The Crazy Luxury Features That Make the First-Gen VW Touareg Such an Over-Engineered Nightmare

Image: Volkswagen
Image: Volkswagen

The first generation Volkswagen Touareg launched in 2002, but remains one of my favorite fancy off-roaders of all time because it was a genuine off-road beast and the most luxurious VW SUV ever. Sadly, that swankiness and off-road prowess comes at a cost, as they mean the SUV is filled with wacky luxury features that will make maintenance a true nightmare. Here’s a look at some of those features.

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While taking a break from gazing at the new $500 Jeep Cherokee sitting in my backyard, I fired up my YouTube-o-matic, and discovered a video from The Fast Lane Car with possibly the most bait-y thumbnail I’ve ever seen, complete with bold, all caps, the phrase “You won’t believe” and four consecutive question marks. But get past that to discover an awesome video showcasing some of the first-generation Volkswagen Touareg’s incredibly interesting luxury features:

Some of the systems are just mind-bogglingly fancy for a 2004 model-year vehicle (the first model year sold in the U.S.), and especially for one that TFL managed to snag for only $4,600. There are electric seatbelt shoulder height adjusters for the front two seats (which each get a three-position memory function) and there’s four zone climate control, four heated seats with five different temperature settings, and an automatic recirculation system that uses a sensor to cut off air from the outside when the vehicle senses pollutants or when the driver uses the windshield washer.

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TFL Car also points out a cigarette lighter port-rechargeable flashlight, three HVAC airflow modes for the rear passengers, and a knob that sends cold air conditioned air into the glovebox to yield a cooler.

But the luxury doesn’t end there. TFL also shows the separate bin in the glovebox for the fancy leather-bound owner’s manual, the digital calendar in the overhead console, the two sun shades for the driver, and the tiny sun shade to cover the glass above the rearview mirror. Then there’s the third cupholder in the center console, the soft-close rear hatch, the steering wheel buttons that turn off the steering wheel backlighting, and the wacky parking proximity alert with green/yellow/red lights on the top of the dash and in the rear just above the cargo area.

Plus there’s the air suspension with its multiple ride height settings, headlight squirters, locking diffs, an available sway bar disconnect, and a second-row pass-through bag for skis! The list goes on and on, so watch the video above to have your mind blown by what was clearly a no-holds-barred engineering exercise for Volkswagen.

Image: Volkswagen
Image: Volkswagen
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But before you go out and snag a Volkswagen Touareg to chauffeur yourself around an off-road course in high luxury, just think about how difficult it will be to maintain all of these fancy features once they inevitably fail. After all, we’ve already established that more complexity often yields a sacrifice in reliability.

To help you understand why you should reconsider pulling the trigger on that dirt cheap VW off-roader on your local Craigslist, my coworker Raphael Orlove wrote all about the vehicle’s hellish upkeep needs in his story titled “The Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI Was More Of A Nightmare Than You Can Possibly Imagine.” In it, he talked about how the Touareg—which came out at a time when VW exec Ferdinand Piëch was obsessively trying to show off the company’s engineering skills with over-designed but awesome cars like the Bugatti Veyron and VW Phaeton—was too expensive because it was “too luxurious inside and too meticulously engineered.”

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He goes on to quote owners who describe just how nightmarish it is to maintain the V10 powertrain. And though the vehicle came with other engine options (the car in the video above has a V8), the point remains that Touaregs may be awesome, but they weren’t designed to be cheap and easy to maintain. So consider yourself warned, though if you still want to go out and buy a Touareg, I wouldn’t blame you. The car is awesome.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

They are indeed awesome. That reminds me, I made a large post in Oppo back in March or so about my 2004 Touareg project... V10.

Strangely, mine does not have the rear zone climate controls and heated rear seats (this also apparently means it doesn’t get the ski pass thru with built in ski cover). Same exact teak color interior, though. Mine’s also been upgraded to at least have the heated steering wheel, the diesel-powered Webasto auxiliary heater and paddle shifters.

I’ve put 10,000 miles on it since I removed the engine to replace the camshafts (a known PD TDI issue, not just an issue with the V10 specifically). It is fan-freaking-tastic.

I have never driven a vehicle that can feel so at home off road as it does on road. And for something that weighs nearly 6000 lbs (at least the V10 diesel does...) it goes around corners unbelievably well and feels absolutely planted at speed. They really are an engineering marvel, but the cost to fix can indeed be nutso.

Somehow, the “horrible, unreliable” air suspension on mine has remained untouched over its 180,000 miles. And after having driven both a conventionally sprung Touareg and the one with air suspension (which also comes with adaptive dampers that have the 3 modes you can select) I’d probably pony up to replace the air suspension with the OE parts if it were to sustain a failure rather than retrofit the more conventional steel spring suspension. It’s that good.

As much as I fan-boy over this thing, I’m not dumb enough to rely on it as my only form of transportation... Parts are not only expensive but often times you have to wait for them to come from Germany (especially for rare V10 engine parts). It’s just not a very feasible only vehicle to own. But my God is it glorious.

I also bought mine knowing what its issues were and paid around $3k to purchase AND have it shipped cross country... of course it took nearly another $3k in parts and nearly a week of my time to drop the engine and replace the cams, lifters, bearings, all the one time use bolts, the two mechanical fuel pumps (one of which is also a vacuum pump) and remove all 10 injectors, replace the seals on them, reinstall with new hold down bolts...

So far it’s driven me (and sometimes 3 other people in the truck with me) to the Avenue of the Giants, two trips to Oregon (which have also included visiting interesting volcanic legacy items along highway 97, water falls, some of those trips have been on forest or fire service roads). It’s also encountered some light off roading at the Carrizo plain and a road that really wasn’t a road as a method to bypass traffic on I5 in the middle of nowhere. There was also a real gnarly, uneven/rough road that zigged in and out of a river canyon in the Sierras I took it on awhile back.

The more things I try with it, the more impressed I get. It may not have the suspension articulation a stick axle Wrangler does, but I suspect when the TFL guys select the correct modes they will be very surprised at just how capable the Touareg is. Whether or not it’s more capable than a Wrangler Rubicon... eeeh... we’ll see. But it will likely compare much more favorably than the average public thinks.