Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Luxury vehicles are supposed to be our buffers from certain harsh realities, and the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid has a heft and gravitas that indicate it's more than up for this task. It has a broad, handsome exterior that bears a passing resemblance to a slab of granite hoisted wholesale from the darkest corner of the Black Forest. The doors feel reassuringly heavy, more castle fortress than SUV, and the Touareg sails over gaping potholes with a battleship's smug confidence. Looks and feel are so traditional and so classic that we find it hard to believe it's a hybrid.
But a hybrid it is, and from a performance perspective, the Touareg is one of the more impressive examples of hybrid technology that you can buy. With the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg, VW's engineering wizards set out to stir up an SUV that combines V8 performance with V6 fuel economy, and we think their time spent toiling over that bubbling cauldron has met with success. The Touareg Hybrid has adjustable drive modes, and in Sport mode, the SUV vaults from a standstill with the bracing eagerness of a V8, without the same crippling showing at the fuel pump.
So yes, the Touareg Hybrid accelerates as if there's a V8 rumbling under the hood, but the downside is it's priced accordingly. The MSRP of $60,565 resembles that of the V8-equipped model it replaces in the lineup, which makes the hybrid model costly in comparison to its competition.
Relative to its two most direct rivals, the Lexus RX 450h and Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid, the Volkswagen feels more organic, tap-dancing between its gas and electric motors with Savion Glover's seamless grace. It also offers far more towing capacity than both of these picks, making the Touareg a stellar choice for those who don't mind paying a little extra for brute force that wears a polished and relatively frugal face.
The Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid owes its supremely willing nature to a supercharged, direct-injection, 3.0-liter V6 gasoline engine paired with an electric motor, complemented by an eight-speed automatic transmission that balances the contribution of the two power sources. The electric motor gets its juice from a 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack neatly tucked into the rear cargo area beneath the load floor.
Each power source can run solo and the two can also break a sweat in tandem to generate a combined 380 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. One of the most striking benefits of this prodigious torque is the Touareg Hybrid's robust towing capacity. She's good for up to 7,700 pounds, which is more than double the pulling power of the Lexus RX 450h.
A V8 lets you know it's a V8 the moment you launch, and Volkswagen knew that if the Touareg Hybrid were to offer a convincing facsimile, this SUV needed to bolt like a wildebeest off the line. The Touareg nails this important bit of deception, tearing away from a stop in Sport mode with rowdy, un-hybridlike zest. It feels quick in everyday use and its performance at the Edmunds test track supports this assumption, with acceleration from a standstill to 60 mph taking just 5.8 seconds.
Steering feel is perhaps the most unambitious thing about the Touareg Hybrid — things feel a tad overboosted in street and highway travel. On the plus side, though, its light-effort steering action makes the big beast perfectly pliable as we swoop in to claim a parking space in the lot of an overcrowded strip mall.
The Touareg hybrid can be powered solely by its electric motor for about a mile at speeds of up to 32 mph on flat road surfaces, and it will reach 75 mph on downhill gradients. As you'd expect, the hybrid also features a start-stop system that stops the engine during idling. The feature kicks in as we wait at a red light, and the engine powers down. When the light turns green, the engine smoothly comes to life and the Touareg moves off the line with no hesitation of jerky clumsiness.
Later, as we glide downhill on mountain blacktop, we experiment with another of the Touareg's fuel-saving features, one that allows it to coast at speeds of up to 99 mph with no electric or combustion power. We release the gas pedal, which causes the engine to shut off and disengages the transmission; we coast like this for a few moments, enjoying the fact that the VW is consuming neither fuel nor electricity and gives off no emissions. When we decide to pick up the pace, a tap of the throttle causes the engine to seamlessly spring into action.
The end result of all this fuel-saving technology is EPA-estimated mileage of 20 mpg city/24 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. In our stint with the 5,162-pound Touareg Hybrid, we didn't fare as well as the EPA's test results, observing combined fuel economy of 20 mpg. Still, when you consider that the V8-equipped Touareg that this hybrid replaces was capable of just 14 mpg EPA combined, the Touareg Hybrid starts looking like a pretty good idea.
On the road, the Touareg Hybrid feels as comfortable and secure as old money. Even in Sport mode, the ride is solid and courteous.
As you'd expect from a vehicle in this price range, the front seats are supportive and substantial, with myriad settings to accommodate passengers of varying sizes. Both the seatbacks and seat cushions are wide enough to welcome even those whose figures fall on the fuller end of the spectrum.
Whether we're sprinting down the highway or hugging a canyon road, the Touareg's cabin remains still as a cathedral. Lots of drivers single out the Lexus for its serene cabin, but the VW proves itself an equally competent alternative in this regard.
The center stack boasts an unfussy layout with large buttons and big, easily legible fonts. We punch in some directions and find that the Touareg's navigation system is as compliant as they come. Unlike many other systems, it even allows our front passenger to make entries while the vehicle is in motion, though it does admonish us with a warning.
We press the center stack's "Car" button and the display screen reminds us of things like reduced fuel usage and lowered emissions by showing us the hybrid's energy flow. The graphics are rather unremarkable, though, when compared with the colorful, gee-whiz presentation seen in models like the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
Door bins are nice and roomy but the bin in the center console isn't anything special when you consider that in some models, this space is deep enough to swallow laptops.
Rear legroom is abundant and rear seat cushions are firm as a brand-new Simmons Beautyrest. Still, the second row is best suited for two passengers, not three, since the intrusive placement of the center console drastically reduces legroom for the poor sod stuck in the middle. Rear seatbacks recline, but only slightly.
Cargo capacity with all seats in place is 32.1 cubic feet — more than that of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class (29.4 cubic feet) but less than you'll find in the RX (40 cubic feet). A quick glance over the shoulder reveals that rear visibility is decent but not great, due to the vehicle's huge D-pillars and substantially sized trio of block-shaped backseat headrests. Removing the middle headrest helps somewhat, and fortunately it's an easy enough task to accomplish.
Design/Fit and Finish
To our eyes, the Touareg's creased and folded sheet metal presents a vaguely retro and very Teutonic elegance that makes it the most visually arresting pick in its segment.
Things are similarly appealing within the cabin, where the wood-lined center console is as wide and sumptuous as a Danish Modern coffee table. Materials quality is excellent, with rich leathers and soft-touch surfaces everywhere you look.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid is an excellent pick for shoppers seeking a luxury SUV that delivers V8 excitement with V6 frugality. It's also well suited for those who want a premium SUV that offers big towing power without big fuel bills. If performance isn't an issue, though, and you're simply interested in the least expensive choice that saves you the most at the pump, you'll be better served by the Lexus RX 450h (which gets 30 mpg combined).
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