The VW Touareg Hybrid offers something different


by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

Posted on August 25, 2011 at 10:51 AM

No doubt the auto business is one of the most complex, volatile and emotional industries on the planet.  It takes years and billions of dollars to create a product.  Consumer taste is fickle, new categories seldom emerge.

Hybrids didn’t even exist 15 years ago but have quickly created an solid eco-friendly segment that I have to believe even Toyota didn’t fully foresee when they launched Prius.  Until then, cars were mostly about style, status and horsepower.  Suddenly the hulking SUVs of the 90s are out. Fuel sippers are what the politically correct want to drive.

But what if you still want an SUV?

Then Volkswagen may have something for you -- Touareg Hybrid. It’s not just VWs first gas/electric powertrain, it’s also the world’s first supercharged hybrid system. 

Now in its second generation, Touareg’s sheet metal has become more chiseled this time around while adhering to the conservative VW corporate design DNA.  But it’s not the styling that will attract the Whole Foods crowd, it’s the subtle badges on the grille, hatch and lower side that announces to the world that you care about the Earth.  Or does it?

Let’s get something straight, this is a very capable all-wheel drive luxury sport utility vehicle and those who are expecting Prius-like fuel economy will be very disappointed.  EPA rates Touareg Hybrid at 20 mpg city, 24 highway.  I’m seeing 22 MPG in mixed driving, good for an SUV, not what the average Joe and Jane expects from a vehicle with a hybrid badge. 

Another Touareg, the TDI Clean Diesel gets better highway fuel economy at 28 MPG and costs $3,000 less (city numbers are lower at 19).  The last bit of bad news?  Touareg Hybrid retails for $61,385.  Keep in mind the only decisions to make are interior and exterior colors.  The Hybrid only comes completely loaded right down to HID headlamps.  The only option is a $500 trailer hitch.

Which Touareg to buy?  Kai Philipp with VW Engineering says choose the powertrain that suits your lifestyle.  All Touaregs tow up to 7,700 pounds so that’s no issue.  Freeway drivers should lean toward the diesel, urban dwellers might want to consider the hybrid. 

There’s also the standard V6 model, that when comparably equipped is around $6,500 less than the hybrid.  No doubt there will be a bit of a “fashion issue” when it comes to what model Touareg buyers choose.  Depending on the crowd you run with, a diesel or hybrid can be très chic. 

The hybrid replaces… a V8? 

Essentially yes. That engine is no longer available in Mr. T.  The direct-injected 3.0-liter supercharged V6 brings 333 horsepower to the party.  Combined that with a 47-horse electric motor, total power is 380 horsepower.  Even better is 428 lb-ft of torque available very low in the rev range.  Touareg Hybrid drinks premium gasoline.

Throw the eight-speed tranny into “drive” and let the fun begin.  The torquey nature of the hybrid drivetrain feels like a powerful diesel engine, not a Prius.  This machine can scoot, 0-60 spools up in around six seconds, quicker than some sport sedans.  The exhaust note is throaty too.

Like other hybrids, only different

The battery is charged when coasting and braking, the engine shuts down at stoplights.  Pretty standard hybrid stuff.  The VW difference?  Even at highway speeds the engine can switch off when the driver lifts from the throttle.  A special clutch disengages the transmission from the engine and lets the vehicle coast, improving fuel economy.  VW calls this emissions-free mode “sailing”.   Tap the gas slightly and the V6 fires up again.  It’s largely seamless and unique in the hybrid world.

There’s the expected hybrid flow chart on the crisp clear display that shows what’s happening with the power. Push the “E-Power” button and a light throttle foot allows for cruising solely on electric power for a mile or so when Touareg is kept under 30 miles an hour. The system is so well done you might not know it’s a hybrid if the engine didn’t shut down at stoplights.

