Race Touareg 2Click to enlarge picture

Volkswagen swapped the sands of Africa for the grit of Baja California when they entered their Race Touareg 2 trucks in the Baja 500.

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While VW doesn't want you to forget the Beetle, it definitely wants you to associate the large round VW logo with Teutonic high-tech and diesel power. Last June, this quest brought VW and its Dakar-spec Touareg 2 to Mexico to bump and grind on the same track with the Trophy Trucks in the Baja 500.

VW's Race Touareg 2s would not officially go head-to-head with SCORE's highly specialized desert Funny Cars. Instead, the off-road racing sanctioning body created a special class (International Truck), acknowledging that the racing VWs have been optimized for the wide-open North African terrain.

In the two-week-long Dakar raid, endurance is key, with the trucks competing through trackless sand dunes and zipping down low-traffic dirt trails.

Off-Roading in a Race Touareg 2

Baja is a wildly different venue, one that favors brute force and speed over immense obstacles. In deference to a growing population and increasingly closed land, Baja's famed off-road contests are now often confined to established dirt tracks.

These trails are studded with sidewall-shredding rocks, and spiced with huge drop-offs, ruts, wash-outs and other vehicular treachery. And where the road is smooth, the racers themselves have invented a terrain-altering device: the 700-horsepower Trophy Truck.

With 34-inches of suspension travel, immense tires and bellowing V8 power, these behemoths pound, scoop and literally fly over the earth to form car-swallowing whoops. Weeks of pre-running ensure the Baja courses, especially the tighter, closed-loop venues such as the 500, are ripped to teeth-jarring, eye-ball-stuttering shreds.

Thus, Volkswagen's entrance with two, 285-horsepower diesel-powered Dakar trucks might appear like bringing a butter knife to a Howitzer fight. With but 10-inches of suspension travel, there was no way the Touaregs could compete with the long-travel Trophy Trucks in the rough stuff, nor hang with them in the long, pedal-to-the-metal sections.

Slowing to a fast crawl is the only answer in the whoops, and outright speed is also an issue when the competition is sporting more than double the horsepower.

However, in fuel economy and speed over halfway normal terrain, the Touaregs were certain to shine. Powered by sophisticated, computer-controlled, 5-cylinder turbodiesels (and designed for camel-like range over Mauritania's endless dunes), the race Touaregs needed only 3/4 of a single tank of fuel, including reserves, for the entire race.

In contrast, the carbureted, gasoline-fed V8s in the Trophy Trucks would need to pit twice for go-juice.

Another VW advantage, arguably, was sophistication. Volkswagen's engineering brigade delivered two Race Touareg 2s to Baja that seemed more akin to Formula 1 than desert racing.

Computer modeling and plenty of finite element analysis made the VWs lightweight and zippy. Though limited in travel, the suspension's design made it a very effective 10 inches. Under the hood, the 4-valve turbodiesels (answering to Motec computerized engine control), shuffled torque through a $70,000 multiplate, computerized clutch, and a 6-speed, Xtrac sequential racing transmission delivered power to all four wheels.

Where VW technology was most visible, was in digital monitoring. Accurate probes helped deliver differential and shock-oil temperatures, plus brake, tire, oil and other pressures. This info has proven critical in knowing when to slow down. Overheating shock oil can lead to a loss of chassis response, and VW has found that tires are especially vulnerable to puncture above a certain temperature.

The result is Touaregs that handle much more like proper cars than a bar of soap on the shower floor—exactly what a Trophy Truck resembles when asked to corner. VW's head driver, American Mark Miller, has extensive Trophy Truck experience, and positively gushed about how the Race Touareg 2s can be driven with precision, at least until they run out of suspension travel.

Race to the Finish

In the end, with only one unscheduled stop, Miller finished 19th and Villiers 32nd overall (1st and 2nd in International Truck). The Trophy Trucks thundered, Villiers marveled that the Baja 500 was the roughest race he'd ever seen, and all agreed the Touaregs would shine given more power and suspension travel.

Volkswagen is sure to provide that power, travel and much more. With plans of becoming the marque in Baja—and a larger player on the streets of North America—they'll be back with what it takes to impress. That means longer suspension and elevated boost in the race trucks, plus for street customers, diesel options in the Tiguan, Jetta and possibly the Rabbit.

Also look for a new V6 diesel for the Touareg on the street, as the current V10 fades away due to mileage and emission restrictions. All these are technology demonstrators that signal VW isn't just economy cars—and bud vases—anymore.

Tom Wilson began a career in automotive journalism in 1979. In 1982 he became a full-time scribe to "support his racing habit," as he calls it. He currently owns two diesel-powered vehicles.

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