2011 VW Touareg

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The just-redesigned 2011 VW Touareg offers direct-injected, diesel – and combination direct injection-hybrid-electric powerplants.

You can get as much as 425 lbs.-ft.of torque – and 380 hp.

But you won’t get more than 28 MPG – 24 MPG if you pick the hybrid.

Yeah, I have questions too… .

WHAT IT IS

The Touareg is VW’s medium-sized (5 passenger, two row) crossover SUV. The base model VR6 Sport has an MSRP sticker price of $44,450. A diesel-powered Touareg TDI starts at $47,950.

A top-of-the-line Hybrid tops out at $60,565.

VW says the Touareg is built to compete against other sporty crossover SUVs with luxury brand aspirations, such as the GMC Acadia and also the Acura MDX.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Touareg has been completely redesigned from the wheels up. It is larger outside – and roomier inside – but lighter by more than 400 pounds. It loses its heavy-duty 4WD system (responsible for much of the weight loss) but gains numerous on-road enhancements such as a super-smooth (and economy-enhancing) eight-speed automatic transmission, back seats that recline, a programmable electric-assist tailgate that you can set to whatever opening height you like – and a new 60 GB music storage hard drive.

WHAT’S GOOD

Buck Rogers technology – including a “sail” feature in hybrid versions that automatically turns off the gas engine and disconnects it from the drive wheels when you’re coasting or going downhill. Works at speeds as high as 75 MPH. 

GTI-like steering precision; confident high-speed cornering feel.

Multiple engine/drivetrain choices.

Superior towing capacity.

Luxury brand fit, finish and attention to details.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Technologically heroic hybrid maxes out at 24 MPG highway. My ’76 Trans-Am 455 does about the same. A Lexus RX450h’ll get 32 city, 28 highway – and only costs $43,935, too. 

New lighter-duty 4Motion AWD system not as rugged as the original Touareg’s 4X system, which had locking center and rear differentials.

Luxury brand price without the luxury car status. Pushing $50k to start – easy to get well over $50 with a few optional extras. Meanwhile, a new Acura MDX starts at $42,580. Or you could get a top-of-the-line 2011 GMC Acadia Denali for $43,220.

Holy Phaeton!

UNDER THE HOOD

Three drivetrain choices are now available – one of the areas where the new Touareg has a leg up over the one-engine-only Acura MDX and GMC Acadia. 

The first – and standard engine –  is a direct-injected (FSI) 280 hp 3.6 liter gas V-6. Though slightly less powerful than the Acadia’s standard (and only) 3.6 liter, 288 hp V-6 and the MDX’s tandard (and only) 300 hp, 3.7 liter V-6, the VW’s V-6 gets the Touareg to 60 in about 7.3-7.4 seconds, just a tenth or two behind the MDX (7.1-7.2 seconds) and several tenths quicker than the lumbering (because much heavier) GMC Acadia, which gets there – eventually – in 7.8-8.0 seconds.

Fuel economy with the 3.6 liter engine is pegged at 16 city, 23 highway – about par relative to other in this segment. The MDX, for instance, comes in at 16 city, 21 highway; the Acadia at 17/24.

The major downside to the FSI V-6 is that premium fuel is recommended to obtain this performance. (The GMC drinks regular; the MDX requires premium). You don’t have to feed it premium, but if you don’t, the computer will dial back the power and you’ll notice a downtick in performance and possibly gas mileage, too. 

Next up is the turbo’d, intercooled and direct injected (TDI) 3 liter diesel V-6 that produces 225 hp and 406 lbs.-ft. of torque. The Touareg is one of the few SUVs – few vehicles, period – you can buy in the U.S. with a diesel powerplant. It’s also an ideal powerplant for a vehicle of this type because so much grunt is available down low (torque peak at 1,750 RPM). It also gets the best mileage of all the Touaregs – including the hybrid Touareg. Its 28 highway is 4 MPG better than the hybrid’s best-effort 24 MPG. City mileage (19 MPG) is a dead heat (20 for the hybrid).

The diesel itself is the same engine as last year, but because the vehicle it’s in is new – and 400-plus pounds lighter – performance is much improved. The ’11 TDI Touareg gets to 60 in about 7.8 seconds vs. 8.7 seconds last year.

Also, this is a “50 state” diesel; available countrywide and not just in a few states. That’s the upside. The downside is you have to periodically top off the “Adblue” fluid (urea) to maintain the engine’s emissions control system. VW says the tank will typically need to be topped off roughly every 5,000 miles. A warning indicator will come on if the system runs low. If you let it run dry, the system will prevent the engine from being restarted until the tank is filled up – so pay attention to the light/warning! 

The third drivetrain option is a brand-new for 2011 hybrid set-up that combines a supercharged 3.0 liter gas burning V-6 with an electric motor/battery pack. Total output is a claimed 380 hp and 428 lbs.-ft of torque.

This one’s an odd duck.

Functionally, it provides much better performance than fuel economy. It’ll do 0-60 in just over 6 seconds, making this version of the Touareg the quickest version of the Touareg. But it’s also the least economical (20 city/24 highway) and – by far – the most expensive. (More on all this below.) 

A new eight-speed automatic is the standard transmission with all the Touareg’s engines.

4Motion all-wheel-drive is standard, too.

