Four-by-Fourvergnügen

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life
Mountain Life, Feb 2005

Early morning, cold. The fireplace is down to dull gray cinders,

empty cabernet bottles litter the coffee table, and everyone is sleepy-eyed. Last night our crew made a pact: to be the first five on the lift, no matter what. Come clear chilly morning, the bravura is gone. We scoop up our boots from the hall, and everyone grumpily waits while I go start the truck. A thick coat of frost silvers the windshield. But when I get into the VW Touareg and the 310-horsepower V-10 diesel fires to life, I feel better. Soon the heat is whirring, the ice is planed off, and the five us are ensconced in the comfortable interior.

That's the beauty of good design, especially in autos. Not only does it improve ride quality and performance, it also makes you feel good. The Touareg is a design pearl in a morass of chunky, inelegant hulks. Volkswagen is an oft-underrated brand, but when I picked up my buddies in the $59,000 V10 TDI, I was met with a chorus of good cheer. "We're styling this weekend," said one.

The Touareg is based on the same platform as the Porsche Cayenne, but in truth the silhouette is much more appealing. Where the Cayenne's design feels forced into Porscheness, the Touareg suffered under no such expectations. Its shape is natural, with powerful rear haunches that sweep forward in sure, flowing lines. The truck seats five, and we attach our skis to the roof rack. When not in use, the two bars on the rack slide to the very back of the vehicle to act as a spoiler.

But it's the Touareg's interior that truly shines. It exudes relaxed confidence, with masculine dials and a console held together by planes of burled walnut and brushed aluminum. The seats are comfortable, and the steering wheel is one of the smartest I've seen on any SUV. (Too many manufacturers ignore the feel of a steering wheel, which should naturally lend itself to the 9-and-3 positions, just like a race car.) The Inspector Gadget side of me also loves all the available gizmos, like the keyless entry system.

We stop at the local gossip-and-gas station for coffee and a few of those unnaturally preserved cherry pies. The mood notches up another peg: One of my buddies is trying to put a $20 bet on who can negotiate a particularly ugly double-black the fastest. "The powder won't be skied off yet," he insists. I remember the rocks on said run and opt out. Besides, we're back in the Touareg and I'm concentrating on the road, still icy and skiffed over with snow.

We are indeed some of the first fools up at the mountain this early. The Touareg is all-wheel-drive, though, and handles surely. And though steering and braking are predictable, the 5-liter diesel's considerable power is just a foot-twitch away. Most buyers opt for the perfectly acceptable V-8. I've tried the V-6, too, but find it to be underpowered. Our model comes with air suspension, which can be dialed into "automatic," "comfort" or "sport" mode. I prefer the damping of the sport mode, which keeps a tight reign on body roll. The vehicle is also made for true off-roading, available with a locking rear differential and hill-descent control.

We pull up to the mountain. "Hey," says one of my friends, "I don't think the ticket lines are even open yet." Silence. "You know," says another, "it's pretty snug in here. I think I'm gonna catch a nap till the sun hits the frontside."Five guys sipping coffee. Shared looks. Agreed.

FEBRUARY 2005