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  • December 20, 2014

Test Drive: SUVs - Ladue News: Special Features

Test Drive: SUVs

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Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2013 12:00 pm

SUVs (sport utility vehicles) are everywhere: Moms drive them instead of station wagons; men drive them instead of pick-ups or large sedans; and younger adults drive them to haul all their equipment to their extreme outdoor adventures.

The vehicle that started the SUV revolution in the early '90s was the Ford Explorer, a boxy body on frame truck-like vehicle that offered many of the advantages that draw people to SUVs: a high seating position, four-wheel-drive capability, and room for your family and all your stuff.

Fast-forward to the 2014 model, and the Explorer still retains the size and capability of the original, but with a unibody construction that makes the modern Explorer a more comfortable ride. Styling also has improved quite a bit since the refrigerator-box style of the early Explorers. Today’s version sports an attractively aggressive front end with projector beam headlights, character lines on the sides and slanted roof pillars that make it more stylish.

Heated front seats are comfortable and a large touchscreen in the middle of the dash displays audio, ventilation, seat heating and other information. The screen also displays the image from the useful back-up camera. A large array of buttons on the steering wheel control a variety of functions, including what’s displayed on the video screens on either side of the central speedometer. Rear-seat room is generous in all dimensions and occupants enjoy their own air vents, but the third row is probably best reserved for the pre-teen crowd. The headrests on the third-row seats impinge on rearward visibility and should probably be folded down unless in use. The electric rear tailgate opens to a modicum of space behind the third-row seats, but fold them down and cargo room becomes very generous. Folding down the second row, as well, makes it cavernous.

The driving position is nice and high. Unlike previous generations, the default drive mode is now front-wheel-drive instead of rear-wheel-drive. Four-wheel-drive still is an option. Handling is decent for a top-heavy SUV; and braking and acceleration are both good, though there’s a hint of lag in acceleration with the 3.5-liter, V-6 engine, which returns mileage of 17 city, 23 highway. Different terrain modes are available at the touch of a button. The unibody construction contributes to a nice, smooth ride that won’t beat you up on long trips like the old truck-based Explorer. Overall, the Explorer has a solid, somewhat heavy feel to it. Two V-6 engines and an ecoboost 4-cylinder all are available, and each mates to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

According to Barry Pannett, general sales manager at Paul Cerame Ford, “The new Explorer is very car-like, with a nice, smooth ride and easy maneuverability. It also offers improved fuel economy with 20 mpg combined.”

Base price of the four-wheel-drive XLT model is about $35,000.

Another appealing SUV is the Volkswagen Touareg. Available with either a traditional gas engine or a technologically advanced diesel, the Touareg diesel offers tons of torque, clean emissions and excellent mileage for a large SUV.

Touareg styling is fairly conservative, but ‘happily attractive,’ with the friendly VW front end and nicely rounded surfaces. The interior is pretty fancy for a Volkswagen. High, well-bolstered heated front seats offer good visibility, but the leather is not as soft as in some other luxury vehicles. A large screen in the center of the dash provides audio and ventilation controls, navigation and video for a back-up camera. It’s a touchscreen with hard buttons below, so using it is relatively easy. Automatic headlights, three-position memory seats, a panoramic sunroof, rain sensing wipers, push-button start, dual automatic climate control, and available heated steering wheel and rear seats are just some of the luxury amenities the Touareg offers. Four-way switches on each side of the steering wheel allow you to control the audio system and information display, but could be distracting until well-learned. Rear-seat passengers get plenty of space, especially generous leg room, plus their own air vents. The large cargo area under the electric tailgate can be expanded by folding down the rear seats.

Power emanates from a 240-horsepower, 406-torque, 3.0-liter clean turbo-diesel V-6 engine to all four wheels via an 8-speed automatic with manual mode, but no paddle-shifters on the steering wheel. Acceleration is brisk with just a hint of turbo lag, which is compensated for by gobs of torque, especially during highway passing. The ride is smooth; yet overall, the suspension has a nice, taught Teutonic feel to it—which, along with good braking, translates to good handling for an SUV. For maximum traction, a rotary knob lets you adjust the Touareg to the type of road surface upon which you’ll be traveling. Mileage with the diesel engine is 20 city, 29 highway, and the range is an astounding 765 miles.

David Schultz, assistant sales manager at Dean Team VW in Kirkwood boasts, “The Touarag looks great, drives great, and crushes the competition in its price class. It has all the expected luxury amenities, along with a 7,700-pound towing capacity and—with the diesel—great fuel economy.”

Prices for the Touareg diesel R-Line start about $58,500. The base gas version starts at $45,000 or so.

Robert Paster (robertpaster.com) also is an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.

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