Something New in a Hybrid World

Richard Melick

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This article was originally published in Issue 11 of EuroBerge and has been converted into a post on the site for your enjoyment. It was originally published on April 15th, 2011.

Hybrids: love them or hate them, they are out in force from every  major automotive manufacturers, with many promising that their new design is the end of all driving woes with ever increasing gas prices.  Some, such as the Toyota Prius, are marketed as environmental saviors, while others such as the Porsche 918 RSR, are purpose built race cars.  Then there is the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, newly released to the US market this year, which has truly impressed many in the automotive world not only with its styling, but technology involved.

The styling of the new 2011 Touareg is in keeping with Volkswagens direction of cleaning up lines and simplifying interiors. Gone is the overcomplicated dash with buttons and dials all over the place, replaced by a cleaned up dashboard.  The seats are far more comfortable than the previous years, providing a bit more lumbar support that helps the passengers feel more in tune with the vehicle’s dynamics.

The exterior received a much-needed facelift as well, bringing in many strong styling elements, such as sharp lines in the headlights and a more elegant designed body.  The front end has a more masculine shape to it, almost being a little too Audi-like, but still maintaining a separation that will ensure the two will not get confused.  While just a smidge bigger than previous models, this Touareg has more of a physically dominating presence on the road than years past.

But, it is far beyond the styling that is making this new Touareg so impressive.  It is the drive train being offered, with the technology to back it up.  Mated to a 47-hp electric motor in this SUV is the amazing 3.0 liter supercharge V-6 that is seen in the Audi S4 and S5, all tied to the drive train through an eight speed transmission.  What makes this hybrid different than several others is how the clutch will completely disengage between the engine and transmission, allowing the engine to turn off faster than can be noticed while coasting or at a stop.

Yes, that’s right.  The engine turns off while the vehicle is still moving, all the way up to 100mph.  So if you are coming down Eisenhower pass, you’re only using electric power to maintain control, which is recharged into the system through the regenerative brakes. And when you get to the bottom of the pass and need to head back up the hill, the power-on feels no different than a transmission downshifting.  The only noticeable change between the electric and engine modes are the noise of the engine returns and the tachometer popping to life.

While driving around Fort Collins during rush hour traffic, the hybrid’s true potential came out.  This technology is the perfect mating for our constantly clogged highways and byways, all without sacrificing the power and fun of driving that has been noted with many other hybrids on the roads today.  When demanded, this SUV responded with the full force of the supercharged engine, getting off the line in a very quick manner.  But when driving regularly between jams and stoplights, the hybrid feel was barely noticed, leading to a very smooth drive.

Handling, when compared to the diesel, is slightly weighted, but still sporty enough to handle the curves of the Dragon’s Tail.  And the mating of the full power train to the 4MOTION all -wheel drive has made this vehicle one that can be driven any time of the year, from January heat waves to May blizzards.  And  the suspensions transition between regular and sport mode was just as smooth as years past, but with a much-simplified interface and faster response to the change requests.

While the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid is an amazing vehicle, it still does have its faults.  The first one is a touchy braking system, which comes with the territory of regenerative charging.  While smoother than other hybrids that have been driven, it is something that needs to be improved over the years in order to ensure a seamless transition for drivers being newly introduced to the technology. And once past the learning curve, it is barely noticeable unless heavy braking is necessary.

And the second, and biggest, fault is the most obvious; it’s a hybrid.  Yes, while the technology involved in this vehicle is amazing, the ride is amazing, and the finish is in keeping with the high standards of VW’s premium vehicles, and will hopefully set a new standard for future vehicles, the nagging fact is that the environmental impact that occurs in the construction and eventual deconstruction of the battery system still puts this vehicle in a not-as-favorable category when compared to the TDI model also being released.  But, who knows.  Hopefully in the near future, a cleaner method of battery producing with be developed, and the hybrid’s impact across the board will be much more positive.  Until then though, I am going to take all the creature comforts that the Touareg has to offer, but with the TDI.