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Power to the People

VW wants to be the biggest carmaker in the world, and the 2011 Touareg hybrid will lead the charge. // by Mike Guy

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ON A ROAD HIGH ABOVE the tiny village of Eze Bord de Mer, midway between Monaco to the west and Nice to the east, there is a terrible traffic jam. This isn’t uncommon in this ancient and densely settled corner of the world, where celebrities and royalty compete ferociously for the attention of paparazzi, and tourists come to gawk at the twinkling turquoise Mediterranean Sea and maybe even at Bono, the U2 crooner who lives somewhere along the village strand.

My 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid—the first hybrid SUV from VW’s well-stocked stable—has shut itself down as it idles in front of a world-famous perfumery called Fragonard. The new Touareg is the second generation of VW’s signature SUV, and the platform has been completely rebuilt for 2011. That means significantly refined styling of the exterior: The headlights are now bedazzled with LEDs that look like sparkly eyeliner after sunset; the grille has two sexy, low-slung air intakes, and the rear haunches are now more pronounced, giving this once- mild 5,135-pounder a slightly more aggressive stance.

For the interior the engineers of Wolfsburg have cribbed numerous details from the Cayenne, made by VW’s sister shop, Porsche.

The seats—particularly in the back—are roomy and fully adjustable, the navigation system quick and bright, and the sunroof is a full 350 percent bigger than its predecessor.

But the most significant upgrade to the Touareg is the dazzling new hybrid engine, a seductive coupling of the same 334-horsepower V-6 found in the Audi S4 with a 46-horsepower electric motor. The result is a powerplant that can run on electricity alone at speeds up to 99 mph. And while it isn’t as efficient as the diesel TDI (25 mpg in the city, versus the diesel’s 29), it has a much lower emissions rating.

When the traffic finally gets moving, I spin up into the mountains and break free from the pack. On downhills, the Touareg shows off part of what makes this brilliant hybrid combo the best on the road: I let up slightly on the throttle at 60 mph and the gas engine shuts down. With the windows up, I hear only the breeze and the buzzing of insects coming from the roadside brush. Five miles of scrub pines whiz past before the gas engine kicks in, when I come to a pronounced uphill stretch.

Last year, VW announced to the world that it plans to become the world’s largest automaker by 2014. That means that it needs to beat out the top manufacturers in the United States—a tall order—and it needs the Touareg to play a major role in the uprising. While hybrids lose out to diesels here in the sunny hills of France, VW is hoping to sell plenty overseas. The question is, are Americans buying?

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