When hybrids first hit the market, they were cars. Small cars. Small cars that typically got good gas mileage without the expense and complexity of a hybrid system. For years, we wondered why this technology wasn't being added to already expensive and gas-guzzling SUVs. They were popular, and price didn't really seem a deterrent for the buyers who just wanted space and the image of off-road capability. It seemed a natural match.
The industry has gradually recognized this opening in the market. We've gained entries from Chevrolet and GMC, Lexus and Toyota, and Ford, all to good effect. But it's Volkswagen's entry that cracks this subset wide open.
Volkswagen's first hybrid for the U.S. market is the Touareg, a mid-sized luxury SUV. This redesigned version does everything the old non-hybrid model did and the new ones continue to do, but with better fuel economy (and about 400 pounds less weight than the previous generation). The only drawback seems to be today's economy, which plays both pro (expensive gas making hybrids more desirable) and con (low consumer confidence hurts the sales of expensive vehicles).
The Touareg has always been a stand-out SUV. Interior materials and quality are from the era when Volkswagen was near the top of its game. Things fit just right, materials feel expensive, and every switch, gauge, and accessory is right where you'd expect it to be. Comfortable seats and plenty of storage--the latter has not always been a German quality--add to the pleasure of sitting up front.
In the back seats, the Touareg has plenty of room. Legroom is more than ample for two or even three passengers while headroom is not compromised, as in many "crossovers" today. The 2011 Touareg has an airy cabin just like the large SUVs that inspired its creation. While the practicality of SUVs can be called into question when the overwhelming majority of them never go off road, Volkswagen made everything in the Touareg right.
Push the start button, release the electronic parking brake control, shift into drive, and you're ready to go. Unlike many hybrids with their continuously-variable transmissions, the Touareg uses a full eight-speed unit. Gear changes are nearly imperceptible as the car flows through its eight ratios.
When it comes to hybrids, it's all about how that power gets to the transmission. In this case, Volkswagen dumped the 3.6L gas and 3.0L turbo diesel (as well as the previously available 5.0L V10 turbo diesel and 4.2L V8 gas) engines in favor of the Audi-based 3.0L direct-injected and supercharged V6.
Combining this 333-horsepower unit with a 47-horsepower electric motor, the hybrid can generate an impressive 380 horses. Taking a lesson from "hypermilers," the Touareg can shut off the gas engine whenever it's not needed.
This start-stop ability is actually a feature Volkswagen introduced in the Rabbit back in the early 1980s. In the Touareg, however, this ability isn't limited only to traffic lights and can be armed at highway speeds. Coasting down a long hill with your foot barely on the accelerator, there's no real need for power. So, the engine shuts down. In many cases, the Touareg uses its inertial energy to recharge the batteries.
When the need for power returns, electric power is immediately on tap, and the engine is coaxed back to life for full power a second later. It takes no longer than a downshift from a traditional transmission for this whole process to happen. Unless you're watching the dashboard, you probably wouldn't even know it had occurred.
Yes, there's about 380 horsepower on tap. Yet in regular driving, the Touareg Hybrid impressively returns figures in the low 20-m.p.g. range. Fully electric driving was seen above 40 m.p.h., albeit only briefly. Under gentle acceleration, the 2011 Touareg can be prodded up over 20 m.p.h. without starting the gas engine.
Passengers are never aware that the vehicle is doing all of this work. Unlike in smaller vehicles, plenty of sound deadening keeps the engine changes silent. Even at highway speeds, you can barely notice whether the gas engine is operating. That is, until serious power is needed when the full anger of the force-fed V6 and electric motor roar to life. Otherwise, the 2011 Touareg is every bit the luxury vehicle Volkswagen intended it to be.
Today, there's a choice of hybrid vehicles ranging from just under $20,000 to well over $100,000. Given that range, the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid sits in the middle of the pack. It's still expensive, but it's definitely not a Ford Escape or even a Lexus RX400h. With the German carmaker's new push into the mainstream, this luxury Volkswagen hybrid may be an orphan in the lineup--but it is well worth the experience.
From the front seat of the Touareg, it is an excellent vehicle for a couple's trip. Front seats have ample space with good access to storage. Adding a couple of kids (or even adults) in the back works well, but when you start filling in the seat belts, that's when you realize that the cargo capacity of the Touareg could be improved; just make sure your destination has access to laundry facilities if you're going to be there a while.
Otherwise, the Touareg will keep everyone comfortable with a smooth ride and quiet surroundings even on the open road. As odd as it seems, the Touareg's development team targeted the Lincoln Navigator with this SUV. While smaller, the Touareg is every bit the luxury hauler that the Navigator was in the late 1990s, only adapted for today's travel-happy family.
Length: 188.8 inches
Width: 76.4 inches
Height: 68.2 inches
Curb weight: 5,135 pounds
Engine: V6, 2,995 c.c. DOHC 24-valve supercharged with electric motor
Horsepower: 380 horsepower @ 5,500-6,500 r.p.m.
Torque: 425 lb.-ft. @ 3,000-5,250 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 20/24
Base price: $60,565
As-tested price: $61,885, including $820 destination
Also consider: Lexus RX400h, GMC Yukon Hybrid, Cadillac Escalade Hybrid