrid.” Manufacturers pushed their cleaner diesel engines that didn’t emit vast amounts of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter or air toxins. The push for “green” and “clean” made its way into an industry that is far from either.

With sales in the global passenger-car market down more than 20 per cent in the first three months of this year, Volkswagen Group’s global market share is up 11 per cent.

Yearly sales in Canada were up 8.4 per cent in 2008, even though VW was overshadowed by Honda’s record sales and Toyota’s best year ever thanks to their fuel-efficient hybrid and gas-powered vehicles.

The Touareg’s 100-litre fuel tank has a range of approximately 1,250 km – a 29 per cent advantage over the same size gasoline tank version’s 970 km. This means less time at the pumps and, more important, a savings of 30 cents on the dollar.

Fuel consumption is estimated at 11.9 L/100 km city (24 m.p.g.) and 8.0 L/100 km highway (35 m.p.g.), lower than the gasoline engine’s 14.8 L/100 km city (19 m.p.g.) and 10.3 L/100 km highway (27 m.p.g.).

In the idyllic resorts of Muskoka, the vehicle accelerates smoothly even when driving up steep hills. Here, the six-speed automatic transmission down shifts or up shifts easily with no lag.

Unless told this was a diesel engine it would be hard to distinguish it from its sound. The permanent all-wheel-drive system, 4XMotion, can be locked into high or low to handle different terrain.

Handling is good with soft enough suspension for comfort yet not too soft to float. It’s precise on the streets and highways and ignores the loose gravel and rutted roads. Some unexpected mud does little to affect performance: it just dirties the wheels.

At every crest, the threat of a moving chicane such as a moose or deer had my eyes wide and foot ready to use the ABS and power-assisted front and rear-vented disc brakes.

If I wasn’t quick enough, there was the Intelligent Crash Response system.

Once the imminent threat of a crash is detected, all doors are automatically unlocked, the battery terminal is disconnected from the alternator cable, fuel supply and high consumption electrical components are shut off and warning hazards are automatically switched on. Band-aids are up to the owner.

Outside town, the roads became hilly, slowing most cars to the point they wheezed.

The two-tonne Touareg should have been challenged by them, but one of diesel’s advantages is the ability to create an enormous amount of torque, enough to climb a cliff. The Touareg’s V6 only makes 221 hp but it easily reaches speeds that guarantee sirens behind you, if you’re not careful.

The interior finish is neat and easily deciphered – polished metal not painted plastic knobs are logically placed and easy to reach. The back-up camera with guides removes the “stop when you hear the bump” rule of nervous drivers. It is part of the $3,450 Technology package option that includes navigation, 30-gigabyte hard drive and 600-watt digital sound stereo upgrade with 10 speakers and a Media Device Interface.

When cottage commute times double on those long weekends, seating is comfortable for five with plenty of room for luggage. The base model, Comfortline leatherette seats could easily be mistaken for the real thing found in the upgraded Highline and Execuline versions. Towing capacity is a respectable 3,500 kg with the $700 tow-hitch option – enough to haul cottage toys safely.

In this resort community, the Touareg TDI is looking to attract nature-loving drivers. Competition such as Mercedes ML320 and Lexus RX 400h hybrid may rain on that camp. The similarly priced and equipped Audi Q7 at $57,700 and the more expensive BMW X5 at $62,200 have status appeal and while the Touareg TDI is a beautiful vehicle, it remains to be seen whether people will pay comparable money for a VW badge.

2009 VW Touareg TDIPRICES: (base/as tested) $48,975/ $54,825

ENGINE: 3.0 L TDI

FUEL CONSUMPTION : City 11.9 L/100 km (23.7 mpg), hwy 8.0 L (35.3 mpg)

POWER/TORQUE: 221 hp/407 lb.-ft.

COMPETITION: Mercedes ML320 BlueTec, Audi Q7, Lexus RX 400h, Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel

WHAT’S BEST: Great mileage, low emissions

WHAT’S WORSE: Hard to compete with status SUVs, $4,000 premium for diesel engine

WHAT IS INTERESTING: First- and second-place winners of grueling 2009 Dakar Rally

Nika

Nika

Nika has had a love for cars and racing since childhood. A regional racing license holder she has been involved with the industry, working with racers, teams, journalists and automobile manufacturers in sponsorship solicitation, logistics, hospitality, road show and communication program implementation.