Volkswagen Unveils Its First Hybrid

Fast Company talks with VW's chiefs of engineering and design about the 2011 Touareg Hybrid.

Volkswagen 2011 Touareg Hybrid

Today at the New York International Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled its very first venture into hybrid technology: The 2011 Touareg Hybrid, set to debut this fall at a price around $100,000.

Shiny and relatively svelte for an SUV, the new model will be a test bed for hybrid technology that'll appear next year in the ultra-luxe Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, as well as Volkwagen hybrids of the future. It's also an introduction for a new design language, which will trickle through the rest of the Volkswagen line.

From a numbers standpoint, the Touareg Hybrid is set to deliver a fairly modest fuel savings as compared to standard models: 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway, versus about 18/25 for the comparable 2010 model. (VW claims that in all, given typical driving patterns, the car will produce a 40% lighter carbon footprint.) That won't win you the Nobel Peace Price, but according to Dr. Bernd Stiebels, VW's head of powertrain development, the company chose SUVs for a specific reason: Improving the gas mileage of an SUV 15% and starting at a low base, has a far greater impact on fleet efficiency than a 15% improvement would have in a standard family car. (I've written about that effect here.) Also, it doesn't hurt that the larger margins at VW's top end allow the massive R&D costs to be absorbed into the sticker price a little more easily.

Hybrid Touareg

But long term, "This will be the foundation of all our hybrids and electric vehicles," Stiebels says. The chief innovation is a "hybrid module" that links an electric motor to the combustion engine, via a differential. That type of parallel hybrid system (first used in Honda's Insight) allows seamless transitions between the two engines—providing a nearly frictionless "float mode" to preserve fuel at high-speed highway driving and also greater power at low speeds. For example: The Touareg Hybrid can haul a whopping 7,700 pounds. (Not that you'll need it, hauling bags from Nieman Marcus.)

Hybrid Touareg

The design itself will also trickle down as well: The front fascia, specifically, is set to become part of VW's broader design language, filtering through the Golf and Polo models. Walter de'Silva (pictured below), touts design as "timeless."

Hybrid Touareg

He was a bit cagey about providing anything more by way of inspirations or examples (except for the seamless transition between grill and headlights). "Look, it's not about inspiration. The world has changed. Baroque is finished," he says. Brandishing an iPhone, he added: "Otherwise, why would my friend Steve Jobs design this! Our design is about honesty and responsibility."

Read More: The Germans Are Coming: Volkswagen's Drive to Succeed in America

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