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2012 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid Road Test

Ambitiously overengineered, magnificently powerful. Plus, you can climb a mountain with it.

What It Is
A roomy, surprisingly luxurious SUV for families of middle-class and medium-size.
Best Thing
Techno-savvy, looks good covered in dirt, a powertrain worthy of Wagner.
Worst Thing
No third-row seating, no backup camera, a price worthy of Rothschild.
Snap Judgement
An excellently overbuilt, if confused, SUV.


El Mirage, 2 hours northeast of Los Angeles, is famous for its dry lakebed, an endorheic basin of tightly-packed clay and sand, six miles long, one of the last few places on Earth with no speed limit. Pay 15 bucks for a day pass and drive as fast and flirt with as much danger as your nerves can take. Decades of hot rodders from the Southern California Timing Association know how exciting it is here: a better entertainment deal than anything invented in Las Vegas, just a horizon away.

We were there in a 2012 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, cheekily devising the notion that 174 lbs of nickel-metal hydride can go pound sand, in the politest way possible. The edge of the Mojave Desert is an unusual place for a brand-new hybrid SUV to end up -- outside of a car commercial -- but the Touareg would prove to be a good fit, we would find, owing to its authoritative engineering and surprising capabilities.

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How overengineered is the Touareg? Most hybrid cars and even SUVs pair a small-displacement gasoline engine up to their battery packs. Something like a four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine, chosen for its maximum fuel-sipping characteristics and displacing less than a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. Not Volkswagen. The Touareg Hybrid, the company's largest vehicle, starts with a 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 engine, the same one from the fiery Audi S4, the Teutonic He-Man of four-ringed enthusiasts everywhere. Combined with the parallel-hybrid electric motor and 288-volt nickel-hydride battery pack, it uses its hybrid leanings much like Barry Bonds uses needles. How does 380 horsepower and enough torque -- 428 ft-lbs -- to yank one of Jupiter's smaller moons from its orbit sound? A performance hybrid in the fullest sense of the word, it's the most powerful vehicle in the Touareg's lineup. Volkswagen takes advantage of this electric boost in the same way that a 10-year old might imagine a car of tomorrow with two engines.

This is a car of unexpected excess, the sort you'd never expect from the Volkswagen of your grandpa's era. Driving up the 3-percent grade of the Cajon Pass with the air conditioning on full blast and the cruise control at 75 mph, it still summons passing power as effortlessly as Donald Trump ordering at Famous Famiglia's. It will slide across gravel and climb over an even steeper grade than Cajon with the force of Roosevelt up San Juan. And its efficiency isn't even that justified: it manages a total of 20 miles per gallon city, and 24 mpg highway -- a mere 3 mpg more than the V-6 model in city mode, and 1 precious, valuable mpg more on the highway.

What We Drove

At $62,980, the Touareg Hybrid is definitely a car you want to buy with the greatest of commitment. The most expensive vehicle in the Touareg lineup, the Hybrid slots in between the Lux and Executive trim levels, giving it such features as xenon headlights, 19-inch wheels, keyless entry, a panoramic sunroof, Vavona wood trim that looks close enough to the genuine article, 12-way powered and heated seats trimmed in supple Vienna leather, parking sensors (but no backup camera, an egregious omission in this case), and a touchscreen navigation system with Bluetooth and satellite radio. Rear-seat passengers also get heated seats, as well as their own air conditioning and climate controls. For driving, our Hybrid put down power via an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, and it also featured Hill Descent Control like all Touaregs do.

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The Commute

Like a high schooler aiming for Princeton, every surface of this Touareg is designed to impress. The switchgear has a heft to it missing from most modern cars. The dashboard is molded from one long, expansive piece, and all the vents and screens are placed with infallible, ergonomically apt, straight-lined logic. The wood trim adds a touch of levity to our blackened interior -- whether it's real wood or not is an irrelevant question. The touchscreen navigation is responsive, and the audio system sounds slightly flat but packs plenty of power.

The leather thrones are soft and sufficiently supportive, but some on staff complained about not being able to find a good seating position despite all the power adjustability. And for some reason, the split center console opens with the heft of molasses, an elbow rest for the skinny-armed.

Overall, every interaction with this SUV has been coated with a slick, expensive-feeling veneer. We can only pray that unlike the Jetta and Passat, the next Touareg doesn't face the same cost-cutting fate as its sedan siblings.

The Grocery Run

The Touareg packs a whopping 64 cubic feet of room with the rear seats folded, but the lack of third-row seating for a vehicle of this size puts it in strictly limited competition. (Its luxury competitors, the Acura MDX and BMW X5, all pack more rows for die kinder.) But rear room is vast, with large windows providing excellent visibility; the panoramic roof invites in a certain airiness belying the hefty, blocky pillars. Likewise, rear room is bountiful, and even middle-seaters are treated to good hip room and a low center hump for their feet.

