It's named after a nomadic, hearty Saharan tribe with the unusual- sounding name, TOUR-egg. Literally translated, the word means “free folk. "
So what better way to test drive the Touareg - the first SUV offered by Volkswagen - than during an open-road, 400-mile round-trip journey to the famed Monterey Peninsula?
Certainly, my chosen route south on Interstate 5 has long stretches where anyone who enjoys the pleasures of driving can feel “free. "
But 30 miles into my journey, a sensor warning appeared on the console panel: “Defective tire on board. "
The same warning had also appeared sporadically during my first two days with the vehicle in short, around-town treks. A local Volkswagen dealer representative said many Touaregs have suffered through the same “growing pains. "
In short, owners noticing the same warning have brought their new vehicles to dealers with concern. But they've largely discovered nothing is wrong with the exception of an overly sensitive computer system.
In my instance, the warning quickly changed to a danger light: “Flat Tire. " I stopped at freeway exit service station and examined what appeared to be four properly inflated tires. Nonetheless, I increased tire pressure slightly in all of the tires, noted that the warning and danger lights disappeared and continued with my trip.
Through three more days mixed with city and freeway miles, the warnings appeared and disappeared several times, and I subsequently read about the Touareg's first recall for a related problem with its Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS).
Nonetheless, the local dealer had assured me there wouldn't be a problem. And with that in mind, I began a steady, if slow, study of a powerful vehicle that includes a multitude of innovation, a spacious interior, a comfortable ride and a sensory overload of features.
The Touareg I drove was equipped with a 3.2-liter, 24-valve, 220- horsepower V6 engine and had a base price of $34,900. The blue-silver exterior was nicely complemented with an anthracite-colored interior.
The standard features list was long and included such unique offerings as five 12-volt power outlets, dual zone climate with rear vents, a multifunction trip computer and compass, a recharging mini-flashlight and power heatable exterior mirrors.
Additional special features included heatable driver and passenger seats, a powerglass sunroof and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The electronically controlled permanent four-wheel drive, electronically regulated shock absorbers and double wish-bone suspension enhanced the vehicle's nice road handling.
The Touareg's most intriguing feature is its three varying locking differentials that can offer up to 12 inches of ground clearance depending upon road or off-round terrain surfaces.
I had the standard differential engaged during my entire journey, and the Touareg didn't disappoint. It accelerated well and handled lane maneuvering and cornering nicely.
On some ascents, the vehicle was slightly underpowered and during long straight highway stretches, a windshield “whistle" interrupted an otherwise quiet, smooth ride.
My test Touareg also featured a nearly $6,500 options package, including a navigation system ($2,650), an 11-speaker, 325-watt, 12- channel audio system and a single CD changer ($2,200). Add leather and 12-way power seats, upgraded headlamps and a rear differential lock and the Touareg's price increased to a hefty $41,815.
The audio system, while powerful, included a complicated channel and mode selection formula that can easily distract a driver with varying musical tastes. Volume and channel controls are also available on the steering wheel, near the controls for the easy-to-use cruise control.
Considering its new position in the luxury SUV market, purchasers of the Touareg are likely not in the market for fuel efficiency. Still, the manufacturer's estimates of 15 mpg (city) and 20 (mpg) highway didn't hold true during my test week.
After several days of driving primarily highway miles, I refilled the tank and calculated the mileage at disappointing 14.1 mpg.
2004 Volkswagen Touareg
Safety features - Driver and front passenger (front, side and curtain) airbags and supplemental restraint system, three-point seatbelts (all seating positions), child safety rear door locks, tire pressure monitoring system.
Fuel Mileage (estimates) - 15 mpg (city), 20 mpg (highway)
Warranty - Warranty - New car limited four years/50,000 miles; Powertrain, 5 years/60,000 miles; Corrosion, 12 years/unlimited miles.
Price range - $35,000 to $46,000.
James Raia is a syndicated journalist in Sacramento, Calif. , who writes about sports, fitness and business topics as well as the free electronic newsletters Endurance Sports News and Tour de France Times and The Weekly Driver, a car review column.
Samples of Raia's writing can be viewed on his web site: ByJamesRaia.com .
His car reviews and newsletters can be viewed at The Weekly Driver and Endurance Sports News and Tour de France Times