Can a people's car be a premium car? Volkswagen, manufacturer of the traditional car of the people, hopes so, as it extends its range upmarket where big profits lie. And if the new kudos rubs off on lower-end models, then so much the better.
So, after the S-class-rivalling Phaeton megacar comes the new Touareg off-roader, a full-size 4x4 which aims to match the on-road driveability of a BMW X5 with the off-road expertise of a Land Rover Discovery.
The Touareg's development began in tandem with Porsche's new Cayenne, many of whose parts it shares, so there should be substance to Volkswagen's bold claims. There are five different engines to help the Touareg meet its targets.
They start with the 3.2-litre V6 recently launched in the Phaeton and the Golf R32 hot hatchback, here with less power (220bhp) but more low-speed torque, and a new aluminium-block five-cylinder TDI of 2.5 litres. Next comes the 4.2-litre petrol V8 as seen in various Audis, and then we hit a new level of 4x4 engine extravagance.
Top petrol engine is the Phaeton's 6.0-litre W12, effectively two VR6s joined together, and top diesel is a new 4.9-litre V10 which delivers not only 313bhp but also an extraordinary 553lb-ft of torque.
But the techno-tally is only just beginning. The permanent four-wheel drive system sends equal torque to front and rear axles unless the multiplate centre differential decides otherwise, and there's a low-range gear set and differential locks for off-roading.
The all-wishbone suspension is by coil springs in low-spec cars but an adaptive air-system in high-end Touaregs, which can alter their ride height to match speed and conditions. The transmission has six gears, whether manual or automatic.
Mindful of the 4x4 breed's bad press in relation to more vulnerable road users, the Touareg has an aluminium bonnet and flexible plastic front wings. No bull bars are available.
The interior furnishings are to a high standard, with leather and real, deeply-lacquered wood on higher-spec models which also have full climate control - with four separate zones in the ultimate versions.
Options encompass bi-xenon headlights, electrically-folding door mirrors, a windscreen heated by an invisible film instead of elements, solar panels in the roof to power the air-con fan when the Touareg is parked, a spare wheel mounted on the tailgate (if you don't favour the run-flat tyres) and even an electrically-retractable towbar.
Volkswagen plans to sell 60-70,000 Touaregs a year, half of these in the US. It says it needs an entrance to the 'upper class' of car sales because customers are 'ascending socially and economically'.
Sales director Dr Stephan Woellenstein expanded on this at the launch in Barcelona, citing fragmentation of the car market from nine distinct sectors in 1985 to 33 in 2001 and probably 40 by 2005.
Large SUV sales have increased worldwide since 1998 despite the arrival of the small soft-roader sub-group, and growth in Western Europe and the US is still 5-6% a year. Volkswagen predicts 88% of Touareg buyers to be male with an average age of 45 and – surprisingly – reckons that just 30% of the buyers will have driven an all-terrain vehicle before this one.
They will be attracted, says Woellenstein, by the Touareg's three-in-one functionality: proper 4x4, agile sports car, and elegant luxury saloon. Just 40 of the UK's Volkswagen dealers will sell Touaregs and Phaetons, and there will be a strong emphasis on customer service.
Many, of course, will be company purchases, but it will be interesting to see if the Touareg can really compete on image terms with an X5 or an M-class. Maybe the Porsche Cayenne connection will help here.
Behind the wheel
THREE-in-one functionality of a proper 4x4, agile sports car, and elegant luxury saloon is a tall order, but the Touareg pretty much obliges. Its big-wheeled, wide-track stance suggests stability – and so it proves.
This two-tonne-plus machine steers with an X5-matching crispness and none of the rubbery slack common in old-school 4x4s, and a sequence of fast bends is an unexpected delight. The body leans little, its movements are tightly but comfortably damped ('auto' gives the best compromise of the three damping settings), and all told the Touareg does a fine job of disguising the forces at work. This much is true of the air-sprung versions, anyway – we haven't had the chance to try the coil-sprung cars yet.
Progress is serene too, apart from some wind noise seeping past double door seals whose lower sections are designed to keep out water when wading. The driving position is car-like by 4x4 standards but still commanding, and the switchgear feels as smooth and solid as you would hope for in a car of this cost. Some of it uses machined aluminium knobs.
We tried V6 petrol and V10 turbodiesel Touaregs, and the difference was huge. The V6 hums along happily enough, but needs to be revved to get the best from it. The smooth, melodic V10, however, is a new experience in torque: it storms up hills that leave the V6 gasping, and overtakes with barely a flex of the ankle.
You can intervene manually with the excellent, steering-column-mounted, Ferrari F1-like shift paddles, but there's barely any need. Off-road, it claws up hills at little more than idling speed.
This is a very capable off-roader, able to tilt beyond 35 degrees without toppling, easy to trickle downhill with its automatic speed limiter and braking monitor, and easy to get moving uphill thanks to an anti-roll-back device. You would expect the steering's on-road crispness to cause kickback off road, but it doesn't. The Touareg, even more than the Range Rover because it's less profligate with fuel, is the 4x4 that does it all. And the name? It's that of a 'resourceful and intelligent Saharan tribe'. Now you know.
Model: Touareg V10 4.9
Max power: 313bhp @ 3,750rpm
Max torque: 553lb-ft @ 2,000rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Combined fuel consumption: 23.2mpg
CO2 emissions: 329g/km
Prices: range from approx £28,000 to £60,000. V10 about £50,000
On sale: June 2003