By Larry E. Hall
Volkswagen, along with other European auto companies, has long proclaimed diesels as a better green strategy than hybridization. True, diesels are efficient and practical, but in the U.S., they still have a reputation of being noisy and smelly. VW has worked hard to overcome that image with cars like the Jetta TDI and Passat TDI but now are beginning to change direction (although they still like diesels) toward electrification, both hybrid and electric only.
The company’s first foray into gasoline-electric hybrids is the Touareg Hybrid, a midsize crossover sport-utility vehicle. It’s part of a three-vehicle lineup that includes two V6 models, a 276 horsepower, 3.6-liter gasoline version and a 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel that makes 236 horsepower. Loaded with tons of standard premium features, the Hybrid is not exactly in the luxury segment, but clearly not entry-level, and therefore has no direct competitors.
The Volkswagen Touareg was all new for 2011 and there are no significant changes for the 2012 model year. Base price for the 2012 Volkswagen Touareg is $61,995, a $1,430 increase from last year.
About the name: It’s pronounced TOUR-egg, and is named after an African Sahara tribe of nomads called the Touareg (pronounced TWA-regg). Volkswagen says the nomadic tribe has a hearty reputation, calling them “the ultimate off-roaders.”
The Touareg Hybrid shares its drivetrain with the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid. That means adding a 47 horsepower (35kw) electric motor to an Audi-sourced supercharged 333 horsepower V6 engine. This brings total output to 380 ponies and a peak torque of 425 pounds feet at just 1,000 rpm. The powertrain has the added bonus of a 7,700-pound towing capacity. That far exceeds other hybrid crossovers as well as most gasoline powered midsized models.
Volkswagen joins other manufacturers in the move away from the continuously variable transmission (CVT) employed by most hybrid vehicles. The eight-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission is not only a less costly hybrid approach, it wrings out the most power from the engine and makes the Touareg Hybrid feel more like a car than an SUV.
The drivetrain is completed with VW’s 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive system with a Torsen self-locking center differential. Biased 60 percent to the rear during normal driving conditions, if one of the wheels starts to loose grip, the differential directs torque to the axle with the most traction.
The hybrid system’s unique feature is a hydraulic clutch between the engine and motor that disengages the engine so it can shut down under light loads. The electric motor then takes up the load until the engine restarts. Volkswagen engineers call the result “sailing” – for the quiet sensation of speed using only electric power.
As in most hybrids, the electric motor also restarts the engine, and recharges the 288-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack fitted into the former spare-tire well. The hybrid system is tuned to give lots of electric assist at highway speeds, which silences the usual hybrid critics, who frequently gloat that most hybrid systems are useless during Interstate cruises.
Volkswagen says the Touareg Hybrid runs up to 31 mph for around two miles in all-electric mode. More remarkably, the company also says it can run on electricity at speeds up to 99 miles per hour – though that’s slightly deceptive, since it means the engine may shut down for a while at speeds that high, leaving the electric motor to propel the car. Still, traveling on battery power at speeds higher than any legal U.S. limit is quite an accomplishment for a 5,135-pound vehicle. Additionally, with the disc-shaped electric motor placed between the engine and transmission in the parallel system, there’s no electric whine when the motor moves the Touareg alone.
As for on-road performance, the company claims the hybrid Touareg posts 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds with both the electric motor and the boosted engine providing power. Top speed is 150 mph. At the same time, fuel economy ratings of 20 in the city and 24 on the highway – while not dramatically high numbers – are a big step up from the gasoline powered variant, which has city fuel economy in the mid-teens.
When Volkswagen redesigned the second-generation Touareg for 2011, it dialed back the off-road-ready character of its predecessor and shed some 350 pounds in the process. Yet it’s larger inside and out, with clean, muscular styling that is more European wagon than American crossover.
Up front the Touareg Hybrid wears VW’s new corporate design. Staunch vertical lines of the grille blend into the swept back Bi-Xenon headlamps that are outlined with LED running lights. The lower grille is bolstered on either side by large air intakes that add a slightly muscular look.
Well proportioned defines the overall look. Body lines are clean with no sharp creases, while pronounced rear haunches add a touch of flair and there’s just enough chrome trim to spice things up. The only evidence of its greenness are small hybrid badges that adorn the front and rear on the exterior.
Inside, the Touareg Hybrid looks as if top interior decorators designed the cabin and grabbed materials from Audi when they weren’t looking. Leather upholstery has a nice, pronounced texture; the brushed metal and wood trim aren’t overdone. A standard panorama glass sunroof turns the cabin into a veritable Vista Dome railroad car.
