There are three mid-sized (and real-deal, with significant off-road capability) German-brand crossover SUVs that consume not much more fuel than many current economy cars.
The fuel, of course, is diesel.
And the three are: VW’s Touareg TDI – subject of this review – and its rivals, the BMW X5 diesel and the Mercedes ML350 BlueTec.
Each approaches or even exceeds 30 MPG on the highway – exceptional for 5,000 pounders that can also pull their own weight (and then some) behind the hitch.
So, which one to pick?
A lot depends on how much you want to spend.
And how much you’d like others to know you spent.
The Touareg is VW’s mid-sized/two-row crossover SUV, kin to the Porsche Cayenne (actually, the source from which the Cayenne sprang).
The Porsche has been criticized for being a gussied up VW – and the VW has been criticized for being too expensive for a VW.
Base price for the TDI-equipped Touraeg is $51,610 – vs. $61,700 for the diesel-powered Cayenne.
On the other hand, a TDI Touareg is priced lower (a lot lower) than a BMW X5 diesel ($57,500 to start).
Then again, there’s the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec – which begins at $51,790.
You might also want to cross shop the diesel-powered Audi Q5 (it’s slightly smaller, a notch up from a compact-sized SUV) and/or the Q7 (slightly larger, almost full-sized).
VW has added several new options and trim packages, including a 10th Anniversary Edition, a bird’s eye-view camera system and LED exterior lighting (with the Executive trim and also standard with the Touareg hybrid, which will be reviewed separately).
On the merits, the equal of its rivals – better, in some categories (e.g., it can pull 1,000-plus pounds more than an X5 or Benz ML).
Luxury feel inside – but tastefully “quiet” on the outside. Allows you to run a lower profile than its flashier-looking/richer-repped rivals.
No diesel exhaust fluid (DEF).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The Touareg’s chief weakness is not mechanical or functional – or even equipment-vs.-equipment. It’s the “VW” badge on the tailgate – and the TDI’s $50k-plus MSRP.
Rather than try to compete directly with the prestige-badged competition, VW might be better-advised to try undercutting them.
How about a Touareg with that superb TDI engine – but maybe vinyl rather than leather seating, a few less bells and whistles – and a base price around $45k?
That would be pretty cool.
When the Touareg was launched ten years ago, it was the only crossover SUV available with a diesel engine. The Mercedes ML and BMW X5 were gas engine-only until about 2007 and 2009, respectively – and the Audi Q5 (and Q7) did not exist at all until about 2007.
Today, the Touareg’s got competition – but it still has an ace to play. Unlike its rivals – including corporate kin from Audi – the TDI Touareg doesn’t need an IV drip of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to cut the emissions mustard.
No current VW diesel does.
Another happy deficit – so to speak – is the Touareg’s curb weight, which is actually just under 5,000 pounds while its rivals are over 5,000 pounds. In some cases (that’s you, X5) a lot over.
This helps make up for the Touareg’s slight on-paper power deficit relative to its rivals. The VW TDI engine makes a claimed 240 hp at 4,000 RPM and 406 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2,000 RPM, vs. 240 hp at 3,600 RPM and 455 ft-lbs. of torque for the ML and 255 hp at 4,000 and 413 ft.-lbs of torque at 1,500 for the diesel-powered BMW X5.
All three deliver the ying-yang of very good acceleration and excellent (for vehicles of this type) fuel economy.
And it’s a very close race, both stopwatch-wise and MPG-wise, the hp and torque numbers notwithstanding. Each one is capable of getting to 60 in the low-mid sevens – and each one is capable of almost (or even slightly better than) 30 MPG on the highway. The VW rates 20 city, 29 highway – vs. 20 city, 28 highway for the ML350 BlueTec and a class-best 23 city, 31 highway for the X535d.
The BMW’s mileage, however, should be put in context of its base price – which is thousands of dollars higher than either the Touareg’s or the ML350 BlueTec’s.
Standard with the TDI engine is an eight-speed automatic and two-mode (on-road and off-road) all-wheel-drive. The BMW X5 diesel and Benz BlueTec also come standard with AWD.
