First Drive: 2011 Touareg Hybrid

It’s safe to say we were the only hybrid on the dusty off-road trails just off California’s Highway 138 near Silverwood Lake. In fact, we were just about the only vehicle at all that day, save for a Ford F150 that we encountered a couple miles in. The trails out here exist primarily so that the railroads and the gas and electric utilities can access various remote service locations sprinkled throughout the rough hilly terrain that separates the Los Angeles basin from the vast desert of eastern California. In other words, it’s not a place for wimpy vehicles. Luckily, we were in a Volkswagen Touareg.

To be more specific, we were in the 2011 Touareg hybrid, notable not only for the base vehicle’s major fat-trimming overhaul (equivalent new models weigh in some 400 pounds lighter than their previous-generation counterparts) but also for being VW’s first production hybrid vehicle. Like the Porsche Cayenne S hybrid that shares its major structure — and the development costs — the Touareg hybrid combines a compact nickel-metal hydride battery pack and in-line electric motor with a 3.0-liter supercharged V6. An eight-speed automatic trans distributes the power to a full-time all-wheel-drive system.

Like the Cayenne, it can roll along in full electric mode for brief stints depending on the need for power and the battery’s ability to deliver it sufficient quantity. When working in tandem, the gas-electric duo packs 380 horsepower and 425 lb-ft. And yet fuel economy is rated at 20 mpg city and 24 highway, a major stretch from the previous 320-horsepower Touareg V8’s 13 and 18 figures.

Of course, where we’d dragged it, the Touareg’s old-fashioned (if you can really apply that term to something supercharged and direct-injected) combustion engine was doing all the work. Climbing the steep, dusty slopes proved too much of a burden for the electric drivetrain, and it would have quickly depleted to supply of available electrons anyway. Still, the fact we were doing this in a hybrid seemed like a minor victory of sorts. We were, after all, in places highly inaccessible to standard vehicles, if only by nature of some fairly severe approach, breakover and departure angles. At one point we descended a short hill only to arrive at the bottom and discover we would have needed at least two more inches of ground clearance to put the truck back on a new path to our left. VW has done away with the air suspension and low-range transfer case (the major contributors to its former heft). Both of which would have kept us moving forward. As it was, we were forced to back partway up the hill and do a twenty-something-point turnaround to get out.

Off the trails and back on the road to civilization (well, Los Angeles anyway) we were able to take advantage of the hybrid’s elaborate drive system, coasting the downward slope on I-15 back toward Ontario and onto LAX, cruising at 70 mph with the air conditioning on for something like four miles before the engine kicked back on. That was a record stretch, but watching the powertrain monitor on the large color screen in the center console really drew us in to the complexity of the hybrid system, and in no time we fell victim to the dreaded “hybrid driver’s syndrome.” Each tractor-trailer was suddenly an opportunity to draft, and lane priority now went to the one with the most consistent pace, so as to minimize altering the gas pedal’s position in the least. As long as traffic was moving smoothly, the game was now to maximize fuel efficiency for a given speed. It’s a mental challenge, but somehow turned out to be almost as much fun as off-roading the big truck.

The game continued later that evening with a feather-foot run from Hollywood to Malibu on Sunset Boulevard, up the coast highway to Decker Canyon, then back toward Los Angeles on Mullholland Drive. Cruising through LA’s swankier neighborhoods — Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Brentwood — was the sort of roller coaster ride that makes most hybrid drivers whimper inside. For every mile of amazing downhill slalom, there’s a half-mile section of ascent that crushes any gain made by coasting. And so the ride to Malibu had the fuel economy changing directions like a yo-yo. By the time we’d reached sea level in the ‘Bu, the economy gauge read 23.5 — not bad for a two-and-a-half-ton luxury truck after a day of mixed driving. The drive back up through the canyons in the dark was serene, and with no traffic we were free to glide the downhills in the strange and eerie silence.

Like the hybridized Cayenne S, the dual-mode Touareg sacrifices nothing in creature comforts or everyday driveability. The only question remains, is the gain in fuel efficiency enough to justify the $60,565 base price?

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