Despite its soccer mom exterior design, the Touareg is an extremely capable off-roader.
Yes, this unibody crossover might look out of place in this series. To look at it, one might think that school runs and soccer practices would be where the Volkswagen Touareg would feel at home. But the Touareg is a surprisingly capable off-roader, and it has the awards and rally victories to back that statement up. The Touareg was developed alongside the Audi Q7 and the Porsche Cayenne, both of which also use the VW Group PL71 platform (the upcoming Lamborghini SUV is expected to as well).
But being the cheapest of the three, the Touareg is the most likely candidate for off-road duty. Though platform sharing is often seen as a negative thing, here it has given an infusion of lunacy to Touareg which you just wouldn't have gotten if VW hadn't dipped into the parts bin. For starters, if you live in Europe or Saudi Arabia, there was the option of getting your Touareg with the W12 engine, originally developed for the Bentley Continental. But the best option ever offered for the Touareg was the V10 TDI engine. It was with this mighty diesel that the Touareg set the world record for towing by a passenger vehicle, when it pulled a 747 as a publicity stunt.
Now, it's true that the Q7 has a V12 TDI, which is more powerful than the VW plant, but Audi would prefer it if you didn't associate towing with any of their vehicles, and the VW is still the more likely off-roader. The V10 TDI is no longer offered, but a very capable V6 TDI still is, as well as a number of gasoline engines. It won Car and Driver's Best Luxury SUV of 2003, and Motor Trend's SUV of the Year in 2004. It's true that a vehicle could probably win one or even both of those awards without being particularly suited to off-road duty, but Overlander named it 4WD of the Year in 2003 and Four Wheeler magazine awarded it with the Four Wheeler of the Year title for 2005.
These are not awards which you win without ever leaving asphalt. If you still aren't convinced that VW built a serious off-road machine, we can always look to motorsports. The Touareg took a class win at Pikes Peak, as well as a record fastest time for a diesel vehicle. It won its class in the 2007 Baja 500 and outright victories in the Dakar Rally for three years in a row, starting in 2009. These are some of the most punishing races in the world of rallying, and a vehicle which was intended only for carting kids around wouldn't have survived. Volkswagen has some experience with more rugged vehicles.
Old Dr. Porsche himself designed the first of these, a military vehicle known as the Kubelwagen. Volkswagen would prefer it if you didn't mention the client who commissioned these vehicles, but they were capable vehicles nonetheless. These would evolve into the Type 181 "Thing" and then into the Iltis. It's very possible that Volkswagen isn't the first company which you think of in connection to off-road vehicles, but the truth is that VW was able to call on decades of experience when it came to designing the Touareg, and this comes through in the completed product. In truth, the Touareg is still quite well suited to driving on the road.
Chances are that a smaller percentage of them will ever see a dirt trail than any of the other vehicles in this series. This isn't because the Touareg can't handle it, and it isn't even because VW isn't marketing it as an off-roader, but what it probably comes down to is the way it looks. The other vehicles in this series very much look the part of an off-roader. Even newer models like the FJ Cruiser are intentionally styled to be reminiscent of older vehicles which were purpose-built to do little else but go off-road. The looks of the Touareg just don't inspire the same confidence as those of a Defender or a G-Class, and this is why it tends to be more popular with the soccer mom set.
Now, it is true that the Touareg lacks the body-on-frame construction which makes other off-roaders so tough, but the truth is that it could still handle the vast majority of what gets thrown at those other off-roaders. We won't hold it against you if you choose to go with a different vehicle for your next safari, but the Touareg really is something to consider. It's a shame that, despite their best efforts, Volkswagen hasn't managed to make the Touareg as iconic as the rest. But perhaps we can think of the Touareg as a new category of off-roader, a sort of off-road sleeper. Then again, maybe not.