Thursday, February 12, 2009

Test-Driving VW's Touareg Hybrid

Test-Driving VWs Touareg Hybrid

One by one, German carmakers are genuflecting before the hybrid god. The latest is Volkswagen (VOWG.DE). Like BMW (BMWG.DE) and Daimler (DAI), the company initially resisted the hybrid trend, reasoning that similar gains in fuel consumption and emissions were possible at lower cost simply by optimizing traditional gasoline and diesel engines. Unfortunately for VW and the other German companies, the Toyota (TM) Prius converted all-important U.S. buyers to the hybrid doctrine. If Volkswagen wants to boost its share of the U.S. market, it needs hybrids, too.

One is coming. In February, Wolfsburg-based VW began previewing an advanced prototype of the company's Touareg SUV featuring a hybrid drive. The car could be ready for production in as little as a year, joining a tiny but growing fleet of German hybrids that also includes a version of Mercedes' luxury S-Class, due to go on sale at midyear.

The hybrid Touareg is doubly interesting because the car is a close cousin to the Porsche (PSHG_p.DE) Cayenne, with which it shares body design and many parts. Porsche will use the same technology as VW for a hybrid Cayenne, and took part in the development. The Touareg is also the forerunner of other hybrid Volkswagens.

Once German engineers set their minds to a task, they usually do it pretty well, and the VW hybrid team seems to be no exception. I had a chance to drive the Touareg hybrid prototype on Feb. 9 and was impressed both with the mileage and the performance.

A Full Hybrid Car

Unlike the S-Class, which uses its electric motor only to assist the gasoline engine, the Toureg is a full hybrid that can run solely on electric power at low speeds, though only for a mile and a half or so. The Touareg's electric motor also provides an acceleration boost when needed, for example to pass a truck on the highway.

In fact, the hybrid Touareg will accelerate more quickly than any of the existing versions. VW says the prototype can go from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds—though you certainly won't get maximum fuel mileage driving that way. The hybrid Touareg can also pull as much trailer weight as the gas versions. "We wanted this Touareg to drive just as well as any other Touareg," says Eike Feldhusen, one of the Volkswagen engineers who led the development of the hybrid. However, people who really use the car off-road a lot will probably want to stick with a traditional power train, which offers better power at low speeds.

The Touareg saves fuel in several different ways. The electric motor relieves the gasoline engine at low speeds, which is a particular advantage in city driving. In addition, the gasoline motor automatically shuts down when the car is coasting or stopped, restarting when you press the gas pedal. And the car recaptures energy normally lost from braking, with a mechanism that transfers the kinetic energy to the generator instead of the brake pads.

The Green Game

As I drove the Touareg on roads in and around Wolfsburg, it occurred to me that another one of the ways hybrids save fuel is by providing positive feedback to the driver. When you set off in the Touareg, a display right in front of the steering wheel tells you your average fuel economy. A second display, featuring a graphic of the power train, glows green when you're using braking energy to recharge the battery, blue when you're running on electric power alone, and ochre when you're drawing on the gasoline motor, a 3.0-liter V6 adapted from the Audi S4.

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