MARQUES CANNOT ignore the four-wheel-drive trend. By 2005, there will be an estimated five million four-wheel drives sold per year. Even Porsche wants to enjoy the sweet smell of all-wheel success with its Cayenne. So it's no surprise that Volkswagen is eager to present its own four-wheel drive, the Touareg. Launched in Hong Kong on the back of 20 pre-orders last Saturday, the Touareg will be a welcome alternative to the X5, M-Class and RX330 with its useful spread of on-road and off-road ability in the 3.2-litre V6 ($500,000 for the sports version; $560,000 with air suspension) and the 4.2-litre V8 version ($730,000). The narrow-angle, 162kW V6, also seen in the Volkswagen Golf R32 and Phaeton, has been modified for use in a 4x4 with a modified oil pump with altered intake and sump adapted to high longitudinal and lateral inclinations and a revised belt drive for better fording ability. The V8 is based on the engine already used in the Audi A6 and A8, and has outputs of 228kW and 410Nm. It's a 90-degree, 40-valve, quad-cam design and it propels the Touareg to 100km/h in a claimed 8.1 seconds. Although a six-speed manual version is available in some markets, Hong Kong will get a six-speed tiptronic automatic transmission only. The Touareg uses a transfer case with locking centre differential and optional locking rear differential. Electronic differential lock (EDL) is used for front and rear diffs on models where the locking rear diff is not fitted; on rear locker models EDL is on the front axle only. Suspension is independent wishbone front and rear, and on the Euro-spec vehicles I drove in Catalonia, Spain, coil springs were fitted to the V6 while continuous damping control air suspension is standard on V10 (and optional for V6). Brakes are ventilated discs all round, with ABS anti-lock, electronic brake-force distribution and electronic stability programme. The air suspension on Touareg is similar to Range Rover's, with air-spring bellows and hydraulic dampers supervised by electronics to provide a ride height consistent with needs. Damper settings are also electronically controlled in three settings; Comfort, Auto and Sport. The Touareg is on the large side for its class, bigger than M-Class and X5, and shares its platform, running gear - and a local representative says, four doors - with Porsche's Cayenne. Indeed, Hong Kong distributors Harmony Motors (tel: 2882 8938) say the Touareg is the 'first luxury SUV developed in conjunction with Porsche' and 'has won numerous awards over its rivals' such as Car & Driver's Best Luxury SUV; Off Road magazine's Luxury Off-road Vehicle of 2003 and the Golden Steering Wheel of Germany's Bild Am Sontag newspaper. The five-seater has plenty of room inside. Lacking the hard padding typical of German cars, the plush leather Touareg seats also lack much in the way of lateral support. The screened load area, accessed by a wide and low-opening tailgate, is tall and wide, though not especially long. The Touareg may look pretty big, but once you jump in and get driving its stature is no more imposing than an X5, and certainly doesn't loom as large as a Range Rover. The bonnet curves away and its sizeable girth is therefore deceptive. The drive experience is one of a few surprises; the V6 performs better than you might think, although plenty of gearshifting through the fluid six-speed auto is required to keep it on the boil in mountainous terrain. The Touareg corners well with a slightly nose-heavy feel, but the steering still delivers good feedback. The ride is smooth, although the air suspension thumps noisily over bigger bumps. Off-road, the Touareg does surprisingly well. Though it lacks underbody protection and its approach and ramp-over angles are not ideal, with its excellent low-range reduction and optional diff-locks, it'll go a fair way off-road. Standard equipment on V6 models includes front and side airbags, three-point seat belts, ABS brakes, traction control, stability control, climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors and windows, programmable central locking, power sunroof and xenon headlights. According to Harmony Motors, the Hong Kong market for $400,000+ SUVs estimated to be about 800 units in 2003. Volkswagen's target is a 10 per cent share in Year One. The Touareg appears to have the on-road finesse the prestige soft-road market requires without foregoing a polished performance off the beaten track. Like Range Rover, the Touareg is a modern soft-roader that can actually handle the rough stuff.