ASIDE FROM A BRIEF blast in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S across the wintry, windblown wastes beyond the German city of Leipzig, I've driven no SUVs of late. The reason is simple: I find it hard to enthuse about vehicles that, as a general rule, are bigger, heavier, slower, less economical, more expensive and – though there are a few honourable exceptions – less enjoyable to drive than comparable saloon cars. In the urban environs that serve as the habitat for the vast majority of these muscle-bound beasts, I'm also yet to be convinced that a hefty 4x4 represents a more practical quotidian proposition than a decent-sized station wagon.
Given the rocketing global popularity of SUVs, however, I do realise this puts me in a minority of one, so when Volkswagen asked whether I'd like to try out their latest Touareg, I felt it only reasonable to accept their invitation. That, and the fact that I was rather more impressed by the Cayenne than I cared to admit, and as it and the VW share much in common – they were developed in tandem by the same design team, share the same platform and many major components, and their bodies are built alongside each other in Bratislava, Slovakia – the prospect of testing the cheaper (though by no means inexpensive) sibling was sufficiently intriguing.
I use the word sibling because the two cars really are that closely related – in fact, they're nigh on identical from the forward doors rearwards to the tailgate. Only at the front end have the two brands adopted radically different treatments. Porsche has grafted a nose resembling that of a 911, Boxter or Panamera onto the body of its SUV, and though we've had more than a decade to get used to it, the Cayenne still looks weird (and to these eyes just plain wrong).
Volkswagen, on the other hand, has opted for a far more restrained approach, with bonnet, grille and headlamps that if downsized would look perfectly at home on a Golf. This restrained and inoffensive visage also helps make the Touareg appear smaller than it actually is, so it's only when I climb into the driver's seat that I begin to appreciate the car's considerable height and girth. Ensconced behind the wheel of the Cayenne while surveying the snowy Saxonian plain hadn't seemed an especially lofty perch, but when easing the Touareg out across four jammed lanes of city traffic I have the commanding view of a truck driver.
Not that the VW feels or drives like a truck, or any other commercial vehicle for that matter. For tucked beneath the bonnet of the Touareg V6 Blue Motion Technology, to use the car's full and unwieldy name, is a 3.6-litre version of the long-serving VR6 petrol engine, which is also installed on entry-level Cayennes. As fitted to the Touareg, this compact, narrow-angle motor with offset cylinders (in configuration it lies somewhere between a V6 and a straight six, and is thus able to employ a single cylinder head) knocks out almost 280bhp, and 360Nm of torque – enough, in other words, to get the car's 2.1 tonnes moving pretty swiftly. All that grunt and twist are sent to the car's four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox, VW's familiar 4Motion permanent all-wheel-drive system and a lockable central differential, with power constantly vectored between each axle for maximum traction as and when it's needed.
The chassis is pretty able, too, and especially so on city roads. VW has, of course, endowed the Touareg with the mud-churning capability that its butch appearance suggests, but as most owners will likely never venture onto the rough stuff, this car is most likely to be judged by its performance on concrete and tarmac – which probably translates more mundanely as the school run, family jaunts to the beach with the dogs, and crawls around shopping-mall car parks in search of a space.
In conditions such as these, this SUV behaves pretty much like a normal saloon – barring, of course, its size and height. Thanks to its redesigned air suspension with electronic damping, body roll is kept well under control in most situations, yet ride on all but the roughest surfaces is decently cushioned – and that's in spite of the 19-inch alloys that come as standard. The steering is accurate, light and sharp, so that the Touareg feels as if it can be punted about like one of its smaller relatives in the Volkswagen lineup. Overall, it's impressively refined for such a big car.
Kicking down the gears with boot firmly planted on the accelerator (surprisingly, the autobox offers no paddle-shifting option), the Touareg hitches up its skirt and rushes off at a fair clip: with the pedal to the carpet, which is hardly the way that most of these will be driven, it reaches 100km/h from a standstill in less than eight seconds and finally runs out of breath at 228, the latter figure a testament to its commendably slippery aerodynamics. My preferred mode of conducting the car, however, is to hit the expressway, set the cruise control, turn up the music and savour the ride, which really does approach that of a limousine.
As for the interior, I expect top-quality materials and build on any car that wears the VW logo, and the Touareg doesn't disappoint, though it does lack the visual impact of, say, a Range Rover (which, it must be said, is also way more expensive). Above my head is a panoramic glass panel that extends almost the length of the cabin and makes this a far airier place to be than the funereal black-leather upholstery suggests. Standard equipment also includes an eight-speaker stereo with touch-screen and fourzone air conditioning (rear passengers get their own controls for both), as well as a reversing camera.
Carrying capacity with the rear seats in place is less than 600 litres, though this can be increased incrementally by moving the bench forwards, while flattening the seat backs creates a maximum volume of more than 1,600 litres. As for a third row of seats, there isn't one: unlike some of its competitors, the Touareg holds a maximum of five passengers – seven if you include the hounds in the back.
In spite of my reservations, I'm in no hurry to hand over the keys once my stint in the Touareg is over, so is this where I reach for my hat and start munching? I'm impressed by its sophistication, build quality and comfort, and also by the absence of superfluous ostentation. It drives almost like a car and undercuts the M-class Benz and Lexus RX (and is, I'd bet, a far more rewarding drive than either). Best of all it's almost a Porsche, but without the inapt nosejob. In fact, I'd urge anyone looking for a big 4x4 to think long and hard about the VW.
The problem, however, is in that word, “almost”. Because worthy though it is, the Touareg remains an SUV and thus will never display the finesse of a well-sorted saloon. I'm impressed, as I said, but I'm not converted – so my battered old Panama is safe, for the moment at least.