The new Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid isn't the first hybrid SUV, but as the first modern hybrid from Volkswagen Group it might be the most technically advanced. As you know, hybrid SUVs have been on the market for years now. Toyota, Lexus, Ford and General Motors -- even BMW -- have added hybrid SUVs to their stables. Now Volkswagen is joining the hybrid parade with an all-new hybrid version of its popular Touareg SUV, and, not surprisingly, VW has decided to take a different course than its competitors. The Touareg Hybrid is one of three Touareg models that will be offered in the United States, and it deviates substantially from "conventional" hybrids we've seen up to now in several respects. The most blatant is the use of a supercharged (yes, we said supercharged) 3.0-liter direct-injection gasoline engine, which is coupled to an electric motor and nickel metal-hydride battery pack. The combined horsepower of the engine-plus-motor is 380, enough to earn a 7,700-pound towing capacity. In fact, retaining serious towing capacity was one of the VW engineers' key design goals, and it seems that goal trumped achieving an eye-popping fuel economy number. Counter-intuitively, one of the other 2011 versions of the Touareg, equipped with the 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 TDI(r) Clean Diesel engine, offers substantially better highway fuel economy than the Hybrid. But the Hybrid is definitely the technological leader among the three versions.

Driveline engineered for driving enjoyment

In addition to the supercharged engine, the Touareg Hybrid differs from typical hybrids in other ways as well. While hybrids typically use a continuously variable transmission, VW engineers didn't like the driving feel offered by such a set-up, so they opted to use an eight-speed automatic transmission, which is standard now across the Touareg lineup. Of course, the driveline is substantially altered with the addition of hybrid components. When the driver releases the accelerator pedal, a special clutch disengages the engine from the transmission allowing the engine to be shut down while the vehicle coasts. That's a boon to fuel economy, and it may help you recall those carefree days when you rode your wagon down the hill. Regenerative braking also helps the vehicle recover energy, extending its range. The various technical niceties allow the new Touareg Hybrid to achieve 23 miles per gallon on the EPA's combined cycle and 25 miles per gallon on the highway. In the context of all hybrids that might not seem all that impressive, especially when the TDI (diesel) version offers 28 mpg on the highway, but if your routine includes substantial amounts of urban and/or stop-and-go driving you might find your real-world fuel economy might outdo that of a comparable TDI version...or not.

Ground-up renewal of entire Touareg line

The entire Touareg line has been redesigned from the ground up for the 2011 model year, and there's much more to it than three impressive engine/driveline choices. (Of the three, the biggest seller will undoubtedly by the 3.6-liter V6 FSI(r) gasoline engine that offers 23 mpg highway/16 mpg city EPA estimates, a combined 19 percent improvement over the previous model.)  As is typical German automaker practice, Volkswagen has completely changed the exterior of the Touareg while at the same time making the changes so subtle that at first glance the new one seems like the old one. Looking closer, it actually looks like a handsomer, more chiseled older brother of the previous version, thanks to a longer wheelbase, wider overall stance and slightly lower roofline. Speaking of the roof, an available panoramic sunroof offers 350 percent more area than the sunroof in the previous model.

Interior filled with amenities

Inside, VW spent a great deal of time enhancing the already luxurious feel of the previous model's cabin. The cross-stitched dash and redesigned leather seats are two prominent examples of the attention to detail. Another big-deal item is the standard premium RNS850 touch screen radio-navigation system. It features a substantial 8-inch screen, with a DVD/CD player that has MP3 playback capabilities and satellite/FM/AM stereo, and its 60 gigabyte hard-drive partitions 18 gigabytes of space to upload media. The glovebox houses access for iPod(r) or auxiliary input, SD cards and a DVD drive. The infotainment system is supplemented by a 7-inch screen in mid-dash that can display navigation info, vehicle systems' status and specialized Hybrid-model data.

Fun-to-drive hybrid -- really

After having extensive drive time in all three versions of the Touareg in the south of France, we can attest to the fact that we really like the south of France...and we really like the tradeoffs VW made in putting the new Touareg together. One significant move was to eschew some off-road capabilities for better on-road manners and higher fuel economy, and we think VW buyers will be happy that trade was made. With any of the three drivetrains, the 2011 Touareg is a delight to drive. Its handling is predictable, ride comfortable yet taut and it is noticeably quiet inside. (Yes, even in diesel form.)  Depending upon powertrain, each of the three Touareg flavors has slightly different pluses to offer. If pressed, we'd have to admit that our preference is for the clean-diesel TDI with its immense torque, but the Hybrid is remarkable in its ability to meld a variety of technologies into a coherent and very fun-to-drive whole.

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