The VW’s system toggles through several interesting – and genuinely useful – displays on the center stack-mounted LCD display when the off-road setting is engaged. These include a digital rendering of your steering angle, the grade of the descent or ascent, a digital compass (if you go really off-road – beyond the mapping knowledge of the GPS) and an aircraft-style altimeter.
Ground clearance is 7.9 inches – a bit less than the X5 (8.2 inches) but both the VW and the BMW stand much taller than the Mercedes ML, which has only 5.2 inches of ground clearance. The extra couple inches of clearance should give the VW (and the BMW) an edge in heavy snow on-road as well as uneven terrain off-road.
The VW easily out-tows its rivals, with a stout max rating of 7,700 pounds vs. 6,500 for the ML and 6,000 for the X5.
Having more than 400 ft-lb.s of torque at your command is a real treat – especially when it’s not necessary to rev the engine much to access it. For a sense of proportion, the Touareg’s gas engine (a 3.6 V-6) only makes 265 ft-lbs. Many V-8s do not produce the torque that the TDI produces (and forget about close to 30 MPG on the highway).
What it all means is that the Touareg pulls hard – and right now. So hard – if you floor the accelerator – that you’ll swear you got air under the front tires. The hood rises on the torque swell, the front suspension decompresses. If this were a rear-drive vehicle the tires would be smoking about now. Which is likely why VW – and the others – pair these torque-monster diesels with all-wheel-drive.
But you quickly learn that it’s hardly ever necessary to give the Touareg more than about half pedal. More is fun – but rarely needed. This is easygoingness is one of the TDI’s most appealing attributes – after its modest appetite. It is like having a really big friend with you when you go out to a dive bar in a bad part of town. The TDI’s abundant – but never frantic – power de-stresses the drive. All that immediately accessible torque cuts the reaction time between your depressing the accelerator and the actual acceleration of the vehicle to nearly nil. Merges – even in heavy DC Beltway traffic – become less about timing it.
On the highway, the TDI settles down to about 1,800 RPM in eighth (top) gear at 60-something MPH. Again, it is not necessary to rev the engine much to reach higher speeds. Even at 80-something, the revs. are about 1,000 RPM less than they would be in an otherwise identical but gas-engine vehicle. Now you know the reason (one of the reasons) why diesels are so fuel-efficient on the highway.
Speaking of which: Note that the Touareg hybrid maxxes out at just 24 MPG on the highway. The reason is simply this: electric batteries drain fast when under constant load – as when trying to push a 5,000 pound vehicle through the wind. In a hybrid, that means the gas-engined side of the powertrain is forced to step in to pick up the slack. Hybrids are in fact fuel-inefficient at highway speeds – and if you do a lot of highway driving (and care about your MPGs) should therefore not be on your shopping list.
The diesel, on the other hand, most definitely should be.
As mentioned earlier above, the VW TDI does not require DEF (urea, also called AdBlue and other trade names). Its rivals do. This means they have an additional tank (in addition to the diesel fuel tank) that must be occasionally topped-off. The DEF is injected into the exhaust stream to chemically convert the exhaust into compounds less noxious. VW’s diesels are not “dirty.” If they were, VW would not be able to sell them. They just don’t need DEF to run cleanly.
One more nice thing – and to be fair, this is just as true of the other diesel-powered vehicles the Touareg TDI competes with: Start-ups are immediate (no waiting for glow plugs to warm up, as in the Old Days). There’s no chuffing, no smoking, no obnoxious Kenworth-at-idle rattling, either.
And – you’ve got legs.
On a full tank, the Touareg can travel almost 800 miles (765.6 according to the EPA). In part, this is because the VW has a larger tank: 26.4 gallons (vs. 24.6 for the ML350 BlueTec, which not surprisingly has a slightly reduced highway range of 688.8 miles).
Still, they’ll all go farther – much farther – than anything otherwise comparable with a gas engine under its hood. This should ease your mind if you have any concerns about diesel fuel availability in your area. Besides which, you’ll need to re-fuel less often – which is another perk of diesel ownership. Your wife or girlfriend may insist on pee stops every couple of hours, but if you’re a man and you’re on your own – and have an empty 2 liter Pepsi bottle on hand … well, you could easily drive from DC to New York without breaking stride.
