Known for its fine, diesel-powered vehicles with noteworthy fuel economy, Germany's Volkswagen AG is adding a gasoline-electric hybrid sport utility model for 2011.
It's not that VW is turning against diesels. The automaker is covering all the bases, particularly in the United States where hybrids like the Toyota Prius have been a growing market segment for a decade.
VW's first mass-production hybrid _ the 2011 Touareg Hybrid _ is selling alongside the 2011 diesel-powered Touareg TDI and the non-hybrid, gasoline-powered Touareg FSI.
But it's the Touareg Hybrid that will rank highest in city mileage, according to company estimates.
The hybrid model also retains the Touareg's hardy 7,700-pound towing capacity and full-time four-wheel drive while being loaded with standard luxury amenities like leather-trimmed seats, panoramic roof, heated steering wheel and seats and a navigation system with a huge dashboard display.
It is, in many respects, the most technologically advanced of all VWs and incorporates a supercharged V-6 _ borrowed from the sporty Audi S4 _ that's ready to deliver impressive power. Parent company VW owns luxury brand Audi.
The VW hybrid also has a new, eight-speed automatic transmission with two "eco" modes for fuel-efficient driving, regenerative braking that captures energy so it can be stored for later use by the onboard electric motor, and automatic shutting off of the engine when it's not needed.
Not surprisingly, the new Touareg Hybrid carries the highest starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of all 2011 VWs: $61,385. This compares with the $45,270 starting retail price for the gasoline-only-powered 2011 Touareg and the $48,770 starting retail price of the 2011 turbodiesel Touareg.
Competitors to the Touareg Hybrid include the 2011 Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid SUV, which starts at $56,665, and the 2011 Lexus RX 450h, which starts at $44,110.
While there are some minor updates to the Touareg exterior _ for example, new light-emitting diode lighting accents the headlights now _ most significant changes for 2011 are under the metal.
VW changed the suspension, softening it a bit for better on-road driving and lessening the focus on off-road duties. The reason: Officials said U.S. consumers perceive that off-road vehicles can be harsh-riding on pavement. Besides, not many American Touareg drivers go off-road. So, for 2011, the Touaregs have swapped out some heavy-duty suspension components and added a lighter-weight Torsen differential. Steel springs remain in the suspension, and several off-road electronic aids, such as hill descent control, are still there.
But the net effect is a smooth, firm-riding, lighter-weight Touareg _ by at least 330 pounds _ than last year.
Passengers were comfortable in the five-seat tester, and the interior was quiet enough to keep most road noises out of the cabin.
Note the Touareg has grown slightly in length and width, helping to provide better passenger room. For example, rear seats now have 2.7 more inches of knee room.
I've enjoyed the Touareg TDI with 3-liter turbo, direct injection diesel V-6. For 2011, it delivers 406 foot-pounds of torque starting at a low 1,750 rpm. Horsepower is just 165, but the nearly 16-foot-long 2011 turbodiesel Touareg sprints energetically from stoplights and has a fuel economy rating of 19 miles per gallon in the city and a commendable 28 mpg on the highway. This easily tops the 16/23-mpg rating of the base, non-hybrid, gasoline-powered Touareg FSI whose torque maxes out at 265 foot-pounds from 3,000 to 4,000 rpm.
Now, though, the new Touareg Hybrid offers more torque than the diesel-powered Touareg. Plus, drivers don't need to search for filling stations that sell diesel. Specifically, the Touareg Hybrid is rated at 428 combined foot-pounds of torque from the gas-electric powerplant. Combined horsepower is 279. Yet the expected fuel mileage rating for the hybrid is 21/25 mpg, which is competitive, overall, with the diesel model.
The city mileage, in particular, is strong because the hybrid can travel on electric power only in short, lower-speed spurts. And the engine turns off when the vehicle is stopped at traffic lights, thereby saving fuel.
My gasoline mileage in the Touareg Hybrid wasn't far off the mark from the estimated government rating _ 20.1 mpg in combined city/highway driving.
Still, in test driving, the Touareg Hybrid zipped along as if it was far lighter than its 5,135 pounds. It went up hills with gusto and could easily have been mistaken for a "regular" gas-powered car except for one thing _ the brakes.
They were difficult to modulate for smooth, even braking. Sometimes they'd work predictably and let me slow and then stop as I wanted. Sometimes, though, they'd grab. It has to do with the regenerative braking work that goes on, and I've noticed this tendency in earlier hybrid vehicles from other automakers. I guess VW officials will need to adjust these over time and as owners point out the issue.
The big center dashboard monitor provided lots of feedback about the workings of the electric motor and the charge status of the battery pack.
And the wood-swathed center console, high ride height above the pavement and nicely crafted interior made for a comfortable, upscale atmosphere.
The nickel metal hydride battery pack is in back, under the cargo floor, where a spare tire usually is located. There's no spare in the hybrid, just a patch kit for the 19-inch tires.
Safety features are standard, including antilock brakes, electronic stability control, curtain air bags, hill descent control and anti-whiplash front seatbacks and head restraints.
The Touareg won't be the last gas-electric hybrid from VW. Company officials expect to add a hybrid car, probably a Jetta, in 2012.