VW's eco-friendly SUV has the power to blaze a trail in the UAE, writes Kevin Hackett.
Road Test: Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid
Times, it would appear, could be a-changing in the UAE. That's if some of the motoring world's premium manufacturers have anything to do with it, because they're slowly but surely getting the region to wake up to the possibility of owning a hybrid car. Porsche and Lexus have been dipping their toes into the hybrid soup here for a while, and now Volkswagen has a Touareg Hybrid in the region to get some real world feedback before deciding whether or not to offer it in the range here.
These are all positive steps to be applauded, but before I give the big Volkswagen a resounding thumbs up, it might be prudent to live with one for a few days to see if it can make it as a viable proposition in the Middle East. So I do exactly that.
While the Porsche Cayenne, which was always essentially a Touareg with a different drivetrain and an uglier body, has metamorphosed into something that's much easier on the eye, the VW has remained pretty much the same in appearance since its 2003 debut. The only bits that appear to have been tinkered with are the front and rear lamps, which now fall in with the rest of the generic styling of everything from the Scirocco to the Polo and the new Golf. But it still looks rather smart - not vulgar like a BMW X5 or X6, nor bland or ordinary like the Japanese efforts.
Inside, it's an exercise in tasteful restraint. Plush leather abounds, and there are lashings of burr walnut veneer, while the materials used to cover the doors, dashboard, roof and all the rest are a mix of soft touch and brittle plastics. It succeeds in offering a premium feel that's quite at odds with its humble badge, impressing the point that it's a range topper without hammering it home.
The dashboard's central screen, though, is particularly worthy of mention. As you would rightly expect, it allows you to view satnav mapping and fiddle around with your smartphone's music collection and Bluetooth, but it also keeps you constantly informed as to where your power is coming from and what the reserves are, via the communications programme for the e-motor and the rather smart "hybrid manager" that negotiates between internal combustion engine and electric motor. You can see at a glance how and when the battery is charged, as well as what your power source is at any given time - a good thing, because this car is so quiet it's sometimes the only way to tell if you're running on petrol or electric - and it's quite compelling to have this on-board analysis of journeys and energy consumption displayed like this, actively encouraging you to be more frugal with your inputs, trying to eek out as much economy as possible from this enormous vehicle.
Braking is regenerative, harnessing kinetic energy to boost the battery whenever you apply the stoppers and whenever you're coasting. Initially, its coasting ability is unnerving, with none of the engine braking you'd normally expect, but it feels perfectly balanced and comfortingly heavy at the same time, so you soon get used to getting on the brakes when approaching hazards.
In urban areas, you can drive, emission-free, on the electric motor. When crawling along in heavy traffic, the Touareg makes silent and guilt-free progress up to speeds of about 55kph, after which the petrol engine takes over. It's perfectly happy to cruise around all day at low speeds without burning any petrol, but that's providing that the road surface is suitably flat. Because at the first sniff of an incline, when you need to gently get on the throttle to maintain your speed, the engine pulls rank and you're back in petrol mode. And you can forget about green motoring if you head for the dunes, too, where the only time you'll be moving without polluting is when you're pointing down and on the brakes.
Like many of its contemporaries, the Touareg Hybrid is happiest on the open road, where its abilities shine more easily. It has plenty of power on tap and, when you do get on the power, that V6 makes a satisfying growl. It's a sizeable and heavy vehicle, yet it feels nimbler than its looks suggest when you have to take a tight corner, its full-time four-wheel drive offering security and safety. The eight-speed, Tiptronic transmission is sometimes a bit slow on the uptake, mind, and it would benefit from fitting steering wheel shift paddles. Other than that, it's a fine, comfortable and refined road companion that instils an enormous sense of well-being.
Should Volkswagen sell it here? I reckon so, because when it comes to environmentally aware motoring in the UAE, every little helps. Of course, if you have the planet's best interests at heart then you wouldn't be driving a big SUV in the first place, but hybrids in the region are at least a step in the right direction.
Engine 3.0L, supercharged V6
Transmission eight-speed automatic
Power 333hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque 440Nm @ 3,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 8.2L / 100km
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