The Touareg is a bit shorter – and slightly wider – than the X5 and ML350 and has a shorter wheelbase (113.9 inches) than either of them (115.5 inches for the X5, 114.8 for the ML350). This makes it appear somewhat more compact than either of the other two, even though they all have about the same overall footprint.
Inside, the Touareg has noticeably more front seat legroom than its rivals: 41.4 inches vs. 40.3 for the Benz ML and 40.4 for the BMW X5. In the second row, the VW and BMW are virtually the same: 36.7 inches for the Touareg and 36.6 for the BMW. The Mercedes is the clear standout here, with a segment-best 38.4 inches of legroom.
Neither the Mercedes nor the VW offer a third row, though. You can order that in the X5.
Cargo-wise, the Touareg falls in between the ML and the X5 – with 32.1 cubic feet behind its second row and 64 cubes total when the second row’s folded down – vs. 22.9 cubes with the second row up and 66 cubes with them folded down in the X5 and the ML’s segment leading 38.2 cubes with the second row standing and 80.3 when they’re folded flat.
Trim-wise, the TDI engine is bundled with additional features – including the otherwise optional Navigation package, keyless entry/ignition and a “hands-free” power tailgate actuator. This is done to help soften the blow of the $7,040 price bump from the base Sport trim ($44,570) to the Sport TDI. It is part of VW’s marketing strategy – a strategy also practiced by BMW, Benz and Audi – to position the diesel-powered variants of their various models as “top of the line” – or at least, not “base” models.
Interestingly, the reverse is true in Europe – where diesel engines are marketed as economy engines (understandable, given that fuel costs $8-plus a gallon over there) and typically offered in base trim versions of whatever the vehicle happens to be.
Arguably, VW would be smart to offer the TDI is a less “contended” trim that undersold BMW and Benz instead of trying to compete directly with them. As nice a vehicle as the Touareg is, it is a much tougher sell at $50k than it would be at $45k.
For 2014, VW is offering a 10th anniversary edition, which – with the TDI engine – includes all the bells and whistles that come in the Lux trim (19 inch wheels in place of the otherwise standard 18 inch wheels, full-roof panorama sunroof, folding outside mirrors and upgraded leather interior surfaces) plus unique-to-this-edition paint palettes, LED lights and badging.
The rang-topping Executive trim goes a step farther – with 20 inch wheels, heated steering wheel (and rear seats), VW’s new “surround view” close-circuit camera rig and a fantastic 10 speaker Dynaudio sound system. Again, all very nice – but also, very expensive. The TDI Executive I test-drove stickered for $62,670.
At this price point, the diesel is less about economy of operation than it is about long highway legs and effortless light-throttle acceleration. Which, come to think of it, are luxurious rather than economical attributes.
So, why buy the Touareg rather than its prestige-branded rivals? That is the question – for VW as well as potential buyers.
The lesser (the nonexistent) hassle with regard to DEF could be one reason. Who wants to deal with DEF? With having to worry about whether the DEF tank is running low (or empty, in which case, the vehicle’s computer may put the engine into “limp home” mode – or maybe not even let you drive at all – until the DEF tank is refilled)? It’s an aggravation – and people who spend $50k-plus on a vehicle tend to not appreciate being aggravated by their purchase.
The larger-than-others tank capacity (and range) is another consideration in the VW’s favor.
And the Touareg is just a really nice truckster – without any flaws or faults that one could point to vis-a-vis the others in this class.
Possibly, also, you are someone who doesn’t want the high-profile that comes with the prestige brand. The VW may crest $60k when optioned out – but it is still when all is said and done a VW. Whether fair or not, there is a “rich dick” stigma associated with the blue and white spinner (and the three-pointed star). Which of the three is more likely to get keyed in a parking lot by a vengeful proletarian? Or more likely to get cut off in traffic, out of spite?
How much is not having to worry about that worth to you?
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’d still like to see a $45k TDI Touareg. Better yet, a $42k TDI Touareg. I’d bet Mercedes and BMW would not like to see such a Touareg.