Solid and capable

Touareg has a solid luxurious feel and corners well for an SUV.  The whole driving dynamic is very smooth and refined without being floaty.  It’s also fairly quiet at speed.  This VeeDub is also quite capable off-road. US Touaregs no longer have the option of an air-suspension and heavy-duty 4WD system but really, few people need it.  The standard 4Motion all-wheel drive is plenty for most drivers. 

Also not available in the States?  Radar assisted cruise control, lane departure and blind spot warning, and whole area-view camera system.  The radar cruise system would be nice.  Just saying…

Regenerative brakes on many hybrids have a less than linear feel.  Touareg’s has a smooth response as the pedal transitions past the generator mode into the physical brake. This platform and drivetrain rides also under the Porsche Cayenne.  Historically, Porsche runs the drivetrain of Cayenne with more of a rear drive bias than Touareg, but with the hybrid, the power split is the same in both, 40 percent up front, 60 percent to the rear.  Cayenne offers up options not found on Touareg and a radically different interior.

Your house isn't this well appointed

The cabin looks terrific with high quality plastics, wood, metal, leather and lighting. Remove the logos and it would be easy to believe this is an Audi or other luxury German brand.  Firm supportive leather seats are heated and road trip ready.

An easy-to-use nav system makes it hard to get lost. Venturing off-road?  There’s a compass, altimeter and inclinometer on the LCD screen.  My only gripe inside is a cumbersome center console with a split door. Oh, another, there are no ventilated seats, expected in a car over 60K.

Touareg hybrid has a great sound system with a hard drive to store your music.  The folks at VW loaded some tunes on my tester and you’ve got to believe they have a sense of humor.  I’m a fan of old Motown music so I appreciate the German cover of the Temptation’s classic “Pappa Was a Rolling Stone” by Stefan Gwildis.  Very well produced, very cool.

As expected iPods and phones are supported.  Rounding out the features is keyless ignition, electric parking brake, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, HD radio tuner and panoramic roof.

Back seat and cargo

Touareg seats five, handling three average sized adults in the back seat no sweat.  There are built in sunshades for the side glass, seats recline, they’re even heated.  Foot room is pretty good with a center driveshaft tunnel that is not too intrusive.  Both seatbacks get pockets, the center armrest folds and a 12-volt power port and a standard 110 household outlet have you covered.

Power liftgates are pretty popular on crossovers these days.  Some have clutches that allow you to open them quickly, Touareg’s is a slave to the mechanism. Block that door when it’s closing and the hatch will pop back open slightly.  Even though there’s a warning between the two main gauges, it’s easy to drive off with the hatch slightly open.  This allows something like a snowboard to slide out under hard acceleration.  Ask me how I know…

With the battery pack under the load floor, there is no storage or spare tire.  There are some adjustable cubbies, another 12v power port plus a large thick elastic strap that comes in VERY handy (easily keeping a gallon of milk from sliding around.  Cargo space?  Touareg Hybrid does fine, handling 8 packs of TP.

In case you’re wondering half of Touaregs are sold with the standard V6 engine. With 40% opting for the TDI Clean Diesel, just 1 in 10 Touaregs will be sold as a hybrid.  Those who buy it will never make their money back on fuel savings and it’s clear that many buyers are happy enough with the diesel.  So…

Why develop the hybrid? 

Touareg Hybrid sales may not light the sales charts on fire but Volkswagen has a lot of brands and with CAFE standards set to rise worldwide in the years ahead, their luxury divisions will need more efficient powertrains.  Porsche already produces the Cayenne and Panamara hybrids and Audi has the A8 in the wings.  Can Bentley and Lamborghini be far behind?  How about Bugatti?  Uh, probably not.

The VW engineers have produced a sophisticated hybrid system with their first at-bat.  Keep in mind the GM 2-Mode system jointly developed with BMW and Daimler results in lower towing rating compared to standard models.  Touareg Hybrid buyers might not save a huge amount on their fuel bills but they’ll get high-tech bragging rights and a very capable, powerful and luxurious SUV.