The Americans have always been obsessed with big cars. They have big roads, and the inexplicable need to own cars with big, 5-litre V8 engines. While we can see the charm of a big lump of power under the bonnet - sorry, hood - with fuel now rivalling gold in price its seems the wrong time to be buying a big car.
But lots of people want larger vehicles, and when we were offered the opportunity to try one, we couldn't resist. While lots of people in cities will protest that these things are absurd, or even obscene, we suspect that given one to drive for a day, they might rather enjoy it. So we jumped behind the wheel of the VW Touareg to see what all the fuss was about, and find out if there was any merit to the Chelsea tractor.
How big is too big?
People hate these SUVs. The reasons are many, but they're big, fuel-guzzling monsters that block the view of the road for smaller cars and are significantly worse for pedestrians, should there be a person-meeting-car incident.
But they sell at a frankly alarming rate. First in the US, and now over here in Europe too. Londoners in particular, with their small roads and heavy traffic find the arrival of these large vehicles - calling them cars seems wrong, somehow - quite annoying. But, when you drive one, you start to see why they are so popular.
In the model we tested, which has extras that take the price of the car past £55,000, it felt like we were sitting in a throne, rather than a car seat. And perhaps that's the problem: the drivers of these feel so pampered behind the wheel that they forget about everyone else on the road.
But other road users are quick to remind the drivers of these big cars that they're some sort of wealthy subspecies. A glance here, a refusal to let you out in traffic there. It's all part of a mild bullying that the owners of these cars get to experience. Perhaps it's justifiable, or perhaps it's not, but when you're in the Touareg, you certainly notice it.
And when you're driving, it does something quite good to you as a driver, it makes you hyper-aware of everyone, and forces you to overcompensate for your vehicle. We thanked people in situations that we wouldn't in a normal car. For letting us go when we had right-of-way, or even thanking people who had thanked us.
We wouldn't necessarily say that the Touareg is a pretty car. The back is handsome, in a strange way, but the front has that same problem the Porsche Cayenne has. It's a big car, that has the design sensibilities of a normal estate. At the back, it's got a fat arse, but it's a big car, so it works. At the front, it tries to impersonate a princess, and it's less successful.
But the adjustable ride-height means that this car can look very different, depending on the mode. On the lowest setting, it's much less obviously massive, but jack it up and it's just huge. The lower mode is handy for loading the car, and the majority of driving, while the pumped-up mode is more suitable for going off-road. The question is, will anyone actually take this car off-road? We suspect not, and although it might be capable, it's just not the car you'd buy if your life kept you away from asphalt.
It's fair to say that Volkswagen Group has some of, if not THE best diesel engines going. You only really get one choice of engine in the Touareg range - unless you go for the hybrid or the stupidly powerful 4.2-litre engine - and it's a 3.0 litre TDI. It's available with two different power outputs though: 204ps and 245ps with the 4.2 V8 offering 340ps and the hybrid able to push out 333ps.
We drove the 245ps version, and have to say, it's got quite a lot of grunt to offer. Indeed, it can become a bone of contention if you aren't careful. The main problem is that it's every keen to get you to licence-losing speeds in a very small number of seconds, and will guzzle precious, expensive, diesel by the bucketload while it does so. You might feel that if you can afford £55,000 for a car, you can also afford to cough-up more than £100 per tank of diesel too. We, it has to be said, can't afford a 55 grand car, so stops at the pump were a heartbreaking affair.
Of course, it's possible to drive it economically if you put some effort in. But that feels very ponderous indeed, and it does feel like the gearbox has two modes. Interminably slow, or earth-shatteringly quick. It's quite hard to put it in the middle ground.
And this, of course, is because it's an automatic. Given the choice, we would honestly rather have a manual gearbox in any car we drive. With manual, you're in control, not some damn microchip and you can drive sensibly, or not, but you have the choice. That said, manual gears don't fit a car like this at all, because its a luxury vehicle, designed for comfort, not manual driving.
And the auto box is utterly terrific. It's excitingly smooth, but very capable of delivering power quickly too. Stamp on the right-hand pedal and it drops down a gear, giving you access to the boost that comes with high revs, and the turbocharger. Flick it across to sports mode, and it becomes incredibly aggressive. And even for us, with a heart built for speed, it was a little too much. It seems to leave changing up a little too long, and that means the normally quiet engine makes a full-on racket, but this being a 3-litre V6 diesel, it's not a particularly inspiring sound and it manages to instill a sense of panic in an otherwise very peaceful cabin.
It might sound like we didn't like the way the Touareg is set up, but actually, we found it marvellous most of the time. Loads of power, smooth gearbox and an aggressive sports mode mean that this car won't ever look stupid on the motorway with smaller, more agile cars.
That said, agility is where this car does let itself down a little. Plonk it on country roads, and although it's solid as a rock, it doesn't really feel it. There's always that sense that it's not as planted as a lower car. It might be every bit as solid in reality, but high up there's just not the high-speed ride comfort you'd get in a Golf or A3. But then, this isn't a performance car, it's a luxury vehicle that happens to go forwards very quickly.
Along with the automatic gearbox, there are lots of other ways the Touareg lets you know that, as a driver, you're rapidly becoming superfluous. Our car was fitted with lane departure warnings, proximity alerts - for when the car thinks you're going too fast, too close to another car - and blind spot monitoring. If you just hooked all these things up to a computer, it could quite easily drive the car without you. It also knows the speed limit, because cameras monitor road signs and update you in real time. So no more of that wondering what speed you're allowed to do, because the dash tells you at all times.
