After the big bang entry of the Golf TSI and new Polo, the arrival of Volkswagen Group Malaysia’s next new model will be relatively low key, and rather unexpected. The first batch of the second generation Touareg SUV is already in town, as we discovered when filling up at a petrol station last month. You can register your interest now, but we understand that sales will start in January 2011.

VGM responded to our request for a test drive with the same brown “999” unit that we spotted. It is a 3.6-litre V6 powered model paired to an 8-speed automatic gearbox, the sole variant offered in Malaysia. Despite being improved in every area (as you’ll read about after the jump) and loaded with equipment, the price is unchanged from the outgoing model – yours for RM437,283 OTR excluding insurance.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

Our short fling with the new Touareg started off on the right note. I’ve always loved the previous gen car for having the traditional broad shouldered macho 4X4 look (none of those crossover thing here) while being understated and classy. This new car doesn’t change the recipe, but improves on it. It’s big, it’s handsome, and it’s a very “manly” sort of car, for the lack of a better description. Looks like a facelift at a glance, but pore over it a little and the all new sheetmetal becomes apparent.

As expected, it wears Volkswagen’s new family nose as you’d find on the Golf. Compared to the previous vertical grille look, the new nose is meant to make the cars look wider, and this effect is truly amplified on the Touareg. It’s a very bold and proud front, with a big VW logo, large air intakes that don’t nod down in shyness and U-shaped LED daytime lights. It’s a face that most will yield to when you barrel down their rear view mirrors.

That assertive face is stuck on a muscular body. Like the old car, the shoulders stand high and broad, but there’s more sculpture on the rear section now. The body is less slab sided than before and there are slight concave door panels plus a glasshouse that narrows towards the rear (used to be square). The profile shot you see below shows the extra depth of the new look. More 3D, if you like.

The rear is immediately recognisable as a Touareg, but is less flat. The tail lamp clusters are smaller and the design switches from round to L-shaped with a dot in the middle, a look that can also be had on the Golf as an upgrade. The rear bumper has a mild diffuser-style piece with neatly integrated twin tail pipes.

The Touareg looks huge, but its footprint isn’t much bigger than before. Overall length has grown by 41 mm and the wheelbase is longer by 38 mm, but the 1,928 mm width is unchanged. The new car sits slightly lower than before too.

The big news here is that model for model, the 2,103 kg new Touareg is 210 kg lighter. That’s the weight of two very big blokes, so it’s quite substantial despite not having the old model’s aluminium bonnet and plastic front fenders. The diet programme includes the extensive use of tailored blanks, new steel suspension that’s 43 kg lighter and a lighter gearbox. Amazingly, rigidity is up by 5%, so there’s no sacrifice.

Unlike the old Touareg, this car is offered in two configurations – 4Motion (AWD with Torsen LSD, off-road programme that manipulates ABS/EDS/ASR, Hill Descent Assist) and 4XMotion (45 degree climbing ability, driver switchable 5-mode AWD system with locking differentials and low-speed low-ratio transfer case). Ours is the 4Motion, which should still be able to get you out of that construction site and climb up to 31 degrees. Approach and departure angles are smaller now, but that’s of no importance to most of the VW’s urban users.

If the outer sheetmetal went through mild evolution, the interior design takes a quantum leap. Function dictated form in the Mk1, and everything was straightforward and square without flair. The new dash is much more warm and classy, even in our test car’s all black colour scheme (there’s a dark brown option that’s very nice). Quality soft plastics blend very well with metallic pieces and wood trim, and that huge panoramic glass roof (front portion can slide open) is great to have on evening drives.

Many of the elements – four-way steering buttons, shift paddles, light dial, meter design – will be familiar to a Mk6 Golf owner. That usually isn’t a compliment, but not this time – there’s nothing that feels cheap or will make one feel shortchanged, which says a lot about what goes into VW’s people’s car. I like the “3D effect” of the instruments; the two circular dials are slightly raised from the full-colour central display, like islands.

The centre console is much less busy that before, and that’s thanks to the big colour display that groups together various functions. You can access the stereo, climate, phone functions via Bluetooth and navigation from here. There’s also a screen that shows a compass (with the name of the road you’re on), elevation and steering angle.