The rear seats fold at the touch of a button, a luxury touch deigned for the masses, but the seatbacks never come down flat. LATCH points are incongruously buried deep into the seat cushions but, there are plastic clips provided to snap onto the metal loops, for easier access without an entirely unique level of hand contortion. Nothing gets past these guys, right? Also in back are a fold-out reflective triangle, a first-aid kit, and a high-visibility jacket, perfect for impromptu renditions of the Safety Dance.

The Touareg Hybrid doesn't come with a backup camera, a planetary-wide screwup on par with leaving the engines off a Boeing product. Instead, it gets a series of hypersensitive parking sensors which beep errantly and noisily whenever a curb approaches, a car passes, if a leaf drops nearby, etc. The Touareg isn't the easiest vehicle to park, but we imagine the sensor engineers were the same frantic lot who inserted the warning chime that sounds when you're parked without a seatbelt.

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The Weekend Fun

The Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid's drivetrain is a sufficient primer to educate -- responsibly, of course -- your LATCH-bolted kiddies in back about the wonders of torque. Power delivery begins somewhere around when you climb in the driver's side door, and doesn't abate until the tachometer reaches its redline or you take the key out of its slot. The engine barely has to work: the electric motor is putting down at least 50 percent of power at all times, leaving the gasoline engine to relax on the highway. Passing is effortless. The start-stop function isn't the most refined at intersections, nor is the clicking of the gasoline engine when it comes on. But it drove, stopped, and turned in a manner unbefitting of its 5,135-pounds of weight -- a notion the Germans typically excel at. Quiet and comfortable, as unassailable as the Graf Zeppelin running into geese over the North Atlantic.

When it came to subject the Touareg to dirt, well -- it performed with all of the overengineering gusto that we've so far gushed over. The second iteration of the Touareg leaves Americans with precious few off-roading equipment: no locking differentials, no adjustable terrain settings, no air suspension that brings the SUV to a teetering 12 inches of ground clearance. Volkswagen rightfully assumed that nobody would spend the money -- if you're looking for a desert rig, we hear Jeeps are still "Trail Rated."

But if your excursions happen to involve driving up 20-degree inclines at the El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, then boy have we got a deal for you. The Touareg still has excellent approach and departure angles, and while its stock ground clearance of 8 inches might not allow for river fording, it will tackle jagged shards of feldspathic quartzite, 3,300 feet up. The sure-footed 4Motion intelligent four-wheel drive system routes power to individual wheels via a Torsen center differential; it holds tenaciously and complains little. Concerns that the hybrid system would roast in its own battery casings evaporated with the desert heat. Lord knows what brutality Volkswagen's engineers treated the Touareg Hybrid's drivetrain in the Mojave Desert, and our brief desert sojourn with the SUV paled in comparison.

Summary

Our week with the Touareg (and my weekend) left us with a vehicle seemingly in the middle of contradictions. What is the Touareg, exactly? Is it a family hauler, is it a rapper-worthy luxury SUV, is it a dreary crossover with an incomprehensible name, is it trail-rated? Volkswagen ranks the Touareg against Acura, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW -- which is, you know, where the mechanically similar Audi Q7 city mouse plays. To an extent, the Porsche Cayenne is also a competitor, though don't expect that company's marketing department make rosy-cheeked mentions to its plebian bones.

The Touareg reaches for that same vaunted luxury as the dearly departed Phaeton: a manifestation of Volkswagen's Freudian desires to build a proper Range Rover, a luxury SUV in a segment not particularly known for its luxury. The Honda Pilot, for example, an excellent three-row SUV with the same dimensions and modest dirt-road capability, is fully twenty-grand lower in cost than the Touareg we drove, with the same gravel-crushing solidity. The German companies no longer have a premium on invincible-feeling capsules of steel, because the Americans had that first. But the Germans do have their unique tendency to pull niches out of thin air -- one imagines that the Touareg plays in that near-luxury, near-practical Twilight Zone of automotive cross-pollination. If that's a combination that happens to suit you, then a call to Deutschland is precisely what you need.

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Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $61,980
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 20 mpg
EPA Highway: 24 mpg
EPA Combined: 21 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 554.4 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"At $61k, this thing is a platypus: It has no real category for what it is, and VW needs a better-defined vehicle to sell in the kinds of volume it wants. I can't fault too much in an objective sense with this vehicle, but on a subjective level, I don't think it's very competitive." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"The VW Touareg doesn't feel very special or unique, but it feels very, very nice. I thought it would be more run of the mill like a GMC, but in my mind, the interior outclasses nearly everything we have driven. I was more comfortable in the XC60, and the RX350 was flashier and plusher, but the Touareg is more impressive in an understated manner." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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