As a longtime champion of clean-diesel technology in the American market, Volkswagen’s decision to launch its all-new Touareg with a hybrid version comes as something of a surprise. Not only does VW have a stable of proven, efficient oil-burners to choose from, but the firm has, until very recently, savored its role as a skeptic of EV and hybrid drivetrains. And with the GM/Chrysler/BMW/Mercedes Two-Mode hybrid system conclusively failing to build a market for large gas-electric Utes, it seemed that the era of mass-market hybrid SUVs was at an end anyway. So, does VW’s excursion from its comfort zone make more sense on (or off) the road than on paper?
From the outside, the Touareg Hybrid’s most distinctive feature is VW’s latest aggressive corporate grille, which blends well with the standard (on Hybrids only) HID headlamps and LED accent lights. The wide and low stance fools the eye into believing the new Touareg has lost some girth compared to the old model, but it’s all show; the new model has actually gained several inches on the previous Touareg. But despite the increased dimensions, the 2011 Touareg is about 400lbs lighter than the outgoing model. How is this possible? VW calls the weight loss a benefit of the Touareg’s clean-sheet redesign: the subtle evolution of the exterior look hides just how thoroughly new this vehicle is.
Taken as a package, the Touareg is certainly a handsome vehicle, although the exterior still exudes the same “one sausage” design philosophy that VW is fast becoming infamous for. Inside, on the other hand, the Touareg harkens back to the Phaeton-era Volkswagen that’s rapidly becoming a vanishing memory in this market. Though the interior is not as shockingly beautiful as the original Touareg was when it was released in 2002, it is still a far cry from the new Jetta’s mass-market aspirations. It’s obvious from the tasteful walnut trim to the perfect seams that this SUV was intended to compete with the other German brands on their home turf.
Speaking of the Germans, while GM, Chrysler, BMW and Mercedes were busy dumping over a billion US dollars into their abortive shared two-mode transmission, VW chose to take a different (read: less costly) route to electrification. While the Global Hybrid Two-Mode Hybrid transmission is a technological marvel combining two electric motor/generators and a 4 speed automatic transmission with CVT functionality, the transmission is both complex and expensive. So expensive, in fact, that its being dropped like a hot potato.
Instead of joining the alliance, VW wisely saved some cash and mated a ZF 8-speed transmission with a 46HP/221lb-ft “Hybrid Module” located between the transmission’s torque converter and the 333HP 3.0L supercharged V6 borrowed from the S4 sedan. Combined the system generates 380HP at 5,500RPM and 428lb-ft of torque at only 1,000RPM. While this may sound much like the Honda IMA system or the so-called “mild-hybrid” system shared by BMW and Mercedes on their large sedans, the VW system has some tricks up its sleeve. The innovation inside the 121-pound Hybrid Module is an engine disengagement clutch allowing the Touareg to drive in electric-only mode up to almost 40MPH. In contrast, the non-VW arrangements lack a clutch making them that are incapable of forward locomotion without the gasoline engine involved.
For SUV duty the VW hybrid arrangement pays real dividends. Since there is no delicate CVT or complicated 2-mode tranny involved, the Touareg Hybrid retains all the off-road and towing cred of the non-hybrid models. If you recall, the raison d’être for the expensive 2-mode hybrid transmission was supposed to be world-class towing capacity and off-road ability. In reality the 2-mode system in GM’s full-size SUVs and pickup trucks are rated to tow 26% less than the 7700lb rating of the Touareg Hybrid. How about the other Germans? The X6 Active Hybrid’s towing rating is 32% less and the ML450 hybrid rings in at a whopping 35% lower than the Touareg.
Back in 2008 Jonny Lieberman waxed poetic about the Touareg V10 TDI’s air suspension and AWD system, but nearly fainted at the sight of the $79,650 price tag. That Touareg was born with Phaeton pricing but sold like ice cubes to Eskimos. In an attempt to re-align the Touareg’s pricing with American expectations, prices went on the same crash diet as the curb weight. Our tester as equipped in the fully-loaded, top-of-the-line Hybrid trim rang in at $60,565. A V6 FSI model starts at $40,850 or $54,000 even when comparably equipped to the base Hybrid model. Oil burner lovers rejoice; the V6 TDI diesel splits the difference at a more reasonable (than the V10 TDI) $44,350. How did VW slash pricing on the Touareg? Simple: de-content.
