Things are looking pretty good for Volkswagen at the moment. The business shenanigans with Porsche ended up falling in Volkswagen's favour after the bankers screwed up the world and the Japanese got caught with their heads in the sand during the recession, along with a bit of a lapse in quality control at the factory gates. The net result of all this has left the Germans in a perfect position to leave everyone else in their wake and grab that all-important top spot as the world's leading car builder. All they need now is a spot-on product lineup and it'll be job done, as they say.
But as with everything in life, things are never quite that easy. The brand that started out building one car for all the people now builds all the cars for all the people. You can buy a Volkswagen Polo from the same showroom as the top-of-the-range, Merc-baiting Phaeton. That makes convincing someone that you're the manufacturer to help them stand out from the crowd with a posh car - when the guy next door has a budget hatchback with the same badge - quite a tall order.
What Volkswagen intends to do is create a premium section to the range, separating the Touareg, Phaeton and CC models. What VW won't be doing is creating a new brand for these cars. With Das Auto (the car) as its tag line and philosophy, the company isn't going to follow Toyota with its own version of Lexus. If they can't make it work with a single badge, then so be it. It's a brave move and a tough decision that has never been achieved before. But if it works it'll give VW the edge on every other car company on the planet.
The latest step on this road to automotive domination is the all-new Touareg. To be honest, there wasn't a lot wrong with the old model, despite its too-cuddly design. It was good off-road, luxurious inside and practical. It even managed to grab the mantle of the "thinking man's Cayenne". Volkswagen obviously didn't agree with me, as they've changed almost everything from bumper to bumper. The result is actually really surprising. VW has managed to keep everything that was good about the old car and improved everything that needed a bit of help.
Gone are the rounded, cutesy looks from before; they're now replaced with a much tougher, edgy design. However, the designers at VW seem to have been taking their coffee breaks across the street at Porsche, with one of them possibly visiting a friend at the Mercedes plant. The front borrows styling cues from the GL and the rear does a very good impression of the Cayenne. The combination works really well and the car looks much more balanced than the previously front-heavy design. At least it's truly German!
The new Touareg not only looks a lot better, but also drives like a luxury SUV should. With the brand aiming at the higher end of the market the new car needed to feel special on the road. Luckily for VW, that's exactly what it does. The old model wasn't at all bad to drive. But the new car feels more solid on the road and stronger under acceleration. The brakes are sharp (too sharp on the hybrid, actually), and there's a distinct lack of body roll.
When aiming at the top end of the market perception and feel are everything. It feels spot-on to drive, so if the company can nail the perception, it'll certainly worry the other manufacturers in the segment. Inside, the interior has had a serious makeover. If this is an example of VW's new drive for a more luxury at the top end, then I can't wait to see what else they're planning. The new trim rivals the company's main Germanic competitors, creating a fantastic driving environment. It's not as fully laden as the Porsche or Merc, and less design-led as the X5, but it feels great and creates a very pleasant place to wile away a few hours.
What I love is the fact that VW gives you a slot to store the key in. With this radio-key madness every manufacturer seems bent on adopting, you always end up keeping the key in the cup holder. Volkswagen has a special slot in the dash that the key fits into. Hey? hang on a minute! Didn't we have those before? Hopefully, the rest of the car industry can take a leaf out of VW's book and we can put an end to all this radio transmitter key stupidity.
On the road, the big 4x4 is smooth, quiet and solid. It feels stronger and more robust than the Cayenne, with far fewer buttons and dials than any of the market-leading brands at the moment. Almost everything is contained in the central touch screen, giving the driver a smooth, uncluttered dash, with a simple pair of dials to concentrate on. It's actually very hard to find fault with the new car. It drives well, looks great and does what it says on the tin. If I were pushed, I'd say I didn't like the buttons on the steering wheel, but that's really grabbing at straws.
With the CC proving to be a curveball success, and the new Phaeton just around the corner, VW might just be onto something here. With the new Touareg due to arrive in dealerships during the middle of this year, and if the company can overcome the ever-present, Middle-East badge snobbery, they might just catch the other big Germanic three napping. No prices or a release date have yet been set for the Middle East.