Max tow capacity is 7,700 lbs. – much stronger than most others in this segment. The Acadia, for example, tops out at 5,200 lbs. The MDX just 5,000. The Lexus RX hybrid is downright puny – registering a sad 3,500 lb. max tow capacity.

ON THE ROAD

The diet has definitely helped.

Dropping almost 450 pounds from the Touareg’s curb weight does just what you’d expect it would. Acceleration is noticeably better across the line and even more noticeably, it feels less ponderous taking curves. No, wait. I take that back. The ’11 Touareg doesn’t feel ponderous, period. It is one of the least SUV-like SUVs I have driven to date. The Porsche relationship (Touareg and Cayenne are corporate cousins) is a kinship no other SUV has. Most – no all of them – are either based on clunky trucks or FWD cars. None have supercar DNA coursing through their veins.

Except the Touareg.

Some potential buyers may miss the off-road capability of the previous Touareg’s heavier-duty 4WD system with its locking center and rear differentials and other rugged features. But VW acted on the reality that most actual buyers aren’t going to be mud-bogging or rock-climbing; they just don’t want to get stuck trying to make it up the driveway. For this, the 4Motion system is more than sufficient – and then some.

It has a simple two-mode setting. On road is for on-road driving; off-road changes throttle tip-in and other parameters to provide better control on loose/slippery surfaces such as gravel roads. Included with this sysem is Hill Dsecent Control, which kicks in automatically to help keep the Touareg from picking up excessive speed on those gravel roads/slippery surfaces; no need to ride the brakes (and possibly overheat them). The system will handle it all for you.

On the road, the benefits of the new eight-speed automatic are as obvious as the loss of a Chevy small block V-8’s worth of deadweight. The top two gears function as double overdrives, to cut revs and engine noise at highway speeds. (Huge rubber-isolator engine/subframe mounts help here, too).

You can run 80 MPH and the engine seems to be barely running, which is just what it’s doing. At 70-80 mph, the tach reads around 2,000 RPM, barely above fast idle.

In hybrid versions, the gas engine cuts off entirely – and stays off at speeds as high as 75 MPH (when you’re coasting or going downhill). It can also operate in electric mode (gas engine off) at steady speeds up to about 35 MPH.

AT THE CURB

Though it’s bigger (and roomier) than before it doesn’t look it.

The ’11 model is 1.6 inches longer, about half an inch wider and rides on a more generous (113.9 inch) wheelbase (vs. 112.4 inches) than before.

Bringing it lower to the ground (the new model sits 7.9 inches off the pavement vs. 8.3 inches in 2010) and giving its exterior panels an almost GTI-like smoothed/rounded shape counterbalance the physically larger profile of the ’11 and even make it seem less hulky than the actually smaller 2010 version. 

It’s not as macho, maybe – but it also more elegant. There are hints of the Cayenne bloodline in the molded exhaust tips that follow the contours of the lower filler panel out back and the hungry-looking air intakes on either side of the main grille up front.

Inside, there’s about an inch more headroom vs. last year’s model and – more noticeably – more than two inches of additional shoulder room (59.8 inches vs. 57.7 before).

Cargo capacity is about the same at 70.9 cubes total.

The VW has a more intimate/personal feel to its cabin than models like the MDX and (more so) the GMC Acadia. But it also has less people-carrying and cargo-carrying ability. On the other hand, it has enough towing grunt to rip the frames off those competitors, too,

THE REST

I hated just one thing about the new Touareg and that was the ultra-annoying ignition switch system on the base model. It’s a familiar key/turn deal, but I literally could not get the damn thing to release the key on the first try during the entire week I had the Touareg. It has an electronic lock that stays locked unless you manage to finesse its unlocking protocol exactly right, which I never managed to do. You turn the engine off, but the key won’t let go. So you re-start the engine (multiple times, sometimes) until you get it just right and the damn thing lets you have the key.

All I can say is, Hulk Smash! And – definitely spring for the optional push-button/keyless ignition. 

Also: There’s that I Just Don’t Get It factor when it comes to the hybrid version of the Touareg. VW touts the “green” performance of this model. Performance I’ll buy. It hauls ass. But green? C’mon. Do people who spend $60k on a vehicle even need to think about gas mileage?  I know some like to pose as Friends o’ the Planet. But c’mon now.    

On the other hand, I do understand that even a handful of MPGs matters as far as VW’s (and any other car company’s) CAFE compliance math is concerned. The Feds have decreed that all new passenger vehicles – note carefully, not just passenger cars but all passenger vehicles – shall average 35 MPG by 2016.

Or Else.

Or Else being heavy “gas guzzler” fines tacked onto the car’s price and passed on to you.

So, while VW could have much more easily (and let’s be honest, cost-effectively) put a V-8 into the Touareg to deliver super SUV performance, the result would have been, to paraphrase Ross Perot, a gigantic sucking sound. The hybrid’s 20-24 MPG looks pretty good – well, ok – compared with the 12-18 MPG a similarly high-performing V-8 T-Reg would likely have delivered.

So, there’s your answer – and mine, too.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The weak link here – not just with the hybrid version – is price. The ’11 Touareg is definitely nice. But is it $50k (and then some) nice? At $38k or so, this thing’d be the pick of the proverbial litter, especially the TDI version.

But will people pay what VW is asking… for a VW

No offense meant. Just a reality check. 

Throw it in the Woods?

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