Under the floorboards the go-anywhere 4xMotion AWD system is no longer an option on this side of the pond, instead American buyers will only get the Torsen based 4Motion system. While it was always nice to know your Touareg could take you to hell and back, the 4Motion system is more than capable enough for 99% of SUV shoppers. Also gone is the air suspension package which would give Euro buyers increased ground clearance in trade for less road feel. Shoppers will also notice that there are few options available on the new Touareg and a number of high-dollar options are not even available in the USA: no radar cruise control, no lane warning, blind spot warning, area-view camera system, or the aforementioned 4xMotion AWD with low range and air suspension. Aside from the radar cruise control with pre-collision warning, I agree with the de-conteting. Few Touareg shoppers opted for the air suspension when it was offered and even fewer took their VW off-road.
Thankfully VW has decided to make the new 6.5” LCD Nav system standard on the Hybrid models (optional on other Touareg models). The new system combines greatly improved graphics with 3-D like map rendering, iPod and general car setting controls. Working in conjunction with the Nav system is the 7” high-resolution LCD between the tachometer and speedometer which probably displays the best navigation directions available in an in-cluster LCD system. A 60-GB internal hard drive serves up the mapping and has 18 GB set aside for you to download your media. Unlike some models we have tested recently both screens fared well in direct sunlight with limited glare and good visibility.
Out on the road the lack of 4xMotion in the US model combined with the crash diet yield huge benefits in handling and road feel over the previous Touareg. While the electric power steering is suitably numb, it makes up for the lack of road feel with decent heft and linear responses. Thanks mostly to 19”wheels wrapped in wide low-profile tires, lateral grip is excellent. Speaking of rubbers, the VW brings 265 width Magnum-sized tires to the party; sure to give even BMW X5 drivers a touch of wheel envy. When pushed to the limits, however, the envy will stop at the rubber. While I did not have access to a skidpad, the X5 feels like it delivers superior balance in the corners and certainly offers greater road feel (no electric power steering). In the straight line the forthcoming X5 ActiveHybrid is expected to be almost as athletic as the X6 ActiveHybrid taking 5.4 seconds for a sprint to 60 (5.2 for the X6), the Touareg Hybrid is no slouch and only one-tenth of a second behind at 5.5 thanks largely to the low-end torque of the supercharger and the hefty input from the hybrid module.
Given the design of the hybrid clutch system, I was expecting transitions between hybrid modes to be jerky but instead was rewarded with nearly seamless operation. The 8 speed is a smooth and willing partner and the electric motor is powerful enough to propel you up mild rolling hills in the suburban jungle without the aid of the engine. It should be noted however that the battery is sized to only allow a mile or two of gentle electric-only operation. The only real gripe I have with the hybrid system is the brakes: the transition between regenerative braking and real braking is not as smooth as it could be and adding to the poor feel is a regenerative braking system that doesn’t always let go immediately after lifting the brake pedal giving the feeling that you have a stuck caliper.
Economy is supposedly the reason we have hybrids? Right? Wrong. If you want economy, then the Touareg diesel is still the king with an EPA score of 19/28 MPG city/highway. The Hybrid clocks in at 20/24 which is not bad compared to the base VR6 model at 16/23 but looking at these numbers misses the (some say misguided) pointof the Hybrid. VW would rather you think of the V6 Hybrid as being the virtual V8 that it isn’t offering in the Touareg, and by that measure our average of 22.5MPG over an 800-mile week of mixed driving isn’t bad.
Of course numbers are nothing without perspective so here we go: The Mercedes ML450 Hybrid delivers a matching 20/24MPGbut is considerably slower requiring 2.3 seconds longer to run to 60MPH and is more than $7,000 more expensive when comparably equipped. The X6 ActiveHybrid is EPA tested at 17/19MPG and if the X5 ActiveHybrid ever lands on these shores we should expect similar EPA numbers and a similar $88,000 starting price tag. Of course if you really wanted to save the planet and your wallet you’ll just drive right by the VW dealer and pick up a 2011 Lexus RX450h which undercuts the VW with a fully-loaded price of $54,952 and delivers a lofty 32/28MPG at the expense of being the slowest to 60 in the bunch at 7.8 seconds to 60 and having a towing capacity of only 3,500lbs.
Although Volkswagen as a brand plays in the mass and near-luxury markets, the Touareg has been, and continues to be part of VW’s conflicted mission in America. Back in 2002 VW launched the Phaeton and Touareg in America, two vehicles with fantastic attention to detail and similarly high price tags. With the new Passat and Jetta going down-market to compete more directly with the Civics and Accords of the world, the Touareg has clung onto its premium feel and at least some of the premium pricing. Perhaps this positioning is intended to give the Passat and Jetta some spizzarkle? Or is the Touareg just a leftover from Phaeton era, another world-class car with the wrong badge on the front? Our readers and the market will have to decide that one.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.