Volkswagen's Touareg Hybrid shows up with jaw-dropping technology under the hood, and an impressive cabin tech suite as well. The full model name, the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Supercharged Hybrid, includes a few terms not usually found together. Yes, this Touareg not only gets gas-electric hybrid propulsion, but also a supercharger on the engine.
Throwing every power-train technology at Volkswagen's disposal into this car results in the most powerful Touareg in the company's lineup, although not necessarily the most fuel-efficient. Current Touareg models include the supercharged hybrid, a 3-liter TDI V-6, and a 3.6-liter gasoline V-6. The hybrid gets an EPA rating of 20 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, and the TDI brackets those numbers with 18 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. The mundane gas-only Touareg comes up short with 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.
But it does not seem as if Volkswagen's engineers had fuel economy foremost in their thoughts when they designed the Touareg Hybrid, as this vehicle boasts an astounding total system output of 380 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. Even the TDI Touareg can't match that torque number.
With the transmission in Sport mode and a lead foot on the gas pedal, every bit of that power is felt as the Touareg rockets forward. The engine in the Touareg Hybrid is essentially the same as used in the Audi S4, a supercharged direct-injection 3-liter V-6, which by itself generates 333 horsepower. The hybrid system includes a 34-kilowatt electric motor integrated between engine and transmission, and a 1.7-kilowatt-hour nickel metal hydride battery pack situated near the rear wheels.
The battery pack is about the only power-train tech in the Touareg Hybrid that lags slightly behind the competition, as the latest hybrids are coming out with lithium ion battery packs.
Despite the car's breathtaking Sport acceleration, putting the transmission in normal Drive mode results in a very different driving experience. The gas pedal feels detuned, and acceleration is more difficult to modulate. Merely letting off the brake lets the Touareg creep forward under electric power. Moderate pressure on the gas pedal tends to make the Touareg lunge, and it becomes difficult to control at low speeds or in stop-and-go traffic.
Along with letting the engine shut off at traffic stops and while coasting at speeds of up to 99 mph, the hybrid system can also propel the car using just electric power. But the Touareg Hybrid is heavy, making it very difficult to feather the pedal lightly enough to actually make the car go forward without having the engine come on.
To prove this can be a short-distance electric vehicle, Volkwagen placed an E-mode button on the console. Press it, and the Touareg Hybrid refrains from burning any gas, at least up to about 32 mph, or until the battery becomes so discharged that the engine must take over.
The console also holds a dial with on- and off-road settings. The Touareg Hybrid comes standard with four-wheel drive, a completely automatic system that defaults to a 40 percent front-60 percent rear torque split. But switching it to off-road mode merely adjusts the traction control and drivetrain programs; the Touareg Hybrid's conventional suspension sits at a fixed height.
Going over rough country roads, the car felt very capable, absorbing big bumps easily without too much cabin rocking. Volkswagen says the Touareg Hybrid has a ground clearance of 7.9 inches and can ford water to a depth of 19.7 inches. Driving through some sections of flooded roads created by recent California storms, the Touareg Hybrid plowed through, sending water spraying off to the sides.
An electrohydraulic power steering mechanism keeps the steering wheel movable even when the engine shuts down. Although the four-wheel-drive system helps in cornering, the Touareg Hybrid shows typical SUV handling. It understeers in turns, and its large body, raised up on its suspension, leads to body roll that is partially counteracted by antisway equipment.
Sport mode with the eight-speed automatic transmission helps keep the power on, and there is also a manual shift mode. In keeping with the vehicle's character, Sport mode is not all that aggressive, and manual gear changes are typically sluggish for an automatic. Those eight gears really come into play cruising at 65 or 70 mph, when the engine, when it is actually on, can keep its speed around 2,000rpm, helping save gas.
Volkswagen's new look
Although the new Touareg Hybrid weighs in at over 5,000 pounds, Volkswagen took some steps to lighten the load, such as using some aluminum in the suspension. The overall look of the vehicle is less SUV and more modern crossover. The strong lateral lines of the grille, which blend into the headlight apertures, are part of Volkswagen's new design language. Also part of this language are the clean lines of the body. Rather than creases, the Touareg Hybrid features impressions of lines, just a smooth pinch in the sides.