Driven: 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

By Brandon Turkus

March 14, 2011

Readers of Editorial Director Tom Martin’s monthly column should be familiar with the concept of greenformance. The idea is that a vehicle can be ecologically friendly, while still being an involving, driver-oriented experience. Generally speaking, 5100-pound SUVs don’t really fit that description. Volkswagen’s latest Touareg could be set to challenge that a bit, but does the oil-burning TDI version offer a better alternative for a greenformance SUV?

With this second-generation model, Volkswagen’s first hybrid drivetrain joins the familiar 3.6-liter V-6 and 3.0-liter TDI V-6. The first half of the new hybrid system comes from the Audi S4, which is hardly a bad place to start. The common supercharged, 333-horsepower and 325 pound-feet-of-torque V-6 is joined with an electric motor. The total output of the combination works out to 380 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque—numbers that easily best the 335-horsepower/380 pound-feet Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid. In terms of our impromptu intra-Touareg comparison, the TDI churns out 225 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque.

Power is delivered to VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system via an eight-speed automatic (standard across the 2011 range). This slick-shifting gearbox is a real pleasure to work with, delivering smooth upshifts and downshifts based on driving conditions. While there is a manumatic mode, we wouldn’t have minded some paddles on the steering wheel, especially considering the Hybrid’s (relatively) serious acceleration. Volkswagen estimates that it can catapult to 60 miles per hour in 6.2 seconds. There isn’t really a trade-off in high-speed power, either, thanks to the Audi-derived V-6.

The TDI’s accelerative prowess isn’t quite so advanced. 60 miles per hour arrives in a more sedate 7.9 seconds. That being said, both vehicles deliver serious thrills for the torque-addicted, with the Hybrid delivering its electric might at zero rpm (the V-6 hits its torque crescendo at a still low 3000 rpm) while the TDI delivers maximum thrills at 1750 rpm.

The powerful VW drivetrain can’t quite match up to hybrid veterans like Toyota and Ford in terms of smoothness, though. We found the transitions between gas and electric, especially in heavy traffic, to be more noticeable than we would have expected. It was often difficult to predict when the engine would shut off or turn back on, which made managing throttle input at low speeds a hassle. The regenerative brakes, which are grabby on even the best hybrids, seemed excessively so in the Touareg, too. This combination of ills makes for a jerky in-town driving experience, at least until one gets enough seat time to anticipate and adjust.

This is an area where we would certainly prefer the oil-burning Touareg. It simply offers a more conventional driving experience than the hybrid.

There were more than a few pluses to make up for the drivetrain foibles though. The eight-speed auto features six standard gears, with two dedicated to eco driving (think duel-overdrive gears, for highway cruising at low rpm). The inclusion of a clever clutch pack automatically shuts off the engine when no pressure is being applied to the accelerator. This allows emissions-free coasting, which ardent hypermilers should find supremely useful. VW claims this fuel-sipping feature will work at up to 99 miles per hour.

The hybrid system’s E-Mode button, located just behind the shifter, keeps the Touareg running on electric power at up to 32 miles per hour (75 miles per hour in a downhill situation). Depending on speed, we were seeing about a mile of pure electric power, up to the advertised speeds. Aggressive throttle inputs would override E-Mode and kick the gas engine to life.

Taking a step back from the actual business of driving, simply spending time in the Touareg Hybrid is quite the enjoyable experience. For starters, the cabin is lavish. Wood, leather, aluminum, and piano black trim can be found throughout, offering a feeling of refinement befitting of a $61,000 SUV. The steering wheel is properly sized and wrapped in soft leather, with piano black trim on all three of its spokes. The seats are just right in terms of supporting the lower back and legs, with enough bolstering to keep you planted during hard cornering, without inhibiting ingress and egress.

Volkswagen’s instrument cluster also deserves high praise. The seven-inch display is mounted between the tachometer and speedometer and can relay everything from fuel economy information, to turn-by-turn directions, to radio information. We’ve been seeing this type of layout in the instrument cluster for some time on cars from various manufacturers, but the Touareg’s stands out for its size, graphical quality, and smoothness. Animations are delivered both quickly and very smoothly.

Steering duties are handled by an electrohydraulic system, meaning that there is an electric motor rather than an engine-driven belt that provides hydraulic pressure for the steering rack. In terms of steering feel and feedback, we really enjoy this system. The weight piles on nicely as the steering angle increases, and there is far more on-center feedback than in most of the current crop of electric power-assisted steering setups. We never really found ourselves wanting for more feedback in the Touareg, regardless of driving situation.

The Touareg’s ride walks the line between sporty and luxurious. The damping is somewhat firm, doing a good job of limiting squat, dive, and body roll without compromising the overall ride quality. The suspension doesn’t communicate as well as the steering, but we are willing to accept some level of suspension isolation in a vehicle that rides so comfortably.

In terms of outright handling performance, the Touareg TDI provides a slight advantage, by way of a 160-pound weight advantage.

The big question on many drivers’ minds when looking at a hybrid is the fuel economy. In the case of the Touareg, buyers should expect to see 20 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway. Those numbers sit neatly in the middle of the hybrid SUV spectrum. The less-powerful Mercedes ML450 Hybrid delivers identical 20 and 24 ratings, while the smaller (and slower) Lexus RX450h and Toyota Highlander offer 30/29 and 28/28 ratings respectively. At the opposite end of the scale is BMW’s $89,000, 400-horsepower, and 450-pound-foot X6 ActiveHybrid, which only gets 17 and 19 miles per gallon.

If fuel economy is the ultimate motivator, the TDI makes a more compelling case. While its city numbers are slightly worse (19 miles per gallon), its 28 mpg highway rating easily bests the Hybrid’s. In the end, we’d have to expect that observed mileage between these two really comes down to the driver. Someone that is capable of squeezing the maximum out of the Hybrid’s start-stop systems could likely match the TDI’s mileage rating.

The final area that we need to analyze between the Hybrid and the TDI is the price. The Hybrid is only available in one (albeit luxurious) trim. Featuring all of the equipment from the base-level Sport trim, the Hybrid gains a few key items from the mid-level Lux and top-spec Executive packages, namely nineteen-inch alloys, heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel, navigation, and a (huge) panoramic sunroof. With an as-tested price of $61,385, the Hybrid costs about $3300 more than a loaded Touareg TDI Executive.

Both drivetrains have some serious plusses. We love the lower price of the TDI, the better mileage, and the decent performance, but the outright speed of the Hybrid really tugs at our enthusiast heartstrings. At the end of the day, pure personal preference would likely be the deciding factor between these two. If it were our money though, we’d be driving home in the diesel.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid
Engine: Supercharged V-6 with electric motor, 3.0 liters, 24v
Combined Output: 380 hp/ 428 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.2 sec
Top Speed: 130 mph (electronically limited)
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 20/24 mpg
Base Price: $60,565
As Tested: $61,385
On Sale: Now