For a car usually spotted on the school run, the Touareg is impressive off the tarmac.
Out of the comfort zone
Not every drive in the desert starts with a helicopter ride, but if you have the means or connections to do so, I highly recommend it.
After a joyride around the skies of Dubai, we flew along the coast past Sharjah and Ajman and then cut inland to Ras al Khaimah. Volkswagen thought the aerial trip to RAK would make a pleasant change from a dull drive up Emirates Road and they were right.
I had a bird's-eye recce of the terrain on which I'd be testing the newest Volkswagen Touareg. It may be a car usually only spotted on the school run, but VW was keen to prove that owners should not be afraid to take it on the dunes.
And what pretty dunes they were: it was a great illustration for the sand-sceptics who won't go out in the desert because they reckon it all looks the same. It doesn't. Once you've been off-roading in the UAE a few times, it becomes clear that there are mountainous dunes, sand bowls, pale sand, darkest orange sand, gravel tracks, undulating baby dunes to make you giggle and the suspension wiggle, different vegetation and wildlife to spot.
I'd never been off-roading around Ras al Khaimah so it was pleasing to see tufty green plantlife and ghaf trees aplenty, a good sign that there may be wildlife around.
The sand was a lovely golden colour and I could see the drive would involve more hopping over smaller mounds than careering up towering, monolithic dunes - it is good to mix it up.
For skittish first-time desert drivers, the view from the chopper of the Ras al Khaimah dunes is reassuring. You get a true idea of what a compact country the UAE is and when you see the patchwork of dunes, date farms and roads, you also realise that even when you feel like you are truly in the middle of nowhere, you probably aren't that far from a busy road. Always good for the nervous novice to know.
And so the convoy set out in the newest Touareg to discover two things. The first thing is that it is very luxurious on the inside, with plenty of leather and wood, but that should not put people off taking it off the tarmac. The second thing is that a trained monkey could set up the Touareg so that it can handle the dunes. All that needs to be done is to let down the tyres to around 15psi and switch the dial from "On-road" to "Off-road".
That is it. The diffs will lock and the hill descent control function will kick in. There is no second gear shifter to select low range gears. The gearbox will do the work for you. If you use an automatic transmission, you can take this car into the desert. A 3.6L V6 280hp petrol engine provides the power. European customers will have the option of a hybrid, but Volkswagen is not yet convinced the Middle East is ready for a greener version. Perhaps a few petrol price increases will change the mood of the market.
The route near the Banyan Tree resort took us through areas where the wildlife is protected. It started out with gravel roads and then we were eased into sandier conditions, the instructors over the radio telling us to keep to the convoy and to always make sure we could see the driver behind in the rear-view mirror. By making sure the driver behind you is your responsibility, the risk of losing a member of your off-roading group is greatly reduced - and nobody should have to be told that it is best to go off the beaten path with at least three vehicles.
Soon, we were bounding enthusiastically over the undulating baby dunes with the odd ridge in the sand to twist the axles. There were airborne moments as the drivers got comfortable and put their collective feet down. While I saw gazelles eating from bushes at the hotel, camels and a couple of oryxes were spotted on this drive.
The trip ended with a climb up a steep slope of powdery sand on which a few cars got stuck - striking a balance between using enough power to make light work of the sand and not going so fast that you lose control was a challenge for some. What goes up must come down so our route from the top of the slope was on a near-vertical downhill descent, the hill descent control being tested to the limit.
If you are determined to take your soccer taxi into the sand, the Touareg is an able competitor to similar affluent SUVs, such as the Mercedes GL and the Audi Q7. All work well in the desert, all are simple to operate off road so the decision for most buyers will probably come down to which vehicle they most want to be seen in when they're back in civilisation - which is not that far from the dunes when you see it from a chopper.