Personally, I like to blame Google for so intriguing our psyches with the prospect of autonomous cars that new vehicles are now bursting with complex systems of buttons, lights, alarms and vibrating controls to stop us from plowing into our fellow drivers. Despite their best intentions, all the radar and sonar and cameras of these so-called driver assistance technologies have a downside: Most of us need hours of tutoring just to figure out how they work. And during those hours, we are only contributing to another problem — distracted driving.
That was the situation I was in last week as I experimented with Volkswagen's Touareg SUV, the 2015 update which is most significant for a new $2,500 option that adds five electronic safety features.
Like any redo worth the R&D money, the 2015 Touareg has been prettied up with a more modern, angular front end that hints at its bold step into a self-driving future. It has fancier wheels, and its rear end now glows with the sort of LED lights strung on most Christmas trees this season, all of which only somewhat justify its $45,615 starting price.
Having established itself as the entry-level German automaker best known for its longstanding Beetle and diesel offerings, Volkswagen has wisely realized that its European pedigree needs to bring more to the table if it's going to compete. Thus: the addition of safety technologies to the 2015 Touareg, available at dealers in January.
Let's start with the system that is the easiest to understand, as well as the most useful and intuitive, on the new Touareg. Unusually obfuscating in nomenclature, Volkswagen calls it "side assist," which is otherwise known as blind-spot monitoring on other makes and models. Any time another vehicle becomes an accident waiting to happen by approaching the Touareg from the rear in its blind spots, a yellow light glows from the inside housing of the side mirrors. This is probably the best of the new features, since it requires no learning curve or pressing of buttons to engage and is constantly of value in traffic.
The other systems, however, are more complex. "Lane assist," known as lane-keeping or lane-departure assistance on other makes, is more hands on. Using the car's touch screen, drivers have the option of setting the amount of time they're given before the steering wheel begins to vibrate on the side of the lane toward which they're inadvertently veering.
They can also set the level of steering wheel vibration from weak to medium to strong. While I appreciated the level of control I had, I found the buzz of the steering wheel too difficult to differentiate from the feedback transmitted when rolling over bumpy lane markers.
As the Auto Club of Southern California recently found with many lane-departure systems from multiple manufacturers, Volkswagen's didn't always detect the lane, which had the inadvertent effect of voiding the effectiveness of the system solely because it is inconsistent. Unlike similar technologies from Infiniti, Acura, Mercedes and Honda, Volkswagen's is merely an alert. It doesn't auto correct the steering. That's still up to you.
"Front assist" is potentially more valuable. It uses radar to sense when the car is creeping too close to another vehicle's bumper, at which point it will automatically apply the brakes to avoid a collision, even emergency braking all the way to a complete stop if it senses that's necessary.
Testing a brand-new $60,098 TDI version Touareg that wasn't mine, I didn't have the guts to fully test this system by speeding up to the many Porsches to see if the Touareg could prevent tens of thousands of dollars of bodywork and a possible personal injury lawsuit.
Even my VW-employee co-driver said it made her too nervous to test it herself.
The Touareg's new "adaptive cruise control" system allowed me to test it in a way that seemed less dangerous. The problem was figuring it out.
Adaptive cruise control is paired with the car's regular cruise control on a stalk off the car's steering wheel. It took practice to figure out how to set the speed at which I wanted the car to cruise and the distance I wanted it to travel behind the car in front of me, using a gizmo the size of a quarter while driving and paying attention to the road.
The dashboard showed the results of my groping with graphics that displayed my car in relation to the one in front of me. What that meant in practical terms I didn't know until I was riding on another vehicle's bumper and felt the Touareg apply the brakes to help me avoid a ticket for tailgating.
Finally, there is the "parking distance warning system" — an increasingly commonplace technology as rear-view cameras get closer to becoming government-mandated equipment.
I applaud Volkswagen for incorporating new technologies that will help sloppier, less safety-conscious drivers become more aware of their actions. I appreciate that Volkswagen has made each of its new driver-assistance systems so easily customizable and that it's built in graphic redundancies to help drivers learn. But in the end, they, and the systems like them offered by so many other automakers, may be too complex for the drivers who stand to benefit from them most.
2015 VOLKSWAGEN TOUAREG
Base price: $45,615*
Price as tested (TDI, Lux version): $60,098*
Powertrain: Direct-injected, turbocharged, 3-liter, V-6, diesel, all-wheel drive, 5-speed automatic
Horsepower: 240 @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 406 @ 2,000 rpm
Wheelbase: 113.9 inches
Overall length: 188.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,974 pounds
EPA-estimated fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, 23 mpg combined
*Includes $910 destination
ABOUT THE WRITER
Susan Carpenter writes for the Orange County Register. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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