With the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, we see that VW intends to give Toyota a lesson. After a long period of disdain, VW first had only entered the category in 2011, and it was with the imposingly expensive Touareg Hybrid, which utilizes a nickel-metal hydride battery. Now the Germans have outfitted their best-selling Jetta with a parallel-hybrid system and a lithium-ion battery, and the result is impressive.
The 2013 Jetta Hybrid receives the new turbocharged-and-intercooled, direct-injection DOHC 1.4-liter four cylinder, making 150 hp. This premium-fueled prima donna shares quarters with but can completely disconnect from a water-cooled 20-kilowatt electric motor that raises maximum combined output to 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
Together or separately, depending on driver inputs, the gas and electric power sources feed a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. By selecting sport mode, or simply by knocking the gear lever into manual mode and moving it up or down, the driver can hold ratios as long as desired. On northern New Mexico mountain roads where we tested the car, the manual shifting helped us to restrain our speed on steep downhill segments rather than riding the brakes. And even though the torque peak of 184 lb-ft is available at 1600 rpm, we downshifted and brought the revs up before attempting passing maneuvers. Admittedly, this might have been just to hear the little four's lusty wail.
An even more appealing aspect of the Jetta Hybrid's powertrain is that, unlike the Toyota Prius's flatulent, continuously variable transmission, there's never the feeling that you've just sat on a whoopee cushion. This is due to the sophisticated gearbox. The engine gains revs progressively instead of seeming to undergo sudden, intense gamma ray bombardment, and invites enthusiastic driving. To this end, paddle shifters would be nice, but they're not offered.
Creeping around in E-Mode
Another interesting aspect of the Jetta Hybrid's driving experience comes from the E-Mode button found near the shifter. Pressing this button enables the car to drive in electric mode up to 44 mph, drawing solely from the 60-cell, 1.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack for up to 1.2 miles. Sneaking along crowded Alameda Street in downtown Santa Fe, we found that it worked great, although the car surged away from stop signs rather ambitiously when the brake was released. (And the regenerative brakes are just as grabby and irritating as those on any other maker's car that's so equipped.)
Overexuberance is otherwise uncharacteristic of the Jetta Hybrid, though. Only slightly different and more aero-efficient bodywork, along with a discreet new grille and modest labeling, indicate this is a hybrid. Available 17-inch black-and-chrome turbine-blade wheels also distinguish the model. And that's as much tarting up as this hybrid gets.
Displays tend toward redundancy, cliche
Inside the car, an e-meter replaces the tachometer. This power meter is redundant and useless, and we sorely missed the tach. Among other typical functions like audio and navigation, the central display presents the same information about energy flow, and by now even this graphic is beginning to seem cliched. Despite VW's vigorous approach to the hybrid question, there remains a faint whiff of "me, too" about the Jetta Hybrid.
The display also charts zero-emission moments from electric-only operation and provides an instantaneous readout of fuel economy numbers. VW estimates 45 mpg in combined city and highway driving, but final numbers weren't available during the press preview.
When it goes on sale before year's end, the Jetta Hybrid will be offered in four trim levels. The $24,995 base model comes with Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate system, and a leather-wrapped wheel. We drove the SE ($26,990), which adds LED taillights and keyless start. The SEL ($29,325) includes a sunroof, navigation, and heated front seats. Finally, the fancy-pants SEL Premium ($31,180) has the 17-inch alloy wheels, premium audio, a backup camera, and a front-end light show that includes HID lamps, LED positioning lamps, foglamps, and intelligently active application of all this illumination.
Less really Is more
To say the Jetta Hybrid outperforms other compact hybrids is almost to damn it with faint praise. Yes, it rips from 0 to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds. But within the Jetta family, this is the overweight basset hound trying to keep up with experienced retrievers. The Hybrid is 470 pounds heavier than the 2.0L, and the battery pack reduces cargo volume by 27 percent. The 2.0L TDI already achieves 42 mpg highway.
It would seem a peculiar form of madness to shell out more than $30,000 for a well-optioned Jetta Hybrid SEL Premium and then boast of saving fuel, the environment, or one's own sanity.
Yet VW sees a niche for the Jetta Hybrid within the hybrid segment's current three percent of the automotive pie. Compacts account for two-thirds of that slice, and the Jetta Hybrid should help the Germans to what they see as their fair share.
2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid
Base price: $24,995
Price as tested: $26,990
On sale: Late 2012
Direct-injection: DOHC 1.4-liter four cylinder and 20kW electric motor
Power: 170 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: Strut-type with lower control arms, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Suspension, Rear: Multilink, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ABS
Tires: P195/65 R15, 205/55 R16, or 205/50 R17
L x W x H: 182.8 x 70.0 x 57.2 in
Wheelbase: 104.4 in
Track F/R: 60.7/60.9 in
Weight: 3312 lb
Cargo volume: 11.3 cu ft
0-60 MPH: 8.6 seconds
Top Speed: N/A
EPA Mileage: N/A