First Drive: 2010 Volkswagen Touareg

Long before Porsche and Volkswagen became embroiled in a bewildering fight for the ownership rights to each other's brand, the manufacturers proved they could work together very effectively by co-developing an SUV platform.

For Porsche this would underpin the Cayenne – a car that became a sales phenomenon - but VW's Touareg SUV was a much quieter success – often overshadowed by its glamorous twin and the dynamically superior BMW X5.

The new Touareg aims to change all that. Volkswagen revealed the SUV at Geneva with the assurance the new model would be lighter, better looking, bigger, better to drive, more refined, more economical and quicker than the outgoing car. As well as sharing a new platform with the latest Cayenne, the Touareg also gets the same petrol-hybrid system that Porsche recently trumpeted as concrete evidence of their burgeoning green credentials. All of this looks very impressive on paper, and the new Touareg makes a good first impression in the metal too.

The car is 40mm longer than its predecessor, as well as being a smidgen lower, but from the outside it could very easily be mistaken for a mid-life facelift rather than a new model. This is not necessarily a criticism - VW's sharp new corporate nose fits the SUV very well, and the Touareg's previously well-proportioned body gets the added definition it needed to freshen it up.

These understated good looks continue on the inside. Some might consider VW's a little too staid, but the vast majority of the Touareg's intended audience are likely to appreciate the clean lines and sheer ergonomic precision of the cabin. Thanks to the longer wheelbase, there is plenty of legroom in the back and a decent boot behind that. Dark interiors mean the Touareg doesn't immediately seem that spacious considering its size, but premium materials and a beautiful finish do make it feel satisfyingly snug.

This impression of comfort is accentuated by the way the Touareg drives. The car doesn't have the kerb conquering ability of a Discovery, but the ride quality is supple enough to smooth the average road, and even the slight vibrations at slow speeds don't dramatically impair the big VW's sense of refinement.

With the 375bhp hybrid system, the Touareg feels genuinely quick and the switch from electric propulsion to conventional power is fairly seamless, which is fortunate because it will spark the V6 into life at walking pace. Predictably, the car's emissions-free range is severely limited. Slightly more impressive is the system's ability to disengage the petrol motor from the drivetrain at speed, allowing the Touareg to coast without enduring the detrimental effects of engine braking on fuel consumption.

Nevertheless, the hybrid system's environmental and economical benefits are negligible. CO2 emissions of 193g/km keep it in gas guzzler territory, and the car's speculative 34mpg economy figure is trumped by the 3.0-litre V6 TDI's quoted 38mpg.

The smaller diesel is the cheapest engine in the range, and will almost certainly be the big seller. This is no bad thing; twinned with VW's slick new eight-speed automatic gearbox the V6 TDI delivers 235bhp and 405 lb ft of torque. It may lack the comprehensive shove of the range-topping V8 TDI but it rarely leaves you wanting for more performance.

All versions get permanent four-wheel drive, but VW has toned down the car's standard setup. Every variant gets the basic 4MOTION system which includes a limited-slip differential and an off-road driving programme, but if you require serious ability in the sticky stuff you'll need to spec the 'Terrain Tech' package or buy the Escape model. The extra money gets a centre-locking differential, reduction gearing, increased ground clearance and idiot-proof dials to control it all from the cabin.

Basic off-road ability aside, the Touareg is a worthy successor to the original car. It doesn't possess the pomp of a Land Rover, and the X5 is still more rewarding to drive, but the Volkswagen's likely price tag will reflect this. There is the sneaking suspicion that the manufacturer might not have done quite enough to attract new customers in a closely fought class, but by improving the overall refinement, comfort, size, economy and pace of the car, Volkswagen has done more than enough to satisfy current Touareg fans.

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