First Drive: 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

A Porsche Cayenne Hybrid For The People

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid – Click above for high-res image gallery

Fuel economy is a funny thing. In Europe, better efficiency has always boiled down to two simple concepts: diesel fuel and turbos. But like the 35-year-old who won't drink tequila because of a bad experience in college, American buyers' stomachs start turning whenever manufacturers talk about oil-burners – clean or otherwise. That's a problem for carmakers like Volkswagen. You see, the company can build an arsenal of clean diesel vehicles that have no problem turning out excellent fuel-economy numbers without the weight, complexity or burden of lugging around a partially electric drivetrain, but that doesn't mean Americans will buy them. Nope. On this side of the pond, fuel efficiency translates into just one word: hybrid.

And that's exactly why Volkswagen has taken to electrifying its beefy 2011 Touareg, the very first production hybrid in the company's history. Volkswagen has made no secret of the fact that it plans to be the world's number one automaker, and that part of its plan for global domination involves broadening its appeal in the still-juicy American market. If you were wondering exactly what that meant for the company's lineup on our side of the world, wonder no more. We're living in the future, and it's a place stocked with a blazingly-quick, fully capable and quasi-efficient SUV from Germany with love.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

The hybrid market seems to be split into two very different design camps: those that look like the latest running shoes from the year 2275 and those that don't. The Touareg Hybrid falls into the latter category, opting for discrete hybrid badges nestled in the grille and stuck to the flanks of the already attractive and newly redesigned standard Touareg body, instead of a German take on the future of footwear.

We couldn't be happier about this decision.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, side view 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, front view 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, rear view

Up front, the Touareg Hybrid wears its new corporate nose with pride. The headlights are now bedazzled with LED daytime running lights and the sleek grille is bolstered by large air intakes set low in the front fascia. The look is both handsome and just a touch aggressive, befitting a vehicle capable of picking up its skirt and hustling to 60 mph in a scant 6.2 seconds. The vehicle's profile doesn't exactly shatter any SUV molds, but its rear benefits from a set of pronounced haunches that give the Touareg Hybrid some additional flair.

Volkswagen says that it only plans to sell the Touareg Hybrid in one trim – fully loaded. In an effort to make things easier for both dealers and buyers, the company has slimmed its ordering structure from over 400 available variants of the Touareg last year to just over 40 possible combinations for 2011. Part of that effort means the decision makers at VW came to the conclusion that most buyers would want their high-rider with all the fixins, so you can forget about getting a stripper model with a lower price tag.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid interior 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid LCD 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid steering wheel 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid interior wood

That's probably just as well, because this machine isn't your typical eco-warrior. Inside, buyers are treated to power leather thrones that are fully adjustable and boast a memory function for up to three pilots, and the dash is dominated by a large, full-color LCD touch-screen. Navigation, entertainment and the rearview camera are all accessed through the screen. Attractive wood trim accents are camped out along the dash and door panels, and help give the cabin a little extra touch of class.

But it's the back seats that are really impressive. The rear bench is fully adjustable, sliding forward and aft enough to make room for long-legged passengers or any rear cargo that may require an extra touch of space. Likewise, the seats can be quickly folded for plenty of additional storage room. As an option on all Touareg models, Volkswagen is offering an expansive panoramic sunroof that the company says is a full 350-percent larger than the piece found in the previous model. The glass does plenty to brighten up the rear of the cabin.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid panoramic sunroof 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid mirror controls 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid navigation screen

Volkswagen seems to have plenty of faith in the company's turn-by-turn navigation system. We were unleashed on the unsuspecting countryside surrounding Nice, France with nothing more than the sternly feminine voice of the nav to guide us via a series of way points. Despite twisting roads and tight city avenues, the system never led us astray. If we missed a turn, it was quick to recalculate to find the best route ahead.