The dashboard is straightforward with clean lines and is laid out in a way that makes it easy to locate all the controls. Gauges are white with red indicators and thankfully not the bright blue and red illumination found in other Volkswagen models.
Seats are pleasantly firm and hours-long comfortable, and not just in the front row. The heated rear 60/40 split bench seat is fully adjustable, sliding forward and aft enough to make room for long-legged passengers. The seats can be easily folded to expand rear cargo space from 32.1 cubic feet to a generous 64 cubic feet. A standard power tailgate quickly opens to a low load height cargo floor.
A lengthy list of standard gear begins with an eight-speaker audio system with more audio sources than most – 18GB of music storage on the hard drive; a port offering iPhone, mini-USB, standard USB, and 1/8-inch audio connectivity; Bluetooth audio streaming; satellite radio; and a CD player with two SD card slots. Curiously, the Hybrid doesn’t offer a rear cabin DVD entertainment system.
The Touareg Hybrid gets VW’s latest navigation system with hard-drive-stored maps showing 3D views of the terrain and outlines of buildings. Below the eight-inch color touch screen, buttons offer quick access to the stereo, navigation and Bluetooth phone system.
A rear view camera and park-distance control are standard, as is adaptive front lighting. This feature perceives oncoming traffic and adjusts the headlamp beams to eliminate unwanted glare.
A Short Test Drive
Like all hybrids, the Touareg requires a light touch on the accelerator to operate in electric-only driving. But unlike other systems, the decoupling of the engine – the “sailing” function – operates at any speed so, even when driving in the city, the engine shuts down and the electric motor takes over long before the car comes to a stop. At 70 mph highway speeds, depending on the terrain, the Touareg sailed in silence for nearly a mile. A “Sport” mode reduces the sailing feature to speeds under 45 mph, but brings to the forefront the combined power of the gas engine and electric motor with the application of a heavy right foot.
The ride leans towards Germanic-stiff, but won’t jar, and overall, the fully independent suspension carries it well. Weighing two-and-a-half-tons, the Hybrid can feel a tad top heavy in quick changes of direction, but nowhere near enough to be troubling. Its electrohydraulic power steering steers with a natural linearity, while the regenerative brake system is quite touchy and takes some getting used to.
Local knowledge of a not-well-known off road trail between downtown Seattle and SeaTac airport provided the opportunity for a taste of the Hybrid’s bark and bite. The not-quite-three-mile-loop is deeply rutted in spots with a couple of steep hills.
The Touareg doesn’t have the chops of, say a Land Rover Discovery, but the 4Motion system can handle terrain that the typical owner will want to drive on. A console-mounted off-road mode locks all four wheels and adjusts the traction control and drivetrain programs. The suspension did a decent job of eating up potholes and the 7.9-inches of ground clearance kept the undercarriage undamaged. As advertised, the standard hill-descent control allowed us to slowly creep downward with feet off the pedals as the system kept engine revs low and automatically modulated the brakes.
Yes, the 2012 Touareg Hybrid’s MSRP of $61,995 is nearly $19,000 more than the base gasoline model, and $15,000 more than the base turbo diesel version, however, the Hybrid is luxury loaded for its price. When compared to the gas and diesel top trim levels, the price difference shrinks to $6,000 and $3,000 respectively, which is a typical variance between a hybrid and non-hybrid version of the same model.
An obvious comparison is the Lexus RX 450h. Its MSRP of $46,825 is $15,000 less than the Touareg Hybrid and trumps the Volkswagen’s fuel economy with an EPA rating of 30/28/29. While it is available with a rear seat entertainment system, the AWD setup is not suitable for off-road driving and the towing capacity is half the Touareg’s.
If you need seating for seven, Toyota’s top-of-the-line all-wheel drive Highlander Hybrid LTD offers near-luxury appointments starting at $44,370. Fuel economy of 28/28/28 bests the Touareg Hybrid. But like the Lexus, off-roading is a no, no and towing is limited to 3,500 pounds.
If you really like the Touareg and rack up a lot of highway miles, the Touareg TDI diesel registers 28 highway mpg and costs $3,000 less when comparably equipped.
The Touareg Hybrid may not be the best value for the money spent, but if you have the greenbacks to go Volkswagen green, buy it: You’ll like the performance and handling, the luxurious interior, the off-road and towing capabilities along with improved fuel economy.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.