Test Driving Volkswagen's First Hybrid Vehicle: The 2011 Touareg


Photo via MotorTrend
VW's 2011 Touareg Hybrid
The 2010 Geneva Motor Show was filled with so many splashy auto announcements--Porsche's first ever plug-in hybrid, a new Audi mini-car, new EV concepts aplenty, etc--that when Volkswagen unveiled its first ever hybrid, hardly anyone seemed to notice. But I noticed. Partly because we at TreeHugger make it a point to notice such things. And partly because I was in Geneva on VW's dime to test drive the thing. Point is, VW's new Touareg SUV comes in a hybrid option, and it gets up to 27 mpg. Which is pretty damn good, for an SUV. Here's how the test drive went down. First things first: the Touareg line. VW's been making the 4-door SUV since 2003, and it's been a modest seller at best. To date, it's moved 500,000 units--not exactly earth shattering, but not peanuts either. It seems clear that VW is hoping to shake things up a bit with this redesign and overhaul: not only is the new Touareg available as a hybrid, but as a clean diesel TDI as well. I'll bet VW is hoping to garner some attention from the greener corners of the media (like this one) and in so doing, help revise and update the model's cache.

The question(s) then, is will it work, and does it deserve to?

Driving the Touareg Hybrid
Well, it's a sharp looking vehicle. That much is undeniable--it's beautifully designed, and in my humble opinion, it's definitely one of the better-looking, more elegantly styled SUVs out there. It's got a spacious interior, all-out offering of well-functioning electronic features (including a nifty rear-view cam for backing up, automatically adjusting rear-view mirrors, and a steering wheel that vibrates when you drift out of your lane), and superb handling. And it felt powerful and responsive to boot. These qualities, after all, are why people buy SUVs.

As for green stats, the Touareg is a parallel hybrid, with regenerative brakes charging the battery pack. It gets between up to 27 mpg on the highway and 20 in the city, has an 8-speed automatic transmission that provides additional efficiency from standard transmissions, and can be driven up to 31 mph in purely electric mode. It emits 193 g/km.

It gets a combined 380 hp from both motors (47 from the electric assist), and offers 425 pound-feet of torque. And you could feel it behind the wheel.

My driving partner and I both found that the brakes were a little sticky, and overly sensitive--as many hybrids' brakes are prone to be. But it's nothing I felt I wouldn't get used to rather easily. I had no other complaints behind the wheel, and driving the Touareg was truly enjoyable.

The Lingering Question About VW's SUV Hybrid
But for the entire duration of the press trip, I was unable to get a truly satisfactory answer for one pressing question--why an SUV? Why was VW making its first hybrid car offering a variant of a gas-guzzling, still relatively inefficient SUV?

When I spoke to VW's product communications officer, he told me that SUVs were just the cars that stood to make the most improvement in fuel economy--where the hybrid tech could make the most difference. Okay, I thought--maybe, combined with an effort to reboot the Touareg's image, that could be part of the answer.

While adding hybrid technology to an SUV doesn't seem like the boldest way to signal a commitment to providing cleaner cars to consumers, it does make sense, given VW's corporate culture. Take the company's electric strategy--the plan is to offer EV versions of already-existing car models in incremental numbers over coming years, as opposed to producing just one flashy EV or EV hybrid model to make a symbolic offering to the market. While not necessarily demonstrating an exciting vision for the cars of the future, the strategy seems pragmatic and realistic--and adding a significant fuel economy boost to an SUV it was producing anyways seems to fit that vision.

As for the hybrid SUV itself, I'm a little torn on the subject. Yes, it's an SUV, and could never really be considered a truly clean car solution, and yes, it'd be great if people decided they didn't need to drive behemoth cars unless they had to tow a trailer. But yes, consumers (especially Americans) are going to continue to buy luxurious SUVs for the foreseeable future--and as long as they're doing so, might they not as well be driving as fuel efficient an SUV as possible? If people who otherwise would've bought a Ford Explorer can be persuaded to go for a hybrid Touareg, ultimately it's a good thing.

More on Volkswagen's Clean Car Strategy
Volkswagen Plans to Sell 300000 Electric Cars a Year by 2018
More Details: Volkswagen Turbo Diesel- Electric Hybrid Golf

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Hybrid Cars | Oil | Transportation