For years, Volkswagen has relied on its advanced diesel technology in both Europe and the U.S. to help it increase full economy and reduce consumption. While those days are far from over, with the introduction of the all-new 2011 Volkswagen Touareg, VW is sending a strong new signal in its drive to go even greener. The Touareg is not only the automaker's first hybrid, but VW will also be the first automaker in America to offer both diesel and hybrid models of the same vehicle.

The new Touareg -- built on a completely redesigned platform for 2011 -- is a big step forward for Volkswagen. As one engineer reportedly said at the press launch, the Germans may not be the first to do something, but they do it the best. The Touareg Hybrid is an embodiment of this sentiment, its technology a considerable advancement for hybrids in general.

The first thing you may notice about the Touareg Hybrid is that it's difficult to pick out of an all-Touareg lineup. Save for hybrid badges on the front and rear (the large "hybrid" stickers in some pictures won't be on production vehicles), the exterior of the vehicle is identical to other variants, sporting the same handsome styling, tight-fitting skin and agreeable proportions. The Touareg Hybrid is more about getting the job done than making a statement. It's not an afterthought, either. A hybrid model has been in the cards ever since a next-generation Touareg was first proposed to Volkswagen's product planners back in 2005.

Beneath the hood of the Touareg Hybrid lies a 333-horsepower, supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine shared with Audi that produces 324 pound-feet of torque. Mated to the gasoline engine via an automatic dry clutch is a 47-horsepower, 34-kilowatt electric motor that produces 99 pound-feet of torque, bringing the system total to 375 horsepower and 425 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful drivetrain offered in the new Touareg. This also means that the Touareg Hybrid shares the same 7700-pound towing capacity as its gasoline-only and diesel counterparts.

The combined electric and gasoline motors put their power to the wheels through Volkswagen's new eight-speed automatic transmission, an evolution of their six-speed automatic that now features two overdrive gears instead of one. From there, power travels through a Torsen limited-slip differential to all four wheels, with 60 percent of the power heading to the rear during normal driving. This all wheel-drive drivetrain is standard on all Touareg models.

This 4Motion system will also be the only drivetrain offered in the U.S.; there will be no two wheel-drive variant and we will not get the more-capable 4XMotion drivetrain offered elsewhere in the world with its heavy-duty transfer case. While 4Motion isn't as capable off-road, Volkswagen says most of its U.S. buyers won't know the difference and the Touareg Hybrid will be just as capable off-road as the non-hybrid variants.

The beauty of the Touareg Hybrid's powertrain really comes from the computer that controls it. Because the electric motor can fully decouple from the gasoline engine, the Touareg Hybrid can leave from a stop and operate under EV power up to 31 mph thanks to a 288-volt, 1.7 kilowatt-hour Nickel-Metal Hydride battery that replaces the under-floor storage in the cargo compartment. As the electric motor reaches its limits, the torque converter between it and the transmission begins to slip, allowing the electric motor to spin up and act as a starter for the gasoline engine by closing the dry clutch. Once the gasoline engine is started, the dry clutch closes and the torque converter slowly locks back up to meld the two motors seamlessly. In normal driving, the whole process takes just 0.7 to 0.8 seconds, though it can be done in as little as 0.4 to 0.5 seconds when Sport Mode is engaged.

Because the gasoline motor can be restarted so quickly, the computer can shut it down any time it's not being used. While many hybrids will only shut off the gasoline engine at stops, the Touareg Hybrid will shut its engine down whenever possible, even while you're driving down the road. Volkswagen calls this a "coast" mode, and it typically activates whenever you take your foot off the gas. The electric motor will bleed off a small amount of power to keep the vehicle's electrics going, then fire up the gasoline engine again as soon as you put your foot back on the gas. This allows the engine to shut down long before you reach a stop sign or red light, or even just while slowing down for traffic, maximizing efficiency. Volkswagen says the coast feature will even work at speeds up to 99 mph, though using Sport Mode will reduce its operation to speeds under 44 mph.

Far more impressive than the drivetrain's engineering, is how smoothly it goes about its business. Around town, the shut down and restart of the gasoline engine is barely detectable-- usually only noticeable at all when accelerating from a stop, where we found it typically occurred around 13 mph under normal driving. Out on the highway, the only way to tell if the gasoline engine is on or off is to glance down at the tachometer, its engagement and disengagement from the drivetrain is completely unnoticeable. Even more exciting is the fact that this technology is easily scalable, so Volkswagen will have little trouble adapting it to other models. Indeed, the Jetta Hybrid prototype uses the same technology in a transverse layout.

The result of all this advanced technology is that the Touareg Hybrid is both the fastest and most powerful of the line. The Touareg Hybrid will hit 62 mph in 6.5 seconds according to Volkswagen, a full 1.3 seconds faster than either the V-6 gasoline or V-6 diesel models. Thanks to its extra power and roughly 400 pounds of weight savings on all models from the previous generation, the Touareg Hybrid gets 29 miles per gallon on the combined European test cycle. That's considerably better than the 24 combined mpg the gasoline model gets on the Euro-cycle, though not quite as good as the diesel's 32 combined mpg, helped by its impressive highway fuel economy. U.S. numbers haven't been released yet, but it may well best the Lexus RX450h, which returned 23 mpg during a recent Motor Trend comparison. Either way, it should be a substantial improvement on the current model's 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway EPA ratings.

