THESE ARE THE big diesels, the guns at the top of the luxury SUV game, both leaving little change from a million rand once all specced to perfection. And what great cars they are in terms of looks, as showcases for engine and safety technology, and indeed for sheer motoring opulence. How would one begin to choose?
Mid-size SUV bodies are large, adding to the premium status. The X5 is more understated, with harder lines and more sporty intent. The recent mid-life facelift has done little to change the familiar, purposeful silhouette. The second-generation Touareg, also just released, appears larger next to the pared-away metal of the BMW, with rounder curves, a larger rear end and deep side panels which emphasise the higher shoulder line and smaller glass house. The V8 Touareg’s standard bi-xenon headlights and L-pattern taillights are striking jewels that help mark the car’s Volkswagen DNA. The X5, particularly in this understated charcoal blue, merges with the car park, even if on its own it cuts a bold figure.
On top, inside
Interiors again echo the premium positioning with the best materials, superb fit and finish, the rich aroma of leather-clad surfaces and loads of space. The BMW is arguably the more dated looking, despite all the high-tech items including the head-up display (R24 800 option), with the curving upper dash portion all too familiar, the iDrive screen smaller (though with excellent resolution) and the switchgear and ergonomic links between actions now well established. It is uncluttered in a very appealing way, combining most setting play into the iDrive system. The Active Cruise Control system on this model (R17 200) works a treat, keeping a set following distance in traffic, while the optional satnav system (R21 300) is superb. It all feels super solid, strong, built to last, though the enduring dark tones in our test car are all a little sombre too. More extrovert trim speccing will sort that out right away, with lighter leather and brighter dash inserts a quick fix for lifting the tone. Rear legroom is excellent, boot space large and mostly useable, though the rear seats seem a fraction thin – more utilitarian than the luxury, cosseting front pews.
The more chrome, blingy, wood-toned Touareg interior, with its varied texture and colour palette, is certainly upmarket, though perhaps overly American. Specification on this car is very high, including an auto opening tailgate, electric seats with memory function, park distance control and a neat keyless entry system. Button interaction is excellent, the optional 8-inch RNS-850 touchscreen satnav interface (R28 290) and allied switchgear a pleasure to use and mostly instantly familiar – Audi stalks, Golf-like satellite steering controls. It’s easy to get familiar, and comfortable. Seats are opulent in the best tradition, rear legroom generous (the bench is on sliders), the standard toy count hugely impressive in this upper level flagship. Build quality might not be quite on par: a switch cluster working the retractable towbar (R8 090 option) and electric rear seat stowing functions pushed out of position after a few actuations, and the plastic on the driver’s side door card was showing more scuff signs more than it should, this on a car with less than 5000km on the odo.
All fired up
The diesel engines are marvels of technology, and both prefer a diet of ultra-low sulphur fuel to keep their particulate filters intact. The Touareg’s all new replacement for the V10 is a V8 configuration common-rail turboed mill which delivers great surges of torque to an 800Nm peak and 250kW of power. Foot stomping from zero gets a claimed under six-second sprint to 100kph, and our test runs showed a fraction over that at 6.04 seconds, all guaranteed to toss out any pretence of planet-saving and nuke that optimistic 9.1ℓ/100km combined fuel index. Rather, the big V likes to get up to cruising pace and warble past slower traffic in creamy surges, because around town it tends to trundle in the early spool-up phase, feeling slightly ponderous and clay-footed, despite those incredibly seamless changes from the eight-speed ZF auto. In the handling department, the Touareg, equipped with double wishbones all round and riding on air suspension (R31 500 option on our test unit), is the epitome of compliance. Bumps, ruts, undulations are all dialled out from the highly insulated compartment on all but the most corrugated gravel surfaces. The comfort setting is too soft, normal is little different, and the sport setting I preferred gave the slightly sharper response, avoiding the gentle rebound bounce at robots and cutting down body roll to more acceptable levels. Steering feel is all but absent, so no sawing at the helm, and little connection to the wheels. It’s synthetic in the Audi tradition, and this might be a failing for sportsters, but won’t worry users twirling around shopping centres and tight suburban driveways. The topliner Touareg with its 4Motion drivetrain (as in Quattro) is heavy and the systems battle gamely to maintain grip and quell weight transfer, so it’s never going to be a point and squirt weapon for mountain passes. But the standard 19-inch alloys on 265/50 profile tyres are all-rounders, and air suspension can raise the body by nearly 300mm at full extension, so it’ll make a great boat launcher (and tower) and will certainly tackle sand roads and less demanding trails, if you can bear to risk the paintwork and those bits of trim that seem to catch on everything.
The X5 is the nimbler, sportier beast, living up to its driving pleasure claims. The new 40d engine (seen in the 740d sedan) is confusingly a 3.0-litre unit, putting out 225kW and 600Nm, and it’s a straight-six configuration employing the latest high-pressure common-rail tech to squeeze the most out of the fuel’s potential, with a remarkable 7.5 litre/100km claim and just 198g/km CO2. It zings rather than burbles, bellows at full crack and is brilliantly responsive to right foot demands. A small turbo kicks in from idle to ensure rapid pick-up, and then a larger turbo takes over in the upper rev ranges, the effect being great blasts of urge off the line and beyond. An eight-speed gearbox now does the shifting duties, though for the most part you don’t feel the changes. Handling too, is out of the top drawer. It’s quick for such a large car, turn-in is precise and easily moderated, mid-corner stability supreme and body roll well contained. Some of this can be attributed to the X-drive system which apportions torque and still more grip factor is down to this Dynamic-spec model’s ridiculously tall 20-inch Y-spoke alloys, with alarmingly wide rear (315/35) and super wide front (275/40) tyres. Despite the low profile boots, the suspension maintains compliance over a wide assortment of road hazards. More practical tyres and rims will ensure less expensive damage if ambitious off-tar excursions are planned, but in the mall and commute round, and at the golf or rugby clubhouse, these are going to grab the attention. You could also add a third row of seats for R17 700, not an option on the Touareg.
Who’s the daddy?
Subjectivity and image management are the things that hold sway at these upper reaches of cardom. Both the X5 and Touareg are hugely competent, with a slightly different emphasis. The VW is big, generous, crammed with neat interior tech. It’s the potent cruiser and boat towing supremo in this trade-off. It’s for the guy who doesn’t need to prove much, who wants all the toys for hauling and getting away on holiday in perfect luxury. The badge carries the price these days, and it’s has all the right associations with Porsche’s Cayenne.
The X5 is a show-off car that commands respect. The bling wheels help spruce up an exterior that while fractionally larger than the Touareg is understated but perfectly proportioned and carries its size with a definite athleticism. The interior is looking too familiar and needs some brightening to make it less businesslike, but the huge glass house and command driving position, plus the immensely well crafted, solidly engineered feel of all the controls instils confidence. No doubt the residual values will back this up. The straight six engine is more responsive than the Touareg’s trundlier V8, and the X5’s handling is the crisper, more precise of the two. It’s the sportier car by some margin, more rewarding to hustle and to flit between appointments. Call the Touareg the Meneer who has little still to prove, versus the Springbok who still has a few games left. Whatever the emphasis, the X5 is still the car you’d want to go the distance.