2012 Volkswagen Touareg Driving Impressions

Each of the three Touareg versions has its own personality and will appeal to drivers with distinct tastes when shopping for an SUV.

The VR6 FSI is the most fun to drive. It's the lightest, by more than 250 pounds versus the next heaviest, the TDI. This makes the VR6 the most responsive to quick steering inputs, taking a set in the suspension more readily and tracking more confidently through corners than its heavier siblings. Comfort-wise on long stretches of straight road, it's the equal of the other two in terms of smooth ride and insulation from pavement seams and potholes. The VR6 is rated at 280 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.

The VR6 is the least fuel-efficient, however, earning EPA ratings of 16/23 City/Highway mpg, or a Combined rating of 19 mpg over a test route's mix of urban, suburban and rural roads. It's the least advanced technologically, though its 3.6-liter gasoline-fueled, multi-valve, electronically managed, narrow-angle V6 isn't exactly Stone Age. The VR6 FSI comes with an 8-speed automatic transmission, which isn't Stone Age, either.

The 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, standard on all models, loses the previous generation's low-range transfer case in favor of a Torsen limited slip rear differential, this mostly with an eye to saving weight, and recognizing that Touareg drivers aren't the type to tackle the rock-strewn tracks and streams of the Rubicon Trail in California's Sierra wilderness. So the previous-generation model is a bit more capable off road.

The V6 TDI Clean Diesel is arguably the slickest of the three. It's a diesel, for one thing, and one that's legal in all 50 states, including California. This is thanks to a technology also used by Mercedes-Benz in its oil burners and comprising a special catalytic converter and injectors that spray a synthetic urea-based solution into the exhaust to cut NOx emissions sufficiently to meet that state's and federal standards. Diesel engines are known more for their torque, which is the ability to get an object moving, than for their horsepower, generally more important for keeping an object moving.

The V6 diesel in the 3.0-liter TDI (turbocharged, direct injection) puts out 406 pound-feet of torque, more than half again as much as the 3.6-liter FSI V6. It manages this on less fuel, with EPA ratings of 19/28 City/Highway, or 22 mpg Combined. That stump-pulling torque does a pretty decent job of motivating the 4,974 pounds the TDI carries around, at least as regards acceleration, which even so feels a tick or two slower than the VR6 FSI. Where the added heft makes itself felt most is with a hint of uncertainty of foot when the going gets twisty, a character trait all three Touaregs' unavoidably high center of gravity magnifies. Both engines have the advantage of being thoroughly debugged, in mechanics and electronics departments.

The V6 TSI Hybrid is the latest entry in the Touareg line and boasts the most sophisticated technology of the three models. The theory behind a hybrid is the internal combustion engine provides most of the motive power and during periods of low demand charges a battery that powers an electric motor that as configured in the Touareg does two things: one, it can be the sole power driving the vehicle at low speeds and under light loads, and two, it can boost the power of the combustion engine when the driver wants that to happen, like when accelerating to pass another vehicle or to merge into fast-moving traffic, like on a freeway. What VW has done with the Touareg Hybrid is combine a supercharged V6 with an electric motor in what's called a full parallel system that allows either power source individually to drive the vehicle and then both to join forces when necessary. What this has yielded is a engine/motor duo that when working together creates V8-like power but uses fuel at an EPA-estimated rate of 20/24 mpg City/Highway, or 21 mpg Combined, which is lower even than a non-supercharged V6 of larger displacement and roughly equal to a turbocharged diesel of equal displacement. Kind of the best, or at least the better, of both worlds, in theory, at least.

For the most part, theory equates with practice on the Touareg Hybrid. Because it will run on the electric motor alone, it starts moving immediately when the driver presses on the accelerator pedal. There's no momentary hesitation while the electronics start the engine before the vehicle can get moving. Also, with gentle pressure on the accelerator, the Touareg Hybrid can be coaxed up to speeds in excess of 25 mph before the V6 almost seamlessly lights off and takes over, easily pushing the Touareg along. That's handy in stop-and-go commuter traffic. The V6 can propel the Touareg at better than socially responsible speeds thanks to the supercharger, which pumps exponentially larger amounts of fuel and air into the engine's combustion chambers as the speed of the engine increases. For overtaking and freeway on-ramps, the motor is ready to kick in, again almost imperceptibly, to augment the engine's power as necessary. Optimizing the engine management system's computing power in the quest for maximum fuel economy, at any speed up to about 100 mph the Touareg Hybrid's engine will turn off when the driver stops pressing on the accelerator, which allows the vehicle to coast, or, as VW terms it, sail. It's a little unnerving the first few times it happens, but after a while, it can become an interesting kind of game, to see just how the engine's computer reads the load on the powertrain. Kudos to VW for fitting an 8-speed automatic, which drives like people expect, instead of the weirdness of the gearless continuously variable transmission, or CVT, used by makers of other hybrids.

Where the Touareg Hybrid suffers most is from the added pounds from all that technology and battery pack. At 5,135 pounds, the Hybrid tips the scales by more than 400 pounds heavier than the VR6 FSI. That's not to say the Hybrid lumbers through corners, but the front tires scrub more than those on the other two models when it enters a corner carrying a bit too much speed. It's also not as agile in transient response when pushed through a series of S-curves, a shortcoming to which the placement of the battery pack in the spare tire well no doubt contributes. This is a small point, given that few Touareg drivers fantasize about being race car drivers, but it does illustrate the compromises that hybrid technology exact.

All three Touaregs run quietly, with equal roadworthiness and little mechanical, road or wind noise invading the people compartment. Doors close with the traditional Germanic thunk.

Braking is solid and sure. Our Hybrid's brakes consistently grabbed abruptly the first few applications most often following a cold start, after which they functioned normally. The Hybrid uses regenerative brakes, which converts the energy generated during braking into electricity to help recharge the hybrid system's battery. The Hybrid stopped with certainty and free of drama every time, but the grabby behavior was irritating.

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