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Getting muddy with a VW SUV so secret, we can’t even show you the whole thing

Volkswagen has appointed new leadership for the North American market, and big changes are coming from the world’s second-largest automaker. A new CEO, an expanded factory in Tennessee, and an all-new 2017 mid-size SUV are all pointing the way.

The TBD-SUV

VW hasn’t settled on a name for their new mid-size SUV just yet, but their prior offerings (TouaregTouareg and Tiguan) have started with a “T” so we’ll just call the new rig the TBD for now. VW plans a formal unveil on October 27th and they plan to display the new SUV at the L.A. Auto Show in November, so full details are not far off.

This is VW’s entry into the rich market segment of soccer wagons.

What they let Digital Trends see this week in Tennessee was heavily masked both inside and out, but here’s what we know. The new SUV is physically larger than the 5-passenger Touareg, and easily has room for 7 adults. We saw that two 6-foot, 260-pound men fit easily into the third row seats, while two more can sit comfortably in the second row. Getting into and out of the third row is easy. Third-row access is achieved through an innovative second-row seat that tips forward with both the seat base and back, allowing more space for ingress and egress.

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Matthias Erb, Volkswagen’s Chief Engineering Officer for the North American Region, pointed out that you can tip the second-row seat forward without having to remove an installed child’s car seat. That tells you all you need to know about the target market for the new SUV. This is VW’s entry into the rich market segment of soccer wagons.

Engines and drivetrains

VW executives were cagy about exact specs on the engines, but hinted broadly at the use of existing power plants. So, under the hood, the TBD will likely have your choice of VW’s 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, rated at 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet, or the big 3.6-liter V6, weighing in at 280 horsepower and 266 pound-feet.

2017 Volkswagen SUV
Volkswagen

The four-cylinder comes with a 6-speed automatic in the Tiguan, and the Touareg uses an 8-speed automatic with the V6. Buyers will also be able to choose between an entry-level FWD model and VW’s 4Motion AWD package with a good selection of on- and off-road drive modes and hill descent control. A twin-clutch option was ruled out.

Capable off-road

After telling Digital Trends all about the family-friendly design of the new TBD, Volkswagen let us drive the pre-production vehicle. But instead of a typical family-wagon run on freeways and suburban streets, we took the new SUV on a fun off-road course, with some gravel road time as well.

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The 4Motion system worked very well. You don’t really need any expertise to navigate a rocky trail or muddy water crossing in this vehicle. The TBD just goes where you point it and it traverses some pretty rough terrain without any unusual effort.

One feature that deserves special praise is the hill descent control. Unlike prior generations that required you to do a complicated dance to engage and maintain descent control, the VW hill descent just comes on when you need it, and goes off when you don’t. You’ll feel a little tremble in the brake pedal when the TBD takes over, and the system releases automatically at the bottom of the hill. You can nudge it up a little faster or rein it in a little slower by using the gas or brake pedals while it’s working. This is what hill descent control should be.

Comfortable interior

We already went over the second and third row seats, but the front seats deserve some praise, too. The TBD is spacious and comfortable up front. The example we drove had leather, and presumably there will be heat and possibly even ventilation under those seats.

The new SUV will offer surround-view cameras for maneuvering in tight spaces.

We can’t tell you much about the dash or infotainment systems. They were shrouded and we just got a peek under the veil. But there’s a large touchscreen nicely laid-out up there in the center stack, and depending on trim you’ll either get real tach and speed gauges, or a completely video display screen for the driver information center. You’ll also get plenty of USB ports, storage, cup holders, and an optional 115-volt outlet for the second-row seats.

One other secret we coaxed out of the VW team – the new SUV will offer surround-view cameras for maneuvering in tight spaces. That’s a great feature that is much sought-after by family buyers. The TBD will also have all the modern safety and convenience features like adaptive cruise control and forward collision mitigation.

The other main thing to know about the TBD’s interior is that the visibility is fantastic. The A- and B-pillars are nice and slender and the driver’s position is just high enough, but not too high, to get a great view of the world around you.

Made in America

The TBD will be built in VW’s Chattanooga, Tennessee manufacturing center, which has been expanded to accommodate the new production line. Currently, the factory employs 2,400 people to produce the Passat for the North American markets (U.S., Canada, and Mexico) but by the start of TBD production later this year, that number is expected to rise to 3,200 employees, with more growth possible after that.

Where does this SUV fit?

The new TBD will be Volkswagen’s largest vehicle; bigger than the Touareg, but not replacing it. An updated Touareg is expected soon.

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“The Touareg plays a special role in the lineup as a luxury SUV,” Erb says. “The new SUV is in the sweet spot of the Explorers and Highlanders and Pilots of this world.”

The VW team did not divulge any pricing, but with that competitive set the TBD can be expected to start at about $30,000, with the top models in the neighborhood of $50,000.

More broadly, you can look at this SUV as the start of a new direction for VW.

“Volkswagen has been known for decades as a small car company,” says Hinrich Woebcken, the new CEO of VW’s North American Region. “The recent success of Golf in America proves that the core of the brand works well. But we were not able to keep the customers in the brand as soon as their families got bigger. Now with the new mid-size SUV arriving, and the long wheelbase Tiguan arriving, I think the brand will move much more into the heart of the American market. We’re moving the brand much more in the direction of a family-oriented all-wheel-drive brand.”

Check back with Digital Trends in late October for a full first drive review of VW’s new mid-size SUV.