As one of the German carmakers that has, for years, avoided building hybrids and other electrified vehicles in favor of pursuing a relatively successful turbo diesel strategy, it came as a bit of a surprise when the curtains were lifted from the 2011 Touareg Hybrid early last year. As the company's first ever hybrid, it's a sporty, comfortable and well-appointed SUV ? and it feels nothing like a hybrid.

In fact, it speaks volumes that it is about as far in the spectrum from the Toyota Prius as you can get and still be a hybrid.

 

"Performance Hybrid" No Longer an Oxymoron

While many people associate hybrids with huge gains in fuel economy at the expense of performance, handling and excitement, this notion of the hybrid world is changing quickly. In fact, hybrid drivetrains hold a secret that most consumers are unaware of: when properly configured, the electrified portion of a hybrid can deliver a boost that makes a four-cylinder engine perform like a V6, or a V6 perform like a V8. Think of it like turbocharging a vehicle with electrons.

As the hybrid world has matured and different market strategies have emerged, many luxury and high-end manufacturers are choosing this performance hybrid route as a way to meet new emissions standards yet still deliver the performance that their customer base demands. Infiniti's new M35h also falls into this category ? but while the M35h delivers decent fuel economy and good performance, the Touareg Hybrid leeches every last drop of performance out of its batteries that it can and makes little pretense to save fuel.

In the 2011 Touareg Hybrid, Volkswagen has mated a 47 horsepower electric motor to a sporty 333 hp supercharged 3.0-liter V6 engine borrowed from the Audi S4. The electric motor is powered by a 1.7 kWh battery stuffed where the spare tire would normally go. Together the combination provides 380 hp, the performance of a V8, the fuel economy of a V6, and one heck of an exhilarating ride.

Throw in 4MOTION all-wheel drive, a healthy dose of off-road capability and a 7,700 pound towing capacity, and the V6 fuel economy actually starts to look pretty good.

 

A Bit of Green for Good Measure

To be sure, the Touareg Hybrid does have some nifty features that make it stand out even among the fuel saving crowd. At speeds up to about 37 mph it can operate on battery power alone. When the battery is fully charged (after regenerative braking coming down a long hill for instance), the car can travel between one and two miles on level ground at a constant speed before the engine has to kick on.

The Touareg Hybrid also has another nice trick up its sleeve. While cruising at highway speeds the engine can completely shut off when the vehicle is coasting ? slowing down behind traffic or rolling downhill for instance. Not only does this save fuel, it makes for a few moments of blissfully quiet driving. Even with these features, the vehicle never returned more than about 19.8 mpg in the city and 24.5 mpg on the highway in a week of mixed driving ? very close to the EPA estimated 20 city/24 highway mpg.

 

Pricing Gets Competitive

Configuring a Touareg Hybrid is extremely simple given that there are essentially no options to choose from aside from a trailer hitch for an extra $500. In fact, this simplicity has in large part allowed VW to bring the price of the 2011 Touareg down from the astronomically high prices of the previous generation. While an opening bid of $60,565 may still sound like a lot for an SUV, consider that the previous V10-powered Touareg could be had for nearly $80,000 back in 2008.

Even without options the 2011 Touareg Hybrid is nicely equipped with most of the luxuries a consumer would expect in a $60,000 vehicle: panoramic sunroof, wood trim, heated leather seats, Xenon headlights, LED running lights, touchscreen navigation, rain sensing wipers, rearview camera and many other amenities.

 

All told, the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid provides almost exactly what you would expect from a V8 powered luxury SUV ? but with V6 fuel economy. When viewed as a complete package, including impressive towing capacity and off-road capabilities, the Touareg Hybrid is quite a bit better than most other large hybrids on the road ? and does so with luxury amenities unbeaten by all but the VW's sister, the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid.

If it's fuel economy you're looking for, you'd be better off looking elsewhere. But in terms of raw performance mixed with functionality, style, grace and modest efficiency, the 2011 Touareg Hybrid delivers in droves.

author photo

Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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