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The wrong direction

Say it isn’t so, VW!

The company that once believed small was beautiful and made a virtue of modesty (winning advertising awards in the process) has now built an outsized vehicle that virtually does nothing well (except, perhaps, capture consumer dollars). Doesn’t "Volkswagen" mean "people’s car?" What happened?

In many years of driving new cars, I’ve seldom seen such a reaction. Because the Touareg is eagerly anticipated and brand new, total strangers have been coming up to me all week assuming I’m a VIP and wanting to know if I "love it."

Well, no, I don’t, and for myriad reasons. The newest Volkswagen is absurdly expensive, too big, a gas guzzler (especially with what will be an optional V-10 engine), awkwardly laid out, uncomfortable, ponderous to drive and tedious to steer, painfully lacking in rear visibility and prone to annoying electronic beeps.

Let’s go through these in order. The Touareg starts around $35,000 but zooms up to $60,000 if fully equipped. People may be willing to pay $55,000 for the V-8-powered Porsche Cayenne, with which it shares a platform, but a similar amount for a Volkswagen that lacks a practical third seat? I don’t get it.

The Touareg is too big and heavy. I found its 2.5 tons and vast bulk a pain in parking and maneuvering. It’s a gas guzzler, getting a miserable 15 miles per gallon around town, 20 on the highway, with the as-tested 220-horsepower V-6. It’s awkwardly laid out, with less storage space than you’d expect, and seats that are difficult to fold for cargo (incredibly stiff latches, for one thing).

The Touareg is also uncomfortable, with weirdly over-firm seats. It’s ponderous, especially at slow speeds with the steering loaded up. (Using the transmission’s sport mode increases performance, at the cost of fuel economy.)

The Touareg is compromised on visibility, and looking backwards involves guesswork. Finally, controls are poor: For instance, our test car lacked the optional six-CD changer, requiring the driver to remove the navigation CD to hear music, and disable an annoying warning message every time the engine was shut off. Further, the remote refused to unlock the rear hatch, which inexplicably comes without a keyed lock. The air conditioning had trouble coping with the recent heat wave.

The SUV’s ride is a consistently jiggly and jarring experience, which might be improved with the optional air-suspension system. Pavement irregularities in our test car transmitted right to the occupants, especially our sub-teen rear-seat passengers.

Judging by the public reaction, the Touareg will probably be an overachiever in the marketplace. Car and Driver loved the SUV, proclaiming it "slicker than a Brylcreemed weasel," and adding that "Range Rover has company coming." It will go after the high-end SUV market held by such contenders as the BMW X5.

The Touareg only looks good if you accept what I consider the distorted values that gave us the SUV in the first place. It’s assumed that suburban American motorists who never leave the highway "need" a juggernaut with off-road capability. So, of course, your 5,000-pound AWD behemoth has to have a huge V-8 or V-10 engine to give it acceptable acceleration and the ability to keep up with a 2,200-pound Toyota ECHO.

Was there anything I liked about the Touareg? Not much, but it did have a tasteful interior highlighted by some attractive woodwork. The name "Touareg," by the way, refers to a nomadic tribe in Saharan Africa. Niger, where they live, is one of the poorest countries on earth, a place where the few motorists might actually need to go off-road occasionally.

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