Last week, Volkswagen unveiled the all-new 2011 Touareg sport utility vehicle, including its first-ever hybrid-electric powertrain. It has new and crisper styling that updates what had become a somewhat outmoded SUV.

Volkswagen sold about half a million of the first-generation Touareg, launched in 2004, and the new model retains the off-road abilities VW built into its first SUV. But it's lighter, more luxurious, and far more fuel efficient than its predecessor.

V-6 engines only

The 2011 Volkswagen Touareg to be sold in the States offers only V-6 engines, in gasoline and diesel. A 4.2-liter V-8 TDI diesel offered elsewhere won't come to the States, and previous gasoline V-8 and V-10 TDI diesel engines are no longer needed.

The gasoline V-6 hybrid model is now the top of the line, replacing those two larger engines not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. It will arrive one year later, as a 2012 model. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models.

Hybrid shared with Audi, Porsche

The hybrid uses a 328-horsepower, 3.0-liter supercharged direct-injected V-6 engine mated to a 34-kilowatt (46-horsepower) electric motor mounted between the engine and the transmission. Our editor Marty Padgett drove a prototype Touareg Hybrid last October.

This setup, though far simpler than Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, means that the Touareg Hybrid can run on electric power or recharge the battery pack, but it can't do both at the same time.

The hybrid-electric system used in the Touareg will also be shared with an all-new Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, as well as a redesign of the Audi Q7. The 2012 Porsche Cayenne is expected to go on sale late next year.

All three are built in the same plant, and to get economies of scale, Volkswagen Group needs to use the system as widely as possible.

Tow rating: 7,500 pounds

The peak combined power of the engine and motor is 374 horsepower, suitable for towing up to 7,500 pounds, Volkswagen says. It will do 0 to 62 mph in 6.5 seconds, and maximum speed is 144 miles per hour.

The new 2012 Touareg Hybrid will run in all-electric mode up to 30 miles per hour. The engine is disengaged from the transmission not only in electric mode, but even when the driver releases the accelerator pedal at speeds up to 100 mph, reducing energy lost to drag.

As with most hybrids, the bulk of the braking goes toward regenerating energy to recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.  And the engine is switched off each time the vehicle comes to a stop, restarting when the driver lifts off the brake pedal.

2011 Volkswagen Touareg

2011 Volkswagen Touareg

Gasoline and clean diesel

Besides the top-of-the-line hybrid, the 2012 VW Touareg will offer two other engine options. The standard 3.6-liter V-6 is rated at 276 horsepower and 265 ft-lbs of torque, and achieves 28.7 miles per gallon on the European combined cycle.

The V-6 TDI clean-diesel engine has less power, at 236 horsepower, but a prodigious 406 ft-lbs of torque. It got almost 32 miles per gallon on the European combined cycle. (In both cases, note that U.S. fuel-economy ratings are likely to be lower.)

Non-hybrid Touaregs sold in Europe will be fitted with stop-start systems that switch off the engine every time the car comes to a halt.  Unless VW chooses to be a pioneer, however, it's unlikely to fit that system for the U.S. market, since the gain in fuel economy on EPA test cycles is low.

Off-road cred

All Touaregs will be fitted with "4Motion" all-wheel-drive, fitted with a limited-slip differential and capable of climbing a 31-degree slope (something most soccer moms rarely do).

An Off-Road mode adjusts settings on the anti-lock brakes, the stability control, and other control systems, adjusts the shift points, and activates Hill Descent Control.

For dedicated off-roaders, an optional "Terrain Technology Package" can be ordered with the V-6 TDI clean-diesel version (although not the hybrid model). That includes a more rugged transfer case, lockable front and rear differentials, and it can climb 45-degree slopes.

The package includes a rotary knob that lets the driver select from five settings--On-Road, Off-Road, Low, Center Differential Lock, and Rear Differential Lock--as conditions warrant.

Lighter, more luxurious

The rest of the 2012 VW Touareg has a variety of new, expanded, upgraded, and more luxurious features. Despite that, the base vehicle is a laudable 450 pounds lighter than its predecessor. It's also lower to the ground, for better aerodynamics.

It has more rear legroom, and the rear seat slides back and forth and can be adjusted for backrest angle.  Luggage space is quoted at 58 cubic feet with the seat folded down. And VW says the 2012 Touareg has the largest panoramic sunroof of any SUV on sale.

Airbags, cameras, electronic assists

Up to nine airbags ensure crash safety, and a four-camera "Area View" system shows the car's surroundings to avoid small children and parking obstacles. Lane Assist keeps the Touareg from straying over the line, Side Assist alerts drivers to vehicles in the blind spots, and adaptive cruise control includes automatic emergency braking to a stop. Bi-xenon headlights adjust automatically to oncoming traffic.

Options include 19-inch wheels, wooden trim inserts, a pair of two-tone leather interior upholstery combinations, remote tailgate closing, and many more features.

The 2011 VW Touareg will arrive at European dealers in April, with U.S. sales starting a few months later. The 2012 Touareg Hybrid will go on sale during the latter half of 2011.

NOTE: Information in this article applies to European versions of the 2012 Volkswagen Touareg, and may differ slightly for U.S. models.