All of these things work brilliantly. For lane departure and blind spot monitoring there are two bright orange lights that illuminate to let you know when something is less than ideal. There's a loud beeping too, and if you're doing something it thinks is silly, the lights will flash very rapidly. It's an incredibly effective warning system that's impossible to ignore.
Even better though, the car can use radar to monitor the vehicle in front. This, in combination with the car's cruise control, allows you to tell it what speed to drive, turn on the radar and it will just drive at the speed limit, unless there's a vehicle in front doing less. You can control the distance at which the car follows others - which is handy if you're a bit more cautious - but the car will auto-brake when the one in front slows and should keep you safe.
We didn't read the manual - it was in German - but no doubt it cautions against not paying attention when this mode is engaged. We always had the brake pedal covered - as is sensible, but it also never felt like it was going to let us down. The one thing we did notice was that when it came to accelerating, the car really put its hoof down. It was a little too aggressive for us, but there may be a way to change that.
Climate, comfort and a moon roof
In our car, there was a heated steering wheel. At the point we found that out, we started to wonder what we could sell to get £55,000ish together to buy one. Don't underestimate the effect that a heated steering wheel will have on your life. People will find you more attractive, you'll get more friends and unknown wealth will be bestowed upon you. Of course, that's not true, but your hands won't be cold when you're driving, which is better than all of those things anyway.
There's the usual climate control. It's effective, and best left on auto in our experience. In that mode it just gets the car to the temperature you select, and there's no need to fiddle around. It's ace.
Also impressive is keyless entry and start. We wish all cars had this, just walk up to the car and grab the handle, and it unlocks. Then, once inside you can just press the start/stop button. It's delightfully simple, but it takes the pain away from fumbling for keys. This is also very handy if you've got kids, because it means you don't have to hold the child in one hand, and fumble for the keys with the other. Saves time, effort and gets you in the car quicker and safer.
We had the optional moonroof too. VW almost certainly doesn't call it that, but we grew up in the 80s, and we're not letting go of that slightly romantic name for the big slab of glass you can opt for on this car. It's massive, extends in to the back of the car and the front half fan slide back, giving you a massive open space above your head to let the joy of the cosmos rain upon your skull. There's also an electrically operated sunshade. You need to pay for this too, but it's quite handy in the summer when you want to keep the sun off your head. We loved the moonroof and shade option. It's expensive though - more than £1,000 - and we wonder if we'd actually spend our own money on one.
As you'd expect, there are some supportive seats in the Touareg too, which are electrically adjustable. You can opt for a memory setting too, which might be useful if two of you share the car and have very complicated and different driving positions. The seats can be heated too, this combine with the steering wheel warmer are the epitome of luxury and you should spend any amount of money to have them.
If you go for the adjustable suspension option, you get a variety of ride heights to chose from, but also there are suspension comfort options. These are "sport", "normal" and "comfort". In most cases, we found sport was comfortable enough. On speed bumps, there was some merit to the comfortable mode, but honestly we didn't feel like we'd ever go out of our way to adjust the suspension manually. The car is very clever about it all though, and can tweak the ride height and suspension to give you the most suitable mode.
One of the best things about the Touareg is that it has a decent-sized boot. You can get an oven in one. The lack of boot lip means that getting big items in and out is a lot easier than a hatchback or saloon. If you've got the adjustable suspension, you can also lower it via a control in the boot, to get the car closer to the ground. That's something that's very handy, and we found it was useful even for shopping, but especially for loading ovens.
Dynaudio sound system upgrade
The car we're reviewing here was provided for us to try by Dynaudio, which offers its speaker system as an optional extra, costing a little bit over £1,000. We have to say, we were impressed.
Based on the time we spend in an Audi A3, the difference in sound between these two systems is like listening to an MP3 player on the supplied headphones, or spending £100 upgrading to something a bit better. A lazy analogy that, but still, if you've spent a lot of money on your car, why hamper if with dreadful sound.
What we noticed most was the clarity. Because of its size, and the class in which it sits, the Touareg is a quiet place to be, most of the time. That gives it some advantage, but what we noticed is that bass and mid-range were much more finely balanced than any VW group car we've tested before. The standard speakers in these cars tend to have a lot of bass, which might appeal to some, but they really lack control.
In a car, what you really want is mid-range power, because it's this that's the hardest to hear when you factor in engine and road noise. We listened to Radio 4 on the Dynaudio system, and found it a much nicer experience than in other cars. We need the stereo to be much less loud, and on reduced power the sound was clearer.
Music too, is a treat. Both from CDs or via Bluetooth. It's interesting that the Dynaudio system also comes with some new audio profiles, which allow you to radically alter the way the audio sounds. This goes beyond simple EQ, and gives you a much more spacious sound.
Put simply, car audio is never going to be like listening to music at home - perhaps on some Dynaudio speakers - but what it is, is as good as we've heard in a car. So, when you're thinking about the options you want, we'd urge you to pick the Dynaudio system over, say, the sunroof - as brilliant as that thing is, because you'll spend more time listening to music and radio shows than you will with the roof open. At least, in this wet miserable country at least.
It's big, it's fuel-hungry and people will auto-hate you for driving it but the experience is almost worth it. It's not the most ecologically sound car, but if you have the desire, it can be driven efficiently and you'll see 30mpg with care. That's not a great number in this day and age, but it's solid for such a large vehicle. Just watch the right foot.
The extras worth having are the moonroof, that Dynaudio sound pack and the adjustable suspension. The sat nav is a solid performer too, and is worth having, especially considering the traffic updates.
You might want to hate the Touareg, but when you spend some time with one, it's nearly impossible to do so.