Pros: Strong and efficient turbo-diesel V6; premium interior; accommodating back seat; driver's-car handling; unflappable high-speed composure; hearty towing capacity

Cons: Ride is firm; transmission's shifts could be smoother; cargo space is limisted for a mid-size SUV

The 2012 Volkswagen Touareg shows that, when it comes to luxury SUVs, less really can be more. The original Touareg was part of a joint venture in which Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen aimed to produce a do-it-all SUV platform. The blueprint included serious off-roading hardware with low-range gearing, but that meant a lot of extra weight. Although the original Touareg was a beast off the beaten path, it also weighed more than 5,000 pounds at its most svelte.

Most luxury-SUV drivers stick to the pavement, so Volkswagen decided to get real with the redesigned Touareg, which made its debut last year. Gone is low-range four-wheel drive, replaced by a full-time all-wheel-drive system. Thanks to this modification plus the increased use of aluminum suspension components, the new Touareg weighs roughly 350 pounds less than the previous model. Predictably, on-road handling has improved considerably, but we can report that the Touareg is still highly capable off-road.

Now, the Touareg is still a very heavy vehicle, and like the previous model, it has a firm ride and middling cargo capacity. Nonetheless, it's one of the few SUVs we genuinely look forward to driving. It's athletic and composed, and there's even a wild Hybrid variant in case the gas and diesel engines seem too boring. There may be less to the 2012 Volkswagen Touareg than before, but we think there are more reasons than ever to buy one.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volkswagen Touareg is offered in three versions: Sport, Lux and Executive, all available in a choice of two engines, VR6 and TDI. There's also a separate, limited-production Hybrid.

The entry-level Touareg Sport comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, xenon headlights with LED accents, foglamps, a power tailgate, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel with tilting and telescoping adjustability, eight-way power heated front seats, a sliding and reclining back seat, leatherette upholstery, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone automatic climate control and an eight-speaker audio system with a touchscreen interface, a six-CD changer, iPod integration, an SD card reader and satellite radio. Optional on the Sport is a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage and an eight-inch display; this option also includes parking sensors.

The Touareg Lux starts with the navigation-equipped Sport's features and adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, heated exterior mirrors, wood-grain interior trim, 12-way power front seats with adjustable lumbar and driver memory functions, leather upholstery and power folding rear seats.

The Touareg Executive tacks on 20-inch alloy wheels, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, keyless entry with push-button ignition and a 620-watt Dynaudio sound system.

The Hybrid mostly shares the Lux's equipment roster.

The Touareg's interior is typical Volkswagen: simple, no-nonsense and full of high-quality materials. Some rivals may have a more luxurious feel inside, but we're charmed by the Touareg's excellent ergonomics and unpretentious character. The emphasis here is on functionality; for example, the driver's seat doesn't look like much, but it offers an amazing range of height adjustability, and the bottom cushion tilts independently. We appreciate the panoramic sunroof for bringing welcome light and warmth to this rather austere cabin.

The Touareg's back seat is one of the best in the business. It offers 6.3 inches of travel fore and aft, and the seatbacks recline to help tired passengers catch a few Zs. What's more, its bottom cushion is high, so thigh support is superb, and there's plenty of foot room under the front seats.

Although that sliding back seat makes the most of the Touareg's cargo space, there's ultimately not much of it by mid-size crossover standards. The 32.1-cubic-foot area behind the back seat is competitive, but most vehicles this large can do better than 64 maximum cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded. At least the folding process is a breeze, thanks to conveniently located power switches on the sides of the cargo bay.

Technology

A USB port is not available in the Touareg, so if you're used to carrying your MP3s on a USB drive, you'll have to switch to an SD card. Moreover, your USB-compatible MP3 player will have to make do with a rudimentary auxiliary input. But an iPod hookup is standard, so Apple aficionados are in luck.

Other than the missing USB port, there's little to complain about on the technology front. We're fans of the navigation system, which boasts a huge display and an exceptionally straightforward touchscreen interface. Once you have your MP3s hooked up, every Touareg does a great job of navigating through music folders and generally making the mobile listening experience pleasant. It's a shame the crisp Dynaudio sound system isn't more widely available, though; it's a serious upgrade over the base system.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All Touareg models come with all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission. The mainstream models offer a choice of two engines.

The Touareg V6 carries the 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6 engine, which makes 280 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque. We really like this engine in the Passat and CC sedans, but the Touareg V6 weighs more than 4,700 pounds, so acceleration in it is unremarkable.

A better solution for a heavy vehicle like the Touareg is a diesel, and happily, there's the Touareg TDI, with a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 rated at 225 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. The torque figure is the notable one, as it allows the Touareg TDI to accelerate aggressively in short bursts, making quick work of passing and merging maneuvers. It's a refined engine, too, with minimal clatter; your passengers probably won't know it's a diesel unless you tell them.

As for the limited-circulation Hybrid, it rolls with a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 paired with an electric motor and a nickel metal hydride battery pack. The transmission is the familiar eight-speed automatic. As you'd expect of a vehicle with 380 hp and 428 lb-ft of torque, the Hybrid is quite fast, its 2.5-ton curb weight notwithstanding. Being a proper dual-mode hybrid, this VW can theoretically accelerate to 30 mph solely on electric power, and its gasoline engine shuts off automatically during light throttle applications.

Disappointingly, the Touareg's eight-speed automatic sometimes makes its presence felt in the form of less than smooth shifts; we expect better at this price point. In brighter news, however, maximum towing capacity for all Touaregs is a formidable 7,716 pounds, a figure that would put some pickup trucks to shame.

The Touareg V6's fuel economy is below average at an EPA-rated 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway. The Touareg TDI is considerably better at 19/28 mpg, an impressive achievement for such a heavy, torque-rich crossover. The Hybrid's 20/24 mpg rating makes us wonder why anyone other than speed freaks would choose it over the cheaper, more frugal TDI.

Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen Touareg comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, and and full-length side curtain).

The government hasn't crash tested this Touareg, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 2012 Touareg its highest rating of Good in every category and named it a Top Safety Pick.

Driving Impressions

Other than the BMW X5, there's no mid-size crossover that we enjoy driving more than the Touareg. The driving position is brilliant, with great visibility all around and a perfectly placed footrest. The compact three-spoke steering wheel controls perhaps the most responsive steering in any SUV, which is unsurprising given the Touareg's Porsche DNA. This VW loves high-speed cruising, but it's equally at home on washboard dirt roads, where its long-travel suspension eats up whoop-de-dos like a Baja off-road racer. The only potential demerit involves its firm ride, which is basically the opposite of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class's sofa-like experience. The previous Touareg had an available air suspension that smoothed things out, but that option has been discontinued.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW X5 - The X5 is older and more expensive, but it has a thoroughly up-to-date roster of engines, including an awesome turbo-diesel. There's also an available third-row seat.  

Infiniti FX - If you think of the Touareg as a driver's SUV, you have to consider the sporty FX a competitor. Based on the same platform as the G sport sedan, the FX is a hoot to drive, and it offers an available V8 with serious speed.

Mercedes-Benz M-Class - The new M doesn't look that special, but it's got a creamy soft ride and a much improved diesel drivetrain.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Touareg TDI is the no-brainer choice. It's genuinely fun to drive, and 28 mpg on the highway? Are you kidding? If you ask us, the Touareg TDI is one of the best all-around vehicles in the world.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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