ON THE ROAD
It was on the stained road running past Spruitview that we first noticed the looks.
Traffic had been bottle-necked to allow workers to sweep aside the substantial debris strewn ahead. Massive piles of plastic bottles had been collected and stood at intervals every few metres. As we crawled further, the burnt husk of a truck came into vision. It was clear that we were amid the detritus of the previous day’s unrest. With the morning’s privilege of having missed it, we slowly pressed on.
Despite the sights around us, the attention of some of our fellow stalled drivers was caught by something else: our vehicle. What should be particularly shocking to readers is that our vehicle was a Volkswagen Touareg.
It’s not that the Touareg is ugly — it’s just thoroughly unremarkable. Not something you would strain your neck muscles for. The rice pudding of SUVs.
But not this one. It was coated in sharp space grey, the meanness of which was accentuated by black 21-inch alloys and a stern roof rack. Completing the midnight look was a ribbed grill that ran between smoke-tinted headlights.
This is what is called the Black Style package; a R41 500 add-on to the “executive” models (R1 368 000) of the Touareg. VW says it creates a “luxury SUV that matches the presence and power of those who live in the black”, which only partially makes no sense. Despite this option being available for over a year, it still feels very new and, evidently, the many admirers hadn’t seen too many of them. There’s undoubtedly those who will find it garish, but they will offer their attention, either way.
Now, ordinarily we wouldn’t make a hoopla about an aesthetics kit, but in this case it does genuinely change the character of the car. It’s only natural that a tame-looking Touareg may inspire tame behaviour. The same is true for the inverse.
As a tangent, there’s a simple reason why you don’t see many of these (and why you may hesitate getting one yourself). South Africans are not widely eclectic in their colour palette. The most popular are easily white, silver and grey. This informs the second-hand market, where you are statistically likelier to flog a car in the above paint-jobs.
Of course none of that mattered in the moment, as the media test model continued to get looks through the N3 tolls and into Harrismith, where we stopped for breakfast and to stock up on biltong.
If you hadn’t already guessed, we were heading for the KwaZulu-Natal seaside; specifically, the Dolphin Coast. To many Jo’burgers and Durbanites it’s an instantly familiar path; the route driven by many thousands of holidaymakers and truck drivers every year. It’s busy yet orderly, and despite the vast South African countryside swooshing by outside, at no point do you ever feel as though you have truly left civilisation.
These conditions are perfect for the Touareg. Feisty presentation notwithstanding, it retains its driving experience and comfortability. For the driver that means smooth, easy handling; For the passengers, frictionless bliss. Putting it into sport mode tangibly changes that, with the air suspension dropping down to complement the added acceleration.
Turning the wheels is a strong 3.0 V6 turbo diesel engine, standard across the range. It’s fairly quick for its segment – taking 6.1 seconds to get to 100km/h — if not by any means blistering. On the open roads it’s not terribly thirsty either, averaging 7.3l/100km across 620km, though expect that to rise in the city.
In small towns, the Touareg is a touch tedious to drive. In our corner of Sheffield Beach it laboured through the many tiny bumps and narrow corners. With the area mostly tame, and not requiring any heavy-duty offroading, it all felt a bit unnecessary. Then again, almost anything except a beach buggy would likely feel that way. Still, there’s no doubt that the worth of the vehicle is best felt on those open roads.
It’s there that you will also begin to discover the advanced tech available. The Touareg is a fantastic advert for VW’s evident ability to keep pace with its luxurious German bretherton. BMW drivers, for instance, would be right at home with the lane assist feature that bumps you back into the middle of the road if you begin to drift without indicating. There’s also the excellent adaptive cruise control: the car will automatically slow down when it detects another vehicle in front of it and speeds back up when the path is clear. It’s about as close as you can get to autonomous driving without actually earning that title. Given the ominous black looks, comparing it to the Batmobile is lazy if fair.
From the perspective of the cockpit it’s certainly apt. There’s a giant screen in the middle of the dashboard … and by giant no hyperbole is intended. Gone are all other buttons — the climate control and other miscellaneous dials (bar the drive mode knobs near the gear lever) are now all accessed via your personal jumbotron. It’s all a bit confusing at first, and technophobes will battle, but in the long term, the capacity for customisation makes it worthwhile. The gauge cluster, meanwhile, is near-perfect, as one might expect. Really driving home the specced-out point is the ability to turn it into a night-vision screen, courtesy of a special camera on the grill.
There’s no mistaking that the intention here was to come out swinging for the big boys; VW wants to stand next to the X5, Q8 and Porsche Cayenne. It’s hard to argue that the punches don’t land. Sure, there’s some cheaper plastics and so forth to be found in a few corners, but overall this is a premium experience. Should it be to your taste, the Black Style package will certainly distinguish you from the pack. At the very least you might trick yourself for a second into thinking that you’re in a Knight Rider episode.