Which is precisely why VW ought to build it.
Throw it in the Woods?
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2014 TDI touareg has adblue/def fluid tank under spare. Not sure where you are getting your info on this. I own a 2014 R-line.
I have a 2014 TDI Exec Touareg and it does have the add blue tank. The dealer will top it off for free every 5K miles I think for the duration of the warranty. It is located in the center of the spare tire. I’m getting 30 – 31 highway and 19-20 towing a 1500 lb trailer.
My check engine light came on the other day. It was just in the shop for the add blue refill. No loss of power or engine roughness. There is no info in the display to let me know what is wrong. I’ll have to wait for tomorrow (Monday)to bring it in.
I thought all the newer Touaregs used a DEF system or as VW calls it an Ad Blue system? Are the different systems or?
VW has (so far) managed to avoid using DEF; how long this will remain the case remains to be seen!
The 1st generation Touareg diesel was a monster of a V10, with 309 hp and 553 ft-lb of torque. It could tow a really big boat. But it couldn’t meet CARB specs any more, so VW stopped selling it here.
The Touareg is definitely the low-observable SUV — you just don’t notice them. Especially in a color like brown. 🙂
I drove one of those V-10 diesels back in the early 2000s. An animal!
PS: Chocolate brown is making a comeback… I see a lot of permutations of brown lately. Being a ’70s retro dude, I like it!
We’re going to have to agree to disagree on the color, I think. Never liked it (Mercedes offered it on the 500 SEC in the early 1980s – made me gag). But I admit it hides dirt well. 🙂
What’s next, Avocado and Harvest Gold?
I can dream!
I drive a 2010 Touareg TDI and am extremely happy with it. When choosing the vehicle I tested BMW, Audi, Porsche and Mercedes and found the VW to fit my needs best of all. Though many friends would prefer the badge over a VW, once they drive it they can not fault it except for the lack of status. Others I have met who own one swear by the vehicle.
The price is too high, especially here in Canada, but after a lifetime of owning Pontiacs, Plymouths and Lincolns the owning of a quality German vehicle like the Touareg is a joy.
For me, part of the appeal of VW is the “German” driving feel and put-togetherness, without the pretentiousness that (unfortunately) is associated with owning a BMW or a Benz. No offense meant to owners of those cars, but they have to deal with the same thing that Porsche and Corvette owners (etc.) have to deal with – and it gets old.
Now, if only the price were a bit more reasonable!
How does the Touareg get away with not using DEF? Some trucks advertised no need for DEF and accomplished this by recirculating exhaust back through the engine which funked and gunked things up pretty badly. I’d prefer to burn stuff off in the exhaust rather than run exhaust through my engine.
Clik, I think you’re 2-3 years off. Dodge dodged the bullet a year longer than Ford and GM but come 2013 they all use DEF(I know, I have to fill the damned thing up)including big rigs. I see lots of brand new big rigs, too new to have any serious problem but on the side with the hoods up. If I had time I’d stop and take surveys but I’d bet it’s all computer related. I notice the DEF tanks get larger and larger.
I’m leery of down-the-road problems with DEF, too. I know for a fact that in some models that use this system, if the tank runs dry and is not refilled promptly, the car’s computer will prevent the engine from being re-started, or put it into “limp home” mode.
But even if you keep it topped off, who wants the bother? And the additional expense? I know it’s not huge. But many people may be just like me – and at the limit of their willingness to accept/deal with yet another hassle/expense.
I see the same thing in every effing thing I do.
Just one MORE little detail we LITTLE PEOPLE need to put up with.
I posted about my work-related crap: 7 security programs running (including a few the LAN guys tell us we DO NOT need and shouldn’t have) running on BARELY functional PCs that are 5 years out of date for BARE MINIMUM functionality, let alone the stuff we need to do.
We’ve been comparing the Kia to the Buick. Buick wins, hands down, in visibility, ride, control, and they’re on a par on fuel, I believe. The dog can get into the buick and lie down. Has to jump into the Kia. If he lies down, he’s in someone’s lap.
The Buick is at 170K miles and running fine.