But the chief party piece is the Area View 360-degree camera system. It stitches together live feed from four cameras (front, rear, wing mirrors) to give a top view of the Touareg via the central TFT screen. More than just a gimmick, Area View, which works in tandem with audible warnings, is incredibly accurate (zero lag) and helpful – the Touareg is a big car and I was really thankful for it when parallel parking and maneuvering through narrow car park ramps.

It comes on automatically when reverse is selected, but can be called upon anytime via a dash top button. You can also choose the camera you want to focus on by tapping the screen, like side to see how much room from the kerb you have, or front to check out another car’s butt close up. Passengers are bound to ‘Oooh’ and ‘Aaah’ seeing how it works. Brilliant.

The Touareg’s width isn’t just felt in the parking lot. At times it feels like our lanes are too narrow, and I needed some time to get used to the size in town. But once settled, this big VW surprised in the drive. It’s very agile for something so large and is entirely comfortable being driven with gusto. There’s relatively little body roll and the steering hits the sweet spot in weight and accuracy. Personally, I like the fact that the rim itself isn’t too thick and that it doesn’t feel artificially heavy.

Couple the above with good grip and you have a skill set that’s very accessible, and more than adequate for the regular SUV driver in my opinion. While the handling may not be as genre defying as a Cayenne or even an X5, how often do you see one of those carving up back roads?

The Touareg’s ride comfort is good and you can drive the length of the NSE without tiring, but it’s not unflappable. A hint of choppiness surface on highway stretches that are less well made, and big bumps can be felt. It’s very good, and we’re nitpicking here, but it never feels as magic carpet magnificent as a Land Rover Discovery does.

The VR6 engine under that huge hood is not new, but improved. It’s a 3.6-litre FSI direct injection unit with 280 PS and 360 Nm of torque, figures that are identical to the old car’s. However, it has been updated with a new engine controller (that integrates a new thermal management system, among other things), features a more precise machining process for the cylinder crankcase, modified piston rings and weight-optimised forged pistons.

All that, plus the new 8-speed auto and lighter weight, combine for better performance and efficiency. Fuel consumption is 20% improved at 9.9L/100 km and CO2 emissions are down by the same figure. The 0-100 km/h sprint is done in 7.8 seconds, 0.8 sec better than before. Top speed is 228 km/h.

In practice, the engine is quite characterful, emitting a growly note when you extend it. Once momentum builds up, you’ll be climbing up the speedo at a fast rate, and the engine enjoys revs.

Some might wonder why there’s no DSG here but a torque converter auto. For luxury applications, Wolfsburg prefers the smoothness of a TC auto over the efficiency of a DSG. But it’s not like any Touareg owner will complain about this 8-speed Aisin 0C8 ‘box, because it’s quick shifting, very smooth and makes the right calls, so much so that I never felt the need to use the paddles. Gears seven and eight are overdrive ratios – the engine ticks at just 1,800 rpm at 110 km/h.

At highway speeds, the engine disappears into the background, leaving just wind rustle from the top section (could it be the glass roof?) and tyre roar, which can get quite loud on the PLUS highway’s concrete surface.

Other notable inclusions are regenerative braking, where the alternator will charge the battery when the Touareg is coasting or braking. VGM has ticked every box on the spec list except for air suspension, which translates to a lavishly equipped SUV.

12-way electric adjustable front seats, 18-inch rims, bi-xenons with washer, electronic parking brake, keyless entry/start, automatic tail gate and the abovementioned panaromic glass roof plus Area View are all standard. The latter is part of the touch screen RNS 850 system with navigation, 40 GB hard disk, two SD card slots, DVD playback, Bluetooth, AUX-in and 6 CD changer.

The RM437k price tag may sound steep in isolation, but there’s actually no price increase over the old car, despite the better kit count. In comparison, the entry level BMW X5 with a 3.0-litre engine will set you back RM568k. The only thing that could probably hold some buyers back is the lack of a seven-seat option, something the X5 and Discovery 4 offers. Otherwise, the new Touareg is a very strong package in the big SUV segment.