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2004 VW Touareg

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San Francisco: If I say to you, "Volkswagen," I’m guessing you picture the little Beetle in your mind. It’s as likely as if I ask you to imagine a pink elephant. Decades after the old rear-engine, air-cooled econo-bugs disappeared from American showrooms, the company successfully introduced the front-engine, water-cooled New Beetle, and we accepted it. The memories are that strong.

Now, try to get your mind around a $50,000 Volkswagen that looks like a Ford Explorer, weighs two and a half tons, and has – gasp - a 310 horsepower V8 under its hood. Yes, it doesn’t fit the picture, but here comes the 2004 Touareg, at your service.

The Touareg, named after an African tribe, is not just any offroader. My test model came stuffed with every imaginable indulgence, from leather seats to 19-inch alloy wheels to a 375-watt 11-speaker audio system and plenty of other high-tech electronic devices. Like other members of the burgeoning luxury SUV segment, this car is less truck than it is go-anywhere superwagon.

Once you get over the initial tall SUV impression, you will find plenty of Volkswagen styling cues. The grille resembles that on the popular Jetta and Passat. The taillamps, too, look familiar, as does the prominent shoulder along the side. Volkswagen logos sit in the center of the grille and the tailgate. A wide black band along the lower sides keeps the car from looking too tall. The optional 19-inch alloy wheels still leave plenty of room above them in the enormous wheelwells.

Although my Wheat Beige tester was the topline 4.2-liter V8 model, you can also buy a version with a perfectly good 3.2-liter V6 that puts out 220 horsepower and 225 lb.-ft. of torque. That engine saves a couple of hundred pounds, a couple of miles per gallon, and drops the price a bit. The V8 gets mileage ratings of 14 city, 18 highway, which is about normal for this kind of rig.

Both models come with a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic sequential shifter. You can let the computer do the work, but if you want to select the gears yourself, just slide the lever over and then push forward to shift up and pull back to downshift. I spent about five minutes shifting and then let the excellent mechanism handle the chores. You can pop the shifter into "sport" mode, which keeps the car in each gear longer for better acceleration.

The interior of the Touareg is where the real luxury shines. The eight various-sized chrome-rimmed gauges sit in the dash sit behind individual round windows. The aluminum accents on the doors and dash surround rich wood sections. The plastics are rich and lustrous, the carpets thick, the controls substantial. The leather chairs are thronelike.

Luxury is manifest not only in looks but also in function. Dual-zone climate controls are standard, as are privacy glass, 12-way power front seats, a trip computer and compass, remote keyless entry, a self-dimming inside rearview mirror - the list goes on and on. There’s even an air-conditioned glovebox.

In my tester, the optional navigation /sound system filled the center console with information, but it took a while to figure it out. I still wasn’t sure of everything after a week of playing with it. I liked the little Touareg photo of sand dunes that appears in the dash center display when you start the car.

My Touareg’s optional air suspension provided a library silent ride along Bay Area freeways and local lanes. You can set the system to adjust vehicle height automatically, lowering for freeway travel and rising to 9.6 inches of ground clearance for the offroad. I was loath to risk my $50,000 baby in the backcountry, but the Touareg’s road manners were certainly unimpeachable.

The 4XMOTION permanent four-wheel-drive system automatically moves the power between the front and rear axles to account for changes in driving conditions. In the normal "high" setting, the Electronic Drivetrain Management locks the differentials automatically to give maximum flexibility to the traction system. There is also a "low" setting that uses a reduction gear to enable serious offroading. Many SUVs don’t provide this much choice or flexibility.

Some things are a little odd. The key, for example, always goes in the same way, and when you turn it, the car starts and the key springs back to the original position. The outside door handles have little black circles on them that look like thumb buttons but don’t seem to do anything. The stereo is top notch, but the CD changer is stuck in back behind a panel that looks like it covers a toolkit.

The Touareg introduces some eye-opening prices into Volkswagen showrooms. The V6 model base prices at $34,900, and the V8 model starts at $40,700. With the Premium Plus package ($7,300), 19-inch alloy wheels ($1,200), Winter Package ($600) and rear differential lock ($550), my tester came to a princely $50,965. Sure, you could buy almost three New Beetles for that, but it wouldn’t feel this wonderful.  By Steve Schaefer AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

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Byline:  Syndicated content provided by Tony Leopardo AutoWire.Net
Column Name:  Hard to spell, but easy to like
Topic:  2004 VW Touareg
Word Count:   897
Photo Caption:  2004 VW Touareg
Photo Credits:  VW Internet Media
Series #:   2003 - 50

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