The Kia? Under 50K, nothing major – YET. Very annoying seatbelt alarm, though, which re-activates any time you slow down under 35, I think it was, and then rings for 10 loops of 5 dings or so, about 90 seconds apart.
If I ignored you the first 5 times, do you REALLY think nagging me another 45 times has any meaning?
I can only imagine DEF as a nuisance… But how many effing things can be “CHECK ENGINE” light, and only the High Priests (the computers) can tell you what’s going on?
For those into computers, you might recall DIP switches, and manually configuring the new sound board or video card you bought into a system you can actually customize; then, setting interrupts and memory addresses at the command line….
In other words, it’s like the old cars and bikes you can assemble and dis-assemble.
Now? Win 7 and up, you can’t get into the guts of it – the MACHINE decides how to do everything, and what is and is not important. Got an issue? “Did you try restarting the machine?”
Look, I’m trying to reset the diodes without resorting to an anzo brush…. (Dilbert reference, inside joke: There is no anzo brush, he was talking to self-righteous teenager in Radio Shack or such, who claimed to know more about the electronics than an engineer who designed them.)
Note, that “First response” is from trouble tickets to HP, for LoadRunner – a 13-year-old “cash cow” for those dumb [expletive deleted] shmucks. They KNOW it’s beyond the, “Did you reboot” level, but that’s still their first-level tech response.
You can’t go wrong betting on human stupidity.
How about how you have to have Metric and English tools, especially wrenches? Allen Keys? Torx drivers?
What, no one can make do with a screw any more?
FFS, installing a K&N air fliter into my Subie cost me significant flesh on my thumb because it was sandwiched in so tightly under other parts… (Partially user error, the other parts were removable – but you do things like that to make it onerous and ensure more people go to the DEALER – to not void their warrantee, mind – and thus vaccuum out more money from their wallet, with the things they didn’t NEED to do…. “New Tires” that never get installed, or “transmission flush” that’s just a checkbox on teh sheet, but costs what, $3,000? )
It’s getting to the point I’m looking at the Ural bikes and having a SERIOUS consideration on that, or a low-tech (high-design) Rat bike…
At least if I’m part of the build, I KNOW what’s going to be needed to put it together again.
All these lights and sirens and pretty fascia – they’re just IN THE WAY any more…
How much more for a real gearhead?
I’m not sure, Clik – but I will check into it and see what I can find.
My understanding is that VW dodged the DEF bullet by designing a VERY complicated EGR system. See my comment under the Jetta TDI.
Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
You knew I’d comment on this one, EP.
As an owner of a 2013 model Touareg TDI, I have great praise for this little SUV. I agree with your review points and can expand upon a few of them below.
To give you an idea of the range that 800 miles gives you, I live in northwest Arkansas. I have driven non-stop from here to western Virginia on one tank. Also halfway across New Mexico headed west. The second tank took me to California and then some. This thing will eat up some miles, and do so comfortably. That’s 800 miles traveling at interstate speeds, not the speed limit or at 55mph on two-lanes.
Regarding acceleration, though these are all three quoted as in the low 7 second 0-60mph sprints, in reality they are a bit quicker than that. Actual road tests range from around 7.1s down to the mid-6 second range, and I’ve timed it out in the mid-6 range myself using a performance meter. Accelerating from 70mph to 80mph or higher to pass slow moving traffic is effortless. Speeds north of 100mph are quiet, composed, and comfortable. Top speed is around 130mph, give or take, in a diesel.
Comfort in this is superb, both front and rear seats. Lots of room for a 6’3″ guy like myself, and I can “sit behind myself” without my knees coming close to the back of the front seat. The rear seats recline, too.
This is a rather athletic SUV, too. It’s very much like the Porsche Cayenne, and can generally keep up with it, in its lesser forms, through the twisties even though the VW is tens of thousands of dollars cheaper. You also have a lot more room inside than in a Cayenne while also, in my opinion, having vastly better styling. This is not on par with a Cayenne Turbo or a BMW X5, but it’s not far off.
It’s not perfect, but for its intended function, it’s pretty darn good. My nitpicks are minimal.