The Touareg Hybrid's power is plenty evident on the road. Though normally docile to save fuel, dropping the hammer will put all 375 ponies and 425 pound-feet to work with gusto. Together, they have no trouble hustling the nearly 5000 pounds they're saddled with, especially when taking off from a stop and while passing. Acceleration is impressive for a vehicle this size, and it carries itself well thanks to double-wishbone independent suspension on all four corners. Adaptive Roll Compensation helps the Touareg stay flat in corners and the supremely comfortable seats offer enough bolstering to keep you from moving around too much in hard corners. It's not a sports car, after all. It should be noted, though, that our test vehicles were equipped with an optional air suspension that will not be offered in the U.S.

Not quite as much can be said for the steering. Though nicely weighted, the meaty steering wheel offers very little detail on the goings-on of the front tires. And while there's no dead spot on center, the steering feels a bit slow and the turning radius isn't anything to write home about. The brakes on the Hybrid model are fairly impressive thanks to aggressive regenerative braking that only engages when you depress the brake pedal, not while coasting. It even becomes more aggressive in Sport Mode to help you brake later in the corners. On non-hybrid models, however, the brakes were less confidence-inspiring with considerable pedal travel and less bite than you would hope for with this much weight to slow down.

When you're not playing around in Sport Mode, Volkswagen has an array of high-tech features to help you get down the road safely. Adaptive Cruise Control works even in stop-and-go situations while a Lane Departure Warning system vibrates the steering wheel when you begin to drift. Another system monitors the vehicle ahead and warns you when a rear-end collision is imminent, while another places sensors all the way around the vehicle to warn you about nearby obstacles you may not see before you hit them. Driving the crowded streets of Florence, though, we found many of these systems to be a bit too aggressive to the point of being irritating in rush hour traffic. The Area View camera system was also slightly disappointing as the perspectives offered on the infotainment screen were more difficult to get used to than similar technologies offered by other automakers, but we're told this system probably won't be offered in the U.S. anyway.

That infotainment system is otherwise unassailable. The user interface is simple and straightforward and the navigation system offers 3D views of the terrain as well as the outlines of buildings. Tapping on a building will even bring up any information available on it, which is typically limited to major landmarks. Also embedded in this system is an optional and impressive Dynaudio stereo backed by a 620-watt amplifier and a 60-gigabyte hard drive.

Complementing the infotainment system is a massive high-resolution, full-color display in the center of the gauge cluster. It can display a number of vehicle functions from hybrid power control to stereo settings to navigation instructions. Most helpful are the pictures of the turn you'll need to execute at the next intersection when using the navigation system, particularly when approaching a European roundabout.

Stepping away from the gizmos, the new Touareg's interior is likewise impressive. On our top-of-the-line testers, the materials quality, design and fitment neared Audi levels and the enlarged interior was certainly noticeable. An inch-and-a-half stretch to the wheelbase gives rear seat passengers an impressive amount of legroom even with tall front seat passengers, and the rear seats are just as comfortable as the fronts. Cargo space is up by one cubic-foot with the rear seats up and 2.5 cubic-feet with them folded to an impressive 58 cubic-feet. A third row seat is still conspicuously absent, and rumor has it that Porsche is to thank for this, as the new Cayenne shares the same platform and Porsche reportedly had no interest in seven-passenger seating. All the better for the rear seat passengers, though, as this means their seats can both slide fore and aft and recline.

The new Touareg will find its way to European showrooms in April, but U.S. customers will have to wait until late October or early November for our models, all of which will be launched simultaneously. Joining the Touareg Hybrid in U.S. showrooms will be two V-6 models, a 276-horsepower 3.6-liter gasoline version that produces 266 pound-feet of torque and a 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel that makes 236 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are carried over from the previous-generation Touareg.

To reduce complexity, Volkswagen has seriously curtailed the packages and options for the new Touareg. Where the current model can be had in up to 170 different combinations, the new model will offer just 12 by packaging popular options together. Just three packages will be offered, one with bi-xenon headlights, navigation, back-up camera and power seats, one with leather, wood trim and a massive panoramic sunroof and one with the Dynaudio sound system, smart key, alarm and heated seats and steering wheel. The first package will come with 18-inch wheels, the second with 19-inch wheels and the third with 20-inch wheels. The Hybrid will be a stand-alone model and fully-optioned. A towing package is also offered.

In the U.S., Touareg sales are currently split roughly in half between gasoline and diesel models, but the introduction of the Hybrid could shake up the mix. As no one has yet offered the same model with both diesel and hybrid options, it's unclear how the hybrid model will affect gasoline and diesel model sales, though Volkswagen says it expects the hybrid to account for three- to five-percent of U.S. sales and five-percent of sales globally. Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but at least a small increase from current prices is expected and the fully-optioned Hybrid model will likely top the range.

Touareg sales have taken a beating over the past few years, first at the hands of $4.00 per gallon gas then from the faltering economy. It ended 2009 with sales down 35 percent while the smaller Tiguan saw sales grow 60 percent over the same time period. The new Touareg is definitely good enough to win back buyers on its own merits, but it remains to be seen how many buyers will flock back to large SUVs as the economy and fuel prices remain unstable. Sales may never again see the record highs of a few years ago, but it won't be because buyers are unhappy with their Touaregs.


2011 Volkswagen Touareg
Base price$45,000-$50,000 (est)
Vehicle layoutFront engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine3.6L/276-hp/266-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6, 3.0L/236-hp/406-lb-ft turbocharged diesel DOHC 24-valve V-6, 3.0L/333-hp/324-lb-ft supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6, plus 47-hp/101-lb-ft electric motor
Transmission8-speed automatic
Curb weight4500-5000 lb (mfr est)
Wheelbase113.9 in
L x W x H188.8 in x 76.4 in x 67.3 in
0-60 mph6.5-7.8 sec (mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econN/A
CO2 emissionsN/A
On sale in U.S.November 2010

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