Volkswagen owns the affordable diesel market in the United States. With TDI engines available in the Jetta, Passat, Golf, and Touareg, one out of every five Volkswagens sold in 2011 was powered by a diesel engine. A fifth VW diesel, the Beetle TDI, joins the lineup for 2012, but Volkswagen isn't content to rest on its compression-ignition laurels. Hybrids make up a far larger share of the United States market and the German automaker is keen on capturing some of those buyers. Since the $62,865 Touareg Hybrid struggles with that task, Volkswagen will target a more practical segment and a more reasonable price this fall with the Jetta Hybrid.
The gas-electric Jetta's hardware consists of a 27-hp electric motor sandwiched between a turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and it should all be good for a combined city/highway fuel-economy rating of 45 mpg. That makes the hybrid significantly more frugal than the 34-mpg diesel Jetta and a touch less efficient than the 50-mpg Toyota Prius.
Put the Jetta Hybrid in "D," and Volkswagen says the car can reach 37 mph on electricity alone, but only masochists will tolerate such pokey acceleration. Pulling into traffic, the Jetta scoots off on electric power until a dampened shudder and muted roar butt in at 20 mph as the gasoline engine fires and spins up to speed. The initial interruption is louder and more abrupt than we'd like, but it isn't any more intrusive than the standard set by the Toyota Prius. For a silent and smooth experience, tap the E-mode button just ahead of the shifter. Doing so recalibrates the accelerator so that the gas engine rarely comes on below a raised electric-only threshold of 44 mph. It works, but you'll be lucky to cover a mile in E-mode before the car reverts to its typical behavior to refresh the battery.
Wafting along in traffic in the standard mode, the gas engine stops and starts frequently and fluidly as you coast and accelerate. In this less aggressive driving, restarts are so smooth that they'd be imperceptible to any driver who wasn't looking for them. When you push the accelerator pedal through the detent at the bottom of its travel, boost mode delivers maximum power -- up to 170 hp -- from both the turbocharged engine and the electric motor. Selecting sport mode from the gear selector makes boost mode available earlier, before the pedal passes through the kickdown switch. Volkswagen believes the Jetta will be the quickest compact hybrid you can buy when it goes on sale later this year. That's not to say it's quick. Owning that claim merely means the VW can beat loafers like the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda CR-Z. Acceleration on the low end is as strained as in any compact car, hybrid or otherwise, but we were impressed by the strong top-end pull from the gas engine. The driving experience also benefits from a transmission with seven distinct gears rather than the rubbery uncertainty of a continuously variable transmission.
The steering wheel is weighty and although the electric power assistance isn't as linear or convincing as Volkswagen's best efforts, it's far more direct feeling than what you get from the hybrid establishment. Braking, on the other hand, is marred by the same unpredictable behavior that's typical for gas-electric cars. On our short drive, initial response was different every time we touched the pedal and braking force showed absolutely no correlation with how far or how firmly you pushed the pedal. The only redeeming qualities are the long travel of the pedal and that the binders never bite too sharply. With an active foot, you can massage the pedal for a smooth stop, but it takes far more focus than it should.
Data geeks can feast on powertrain information from three different displays. The tachometer has been replaced by a power meter reading from 0 to 100 percent, with cushions on either end for "charging" and "boost" zones. Just next to that dial, the digital instrument cluster display shows power flow between the engine, motor and wheels. The navigation system also has three hybrid screens including redundant power flow information and long-term fuel economy. The rest of the Jetta Hybrid will be familiar to anyone who has driven the gas or diesel variants. Volkswagen says the subtle exterior tweaks lead to a meaningful reduction in aerodynamic drag, but they weren't noticeable enough to catch our eye as we hurried to the car to escape the winter cold.
The Jetta Hybrid doesn't quite inject sportiness into the hybrid field, but neither is it a fuel-sipping, soul-sucking penalty box. It won't knock its diesel-powered sibling off the pedestal when it comes to efficient driving fun, it won't top the Toyota Prius in fuel economy, and it won't be as cheap as a Honda Insight. But with an expected price around $25,000, the Jetta Hybrid is a worthwhile alternative to less inspired gas-electric cars like the Prius, the Civic Hybrid, and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
2013 Volkswagen Jetta HybridOn sale: Fall 2012
Base price: $25,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.4L turbo I-4, 150 hp, 184 lb-ft
Motor: 27 hp
Total output: 170 hp
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 45 mpg (combined)