First, the price is about $8 too high. You can get an Acura MDX, which is roomier and has a third row seat (if you need it) with more bells and whistles and decent gas mileage for much less money, though you won’t get a diesel. It won’t be quite as solid, not being German, but it will still be an excellent machine. It requires 91 octane premium gas, though, so the cost differential between it and diesel is mostly erased. Acura is much more of a luxury brand than VW, even if the actual real-world luxury in the Touareg is better.
Second, turbo-lag. You’ll quickly discover that having a smooth acceleration from a stop sign at anything other than relatively light throttle will trigger the turbos and a HUGE surge of power. This is actually quite fun, but can upset things like drinks in cups in the cupholders. It feels like about a half-second delay or so, but it does mean you have to time your accelerator to hit that tight hole in traffic. It’s incredibly powerful if you keep the turbo spooled up, but if you’re dawdling around town and suddenly need power to avoid a collision, you might not get it when you need it. This is somewhat magnified by the transmission.
Third, the transmission is a beauty 98% of the time. However, the 8-speed unit will occasionally be caught flat-footed when you need rapid acceleration to avoid an accident or to shoot a gap in traffic. If you only have a half-second window to pass or turn, then you better hope you are close to the correct gear b/c a 2+ gear change down to accelerate takes a moment or two, along with the turbo-lag. This can be mildly annoying at times. The BMW X5 diesel does not have this lag, by the way.
Compared to the others, a Touareg costs much less than a comparably equipped Mercedes or BMW. The above prices EP mentions are the base prices, and the base Touareg trim is pretty decently equipped. The Lux trim level is the sweet spot for value, and comparing that to the Merc or the BMW means you’re running more than $10-$15k cheaper for the VW. This has a lot to do with how Mercedes and BMW set up their options. Instead of having 3 trim levels like VW, BMW, for example, simply has a bunch of separate options. This creates hundreds of possible combinations (seemingly), but every option adds a LOT of money to the price. It’s the a la carte pricing that gets you on the other Germans.
Now the downside to the Touareg is that the interior is simply not as nice a place to live as the BMW (the one I’m most familiar with). In the BMW, the electronics are better, the layout is better, the materials are a step up in quality, and you can generally tell that you are in a more expensive vehicle. If luxury is your calling, then the Touareg is good and the X5 is considerably better.
Now to put this in perspective, I’ve spent plenty of time in high end GM products (Denalis, Cadillacs, Buicks) and the Touareg puts them all to shame. Most of the higher end platform-shared GM products are clearly cheaper cars gussied up to look a little nicer and give GM a huge profit margin. To some degree, though, no matter how much makeup you put on a pig, it’s still a pig. A Cadillac Escalade looks almost exactly like a Chevy Tahoe with a few extra pieces of wood and leather. Definitely not worth the extra cost of entry. On the other hand, the Touareg feels like a much nicer truck than it is, which makes sense considering it is the decontented version of Audi Q5/Q7 and Porsche Cayenne models, all of which have a nice step up in interior more comparable to the BMW X5. You get much more of a sense that you are in a name brand suit sold with a clipped tag than you do being in an overpriced pair of jeans and a t-shirt like the domestics (and Acura, for that matter).
So if having the best luxury interior surroundings is important to you, look at the BMW X5 or the Land Rover Range Rover Sport. If you want a really nice interior that feels just a little plain, and wish to save $10+ in the bargain, take a look at the Touareg. That’s the excellent thing about the market, the consumer gets to decide, not some bureaucrat, what you are willing to pay for.
Thanks for the detailed thoughts, SJ!
Interesting on the lag. I did not notice this in the Touareg I test drove. The power delivery was smooth/linear unless you did punch it – at which point it surged forward like a tsunami!
This is subjective, but I’m not as impressed by the BMW. It is certainly “sportier” looking (interior design-wise) but struck me as fairly Spartan in contrast. And the BMW’s electronic suit is uber-annoying.
I like the Benz ML a lot. Sumptuous inside. And – other than the DEF Issue – a very appealing vehicle.
On price: I’d like to see VW offer the TDI drivetrain as a stand-alone option, not as part of a package. That would drop the price under $50k for the Sport trim.
And that would be a winner!