By and large, the cabin is logically laid out, though we were frustrated to find that the adjustment for the side-view mirrors is mounted flush on the driver's side door. It takes a second or two to translate the forward/backward control knob with the left/right movement of the mirror. Otherwise, the only complaint that we could drum up after a few hours in the cabin is the fact that the air-conditioning in the Touareg Hybrid doesn't always seem up to the task of cooling the interior, especially at low speeds in direct sunlight.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid engine

Cabin qualms aside, the drivetrain in the 2011 Touareg hybrid is nothing short of engineering wizardry. If you're familiar with the equipment on board the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, you won't find too many surprises here. A supercharged 3.0-liter V6 engine produces 333 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, though a parallel electric motor throws in a little extra oomph for a combined punch of 380 horsepower and 428 lb-ft of torque. Behind the engine and motor sits an eight-speed automatic transmission that puts power to all four wheels via the company's all-wheel-drive system and a new Torsen rear differential.

Like the Cayenne, the best part of this combination is the fact that the engine is separated from the transmission via a decoupling clutch that will allow the vehicle to coast at speeds well above the posted limit with the gasoline engine completely off. Volkswagen calls this "sailing," and it comes in handy on hilly terrain with extended downward grades. The trick helps the Touareg Hybrid return a projected 25 mpg city and 21 mpg highway – numbers that are a little higher than the 18.4 mpg combined we saw during our time behind the wheel. Still, they aren't bad for an SUV that still packs a full 7,700 lb towing capacity – exactly the same as both the diesel and gasoline versions.

Power for the 47-hp electric motor is stored in a sizable 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery stored under the rear cargo area. A total of 240 cells are on hand to store juice for later, and Volkswagen has integrated a special aluminum crash box around the cells to protect the battery pack in the event of an accident. In order to keep things cool, the Touareg Hybrid draws cold air from the cabin and spits air heated by the batteries to the exterior of the vehicle.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid headlight 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid badge 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid wheel 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid taillight

There's no getting around just how heavy this vehicle feels, even compared to its super-sized brethren. The Touareg Hybrid comes in at 5,135 lbs – a full 424 lbs heavier than the standard 3.6-liter gasoline V6 version and 261 lbs pudgier than the oil-burning Touareg. As such, you won't be flinging this machine through any winding mountain passes anytime soon. The weight does have the benefit of giving the Touareg Hybrid a slightly softer ride compared to its siblings, something that we're sure American buyers will appreciate. Otherwise, the SUV feels like a more refined evolution of the high-riding set. Despite its girth, you aren't beaten over the head with a sense of top heaviness. Instead, you simply can't help but feel that the tires are sweating bullets when the tarmac goes twisted.

When things straighten out, however, you're rewarded with the surprising kind of acceleration that only 428 lb-ft of torque can present. It feels like a well-fed fraulein has decided to have a seat on your chest. Unfortunately, for all of the giggles that the skinny pedal can induce, the brakes on the Touareg Hybrid are downright unnerving. While it takes half a second for the supercharged six and the electric motor to shrug off two and a half tons of German luxury, the brake pedal will bring the whole game show to a stop at the first hint of contact with your leather-soled penny loafers. Be warned: these stoppers are the sensitive kind. The Touareg Hybrid's regenerative braking system is likely to blame, as it's taken many generations of hybrids for other manufacturers to get the balance of regen and actual braking to feel natural and not unnerving. Volkswagen's sort of new at this whole hybrid thing.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, rear 3/4 view

The company hasn't said exactly how much it's planning to charge for the 2011 Touareg Hybrid, but we can guess that the figure isn't going to be for the faint of heart. We expect the fully-loaded, electrified SUV to hit the wallet north of the $44,350 price tag on the current TDI Touareg. The thing is, the diesel version boasts a combined fuel economy of just 1 mpg less than the projected figures of the hybrid. We're guessing that in real-world conditions, the diesel would likely even edge ahead of its battery-operated counterpart if you spent more time plying the highways.

When the Touareg Hybrid lands in the States later this year, we're guessing it will find favor with the crowd that's less interested in which is the better product – the hybrid or the diesel Touareg – and more concerned with the image those tiny hybrid badges put forth. With identical towing capacities, nearly identical fuel economy figures and the fact that the Touareg Hybrid requires premium gasoline, both it and the Touareg TDI are simply different answers to the same question. We're more inclined to stick with the lighter TDI with its more progressive brake system, but we know we don't represent the vast majority of SUV buyers, either.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL


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