Mapping the Atlas mountains in the VW Touareg

Mapping the Atlas mountains in the VW Touareg
Mapping the Atlas mountains in the VW Touareg

“You will find yourself on very slippery dusty and loose gravel tracks not much wider than the car, and from the driver’s seat you’ll be staring down into ravines of up to 1500-feet deep,” the offroad expert from Volkswagen smiled. “This isn’t for the faint-hearted.”

And he wasn’t kidding. A few hours later, deep into the day’s driving in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains — which stand like an impenetrable barrier south of Marrakech — from my driver’s seat in the latest Touareg, I was indeed peering down into the depths of a deep, black gorge with the valley floor almost 2,000ft below me.

Picture: Ingo Barenschee

VW, in its infinite wisdom, was keen to display that its flagship 4×4 is much, much more than a luxury mode of transport for dropping the kids off at school, towing the 3.5-tonne horse box to the gymkhana, or heading off into the countryside at the weekend.

So, sandwiched between two sections of relatively-smooth tarmac driving — albeit with the occasional pothole into which you could almost lose a camel — we put the Touareg through its paces by scrambling over rocks, wading through a river, and even balanced the car on two wheels.

But at the heart of the nine-hour, 154km adventure was the two-and-a-half hour drive required to delicately negotiate 20km of single-track dirt which miraculously clung to the mountain face. Not a time for anyone to suddenly discover they suffered from vertigo or acrophobia.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

Heading out in the morning Moroccan sun from the centre of Marrakech, the high driving position in cabin of the Touareg was perfect for spotting the myriad manic moped riders who appeared to have something of a death wish.

Helmets? Forget it. And when the rider did have a helmet, more often than not he was carrying it looped over his forearm. Three people — I kid you not — were a common sight on mopeds, and the Moroccans’ ability to balance four or five-feet high stacks of boxes on the rear seat is a common skill.

Cocooned in near silence, I could concentrate on placing the not insignificant size of the Touareg — at 4,878mm long, 2,193mm wide and 1,717mm tall, it’s larger than the model it replaces — in spaces devoid of the near lawless North African traffic.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

Only one engine is currently available in the UK, and it’s a belter. The 3.0-litre turbocharged 24-valve V6 diesel delivers 285bhp via the eight-speed auto tiptronic gearbox. Permanent four-wheel drive is standard, and ‘my Touareg’ was fitted with the optional air suspension and four-wheel steering, both of which would play their parts later in the day.

The big SUV continues to be VW’s imposing technical marvel. This third-generation Touareg comes with an extensive package of all-new technology inside and out; VW has thrown its developmental kitchen sink at the car.

With the new body tipping the scales 106kg lighter than the previous model, the first visible sign of the latest tech is the Innovision Cockpit, the centrepiece of the cabin. Dominated by a 12.0-inch digital instrument display that we’ve already seen in other VW models, it’s combined with another even larger display — in this case 15-inches — running across the centre of the dashboard.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

Currently, nothing in its class comes close in terms of scale or sophistication. And thankfully, the screen features a special surface that minimises fingerprints.

Other tech goodies include active lighting, cornering roll stabilisation, cross-traffic warnings and a new roadwork lane assist system. There’s even Night Vision.

All that’s fine for ‘normal’ city driving, but the Touareg comes fully equipped for going offroad, thanks to 4MOTION Active Control. With the optional Offroad Package, drivers can also select set-ups for sand, gravel and expert. Hill descent and hill hold is also available. It’s as sure-footed as the mountain goats which skipped up and down the cliff faces.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

Out of Marrakech, we headed south before climbing into the foothills, pausing at the Kazbah of Bab Oukaimenden, surrounded by saffron terraces at the confluence of three valleys 1600m up into the Atlas Mountains.

Refreshing morning mint tea sipped, we continued to climb to 2,730m. Well, actually it was 2,738m, according to the altitude meter in the cabin. From here we had stunning views of Morocco’s highest ski resort — yes, they ski in the Atlas Mountains — and, at 4,167m, the highest peak in North Africa, Mount Toubkal.

After a short but demanding off-road section to familiarise myself with the suspension tech, the fun really started.

Picture: Ingo Barenschee

The potentially treacherous downhill route to Asti Cantar, 20km away, is impassible in the wet. Sections compiled of cloying red dust — resembling the texture of talcum powder — were interspersed with those formed by rock-based platforms covered by ever-shifting layers of shale and gravel.

When the rain comes, those layers move. When we stopped at 2,730m, we had sunshine. Midway through the 20km, the mountain tops were shrouded in black cloud, and the light rain came. Thankfully, after half an hour it eased. But 24 hours later, the track was impassable as a storm rolled in.

The meandering track down, as you would expect, has its fair share of tight hairpins. And here — especially on three notoriously sharp bands where cars generally have to stop and reverse, before completing the manouevre — the rear-wheel steering was a boon.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

Positioning the Touareg on the outside of the corners, and utilising the system which points the back wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speed, resulting in a turning circle similar in size to a Golf, I didn’t have to engage reverse once. Result!

The route took us through remote hillside villages, home to Berbers, descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, who live in scattered communities across Morocco. They live in abject poverty; certainly compared to what we are used to. And yet their faces were always full of smiles as we drove through.

I had a bundle of VW notepads in the car, and discovered bags of peanut M&Ms and water bottles in the centre binnacle. The faces of the children lit up even more as I handed them out.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

But it’s a strange world. In direct contrast, less than 20-minutes’ drive away just outside Asni Cantar is the luxury of “Richard Branson’s Moroccan Retreat”, Kasbah Tamadot.

The route back to Marrakech included a river crossing, where the ability to raise the air suspension by 70mm increased the wading depth to 580mm. And while the Touareg’s torsional rigidity was thoroughly tested as we balanced between two and three wheels, the onboard tech also confirmed I was able to park the car resting at a 35-degree angle.

Fun — I mean, work — over, the blast back to Marrakech, with the air suspension reset to its lowest setting highlighted how the vast majority of Touareg owners will enjoy their car; as a cosseting, silky-smooth motorway driver.

And, of course, that’s fine. It’s what you would expect of a 285bhp, 3.0-litre V6 TDI 4MOTION luxury five-seat SUV, in R-Line Tech spec, which will set you back £56,300.

But boy, the Touareg is capable of so, so much more; believe me. Now go and enjoy it.

VW Touareg
Picture: Ingo Barenschee

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