Rating: 8.4
Bottom Line:
The new Touareg offers more room, performance, frugality, agility and luxury than its predecessor. It even provides the choice of three equally interesting powertrains. Let’s see if its undeniable quality and value can balance a proletarian image and timid looks on the luxury sport-utility battlefield.
  • Sumptuous interior
  • Sharp dynamics
  • Excellent powertrains
  • Jerky regenerative braking (Hybrid)
  • Slightly less cargo volume
  • Bland styling

Since 2004, Volkswagen has sold more than half a million Touaregs. Not too shabby for the automaker's initial foray into the fiercely competitive luxury sport-utility segment. The Touareg was refreshed only three years ago, but VW has given its posh people-mover a complete makeover for the 2011 model year.

The new 2011 VW Touareg doesn't look much different than the outgoing model; it's still unadventurous. It is slightly larger and roomier than its forebear, however. It also gets a more attractive, better finished and cushier interior with updated systems and ergonomics. The giant German automaker also adds its first hybrid to a powertrain lineup that already includes a pair of gas and diesel-fed V6 engines. For all these reasons, the Touareg should now be considered a serious contender in the luxury sport-utility class.

But can the quality and value delivered by the 2011 Touareg outweigh its timid styling?

Model Lineup
Looks can be deceiving. The second-generation Touareg's somewhat softer, more carlike body lines and wider grille belie the fact that it is 1.6 inches longer, half an inch wider and 0.7 inch lower and rides on a 1.5 inch-longer wheelbase than the outgoing model. Ground clearance is reduced to 7.9 inches from 8.3 inches, further reducing the visual impression of mass.

Volkswagen found that the impeccable off-road prowess of the first Touareg generally exceeded the typical owner's needs. Trail readiness has thus been toned down but should remain more than sufficient for most.

More surprising is this bigger Touareg's remarkably successful weight-loss program. A thorough redesign of the body shell and the use of high-strength steel at strategic, load-bearing points have improved overall structural rigidity by 5 percent. The use of light alloys, including for suspension components, did the rest. Better rigidity also brings improvements to ride comfort, quietness and safety.

The significant weight reduction is on the order of 330 pounds for the diesel-powered TDI model and 366 pounds for the gasoline-fed FSI base version. It's a more than welcome slimming plan, considering that the TDI still weighs 4,974 pounds. With the added mass of its nickel-metal hydride battery pack and electric motor, the new Touareg Hybrid model weighs 5,135 pounds.

Models equipped with the FSI and TDI engines are available in three separate trims: Sport, Lux and Executive, which can told apart by specific alloy wheels with respective diameters of 18, 19 and 20 inches. The new Hybrid model comes in a single trim, fully equipped, with special badges and 19-inch wheels.

Under the Hood
The Touareg's two conventional V6 engines and its new gas-electric hybrid powertrain are coupled exclusively to a new 8-speed automatic transmission. This new gearbox has six regular forward ratios and two "eco" ratios that reduce fuel use in steady cruising. All three versions of the new Touareg can tow up to 7,700 pounds when equipped with the optional towing package.

The base engine is an all-alloy, direct-injection 3.6-liter V6 with maximum outputs of 280 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque. The reduced mass, improved aerodynamics and more efficient mechanical bits yield projected EPA fuel-economy ratings of 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway, a 19 percent gain over the previous model, according to VW.

Of course, these numbers get better with the TDI's turbocharged direct-injection 3.0-liter V6 diesel, which produces 225 horsepower and a generous 406 lb-ft of torque. Its EPA estimates are 19/28.

The all-new Touareg Hybrid's powertrain was co-developed with Porsche and is identical to that in the new Cayenne Hybrid. Its gasoline engine is a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 derived from the Audi S4 and rated at 330 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. The powertrain's total combined output, with the additional thrust of the 47-horsepower 221 lb-ft electric motor, is 380 horsepower and 428 lb-ft of torque. Volkswagen is claiming an impressive zero-to-60-mph acceleration time of 6.2 seconds for this model.

The Hybrid can run on electric power alone for up to 32 mph on flat ground and up to 75 mph going downhill. The gasoline engine will stop while coasting up to a speed of 99 mph to save fuel. Its electric motor is fed by a 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack bolted flat under the rear cargo bay.

Inner Space
In spite of tangible gains in handling, performance and fuel economy, the new Touareg's fully revamped interior is its brightest asset and surely what driver and passengers alike will most enjoy. The instrument panel's design is at once classic and modern, with simple and clearly laid-out controls, superb materials and outstandingly clear and legible gauges and displays. With fit and finish to match, it would not look out of place in an Audi or a Bentley.

The smooth leather-draped steering wheel has just the right shape and texture, and so do the seats. Simple, accessible adjustments help set a good driving position, and there's a solid, flat footrest. Space is abundant in front, and rear passengers get 3.8 inches of additional knee room and a 6-inch longitudinal adjustment for the bench seat. The seatbacks are adjustable, and they can be folded flat 60/40. There is a vast and fully carpeted rear cargo bay with a solid, chromed D-ring anchorage at each corner. Total cargo capacity is 71 cubic inches.

The new, standard 8-inch touch-screen display that tops the center stack is unique to the Touareg. It combines premium audio and navigation systems with DVD/CD/MP3 playback, satellite/FM/AM radio and a 60-gigabyte hard drive. Another 7-inch display rests between the splendid white-on-black main gauges and relays additional info.

The Touareg Sport trim, with either the FSI or TDI engine, comes standard with an array of premium features, such as a navigation system with a rearview camera, full xenon headlights, heated and power-adjustable front seats, Bluetooth connectivity and Sirius satellite radio. The Lux trim gets a giant panoramic glass sunroof, leather seats with multiposition memory and walnut surfaces for the dashboard and center console. The Executive trim gets a multifunction steering wheel, heated seats front and rear, a keyless entry system with push-button start, a rearview camera with ultrasonic parking sensors and a Dynaudio sound system.

On the Road
The Touareg Hybrid is stable and maneuverable on 19-inch wheels. Power is abundant and transitions between electric-only drive and the combined-power mode are virtually seamless. On the other hand, initial braking is much too abrupt as the regenerative mode kicks in, much like the first-generation hybrids of 10 years ago. This trait definitely needs to be smoothed out.

When tested on the same road circuit, the TDI-powered Touareg offered linear and progressive braking action, however. Its 20-inch wheels sharpened steering action noticeably, but they also made the ride firmer. It's a trade-off we would gladly accept — as we would the diesel engine's slightly noisier demeanor — in exchange for the TDI's great flexibility, better overall fuel economy and lower price.

On the same roads, the base model V6 was the greatest surprise, melding faultless highway stability with sharp and quick steering on modest 18-inch wheels. Its gasoline engine liberated a feisty midrange howl as the 8-speed gearbox upshifted merrily in full acceleration. It was an unexpected treat.

Right for You?
The Volkswagen Touareg has made great strides with this clever and comprehensive redesign. It now offers comfort, refinement, performance and luxury to match some of the ritziest luxury sport utilities. Prices start at $44,450 for the gasoline V6-powered 3.6 FSI. A step higher is the Touareg TDI turbodiesel at $47,950, while the fully equipped Touareg Hybrid goes for $60,565. The only question that remains is whether buyers are willing to trade the iconic status and more exclusive styling of its competitors for undeniable substance.