The Jetta Hybrid is Volkswagen's second hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S. (after the Touareg), and it represents a bit of a capitulation for the German automaker. You've got to figure that VW would prefer that fuel-economy-conscious Americans just buy diesels, which VW has lots of experience with and which are immensely popular in Europe. VW also offers diesels here, but now it offers both TDI and Hybrid models of the Jetta. So, does the Hybrid come off as a grudgingly developed compliance car?
This Hybrid Is No Killjoy
Not at all. For a hybrid, this Jetta drives a lot like a Volkswagen. The gasoline engine is a spry, 1.4-liter turbocharged four (found also under the hood of the next-generation Golf in Europe). It's paired with a 27-hp electric motor, located between the engine and the transmission, and a lithium-ion battery. Total system output is 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, the latter available from only 1000 rpm. Better yet, that torque is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox rather than a droning CVT.
The Jetta Hybrid is no snail. The instantly available torque makes it feel much quicker than the factory-estimated 0-to-60-mph time of 8.6 seconds. The dual-clutch gearbox is so much more pleasant than a CVT, and, unlike some VW dual-clutch units, this one is pretty smooth on takeoff at low speeds.
Volkswagen also gave the Hybrid the multilink rear suspension that is otherwise reserved for the GLI (other Jettas make do with a beam axle). Unsurprisingly, the Hybrid carries extra weight (229 pounds more than the 2.5-liter model and 154 pounds more than the GLI). That keeps it from being a lively corner carver like the GLI, but the chassis is more firm than flaccid, and the well-tuned electric power steering is welcome.
Dynamically, then, the Jetta Hybrid would seem to be a home run -- that is, until you hit the brake pedal. The grabby regenerative brakes are the one area where this Volkswagen is pure hybrid.
What About Fuel Economy?
Because it's a pure hybrid, the Jetta system allows the car to use battery power only. Punch the EV button next to the transmission to extend electric mode up to as high as 44 mph under ideal conditions. Even without calling up EV mode, VW claims that the Hybrid can cruise silently and emissions-free up to 37 mph, but hilly terrain, sub-freezing temperatures, and (perhaps) my driving style conspired against that, because the little turbo four burbled away pretty much the whole time.
That may explain why this test car averaged just under 30 mpg over 210 miles of mostly in-town driving. The Jetta Hybrid's EPA estimates are a lofty 42 mpg in the city and 47 mpg on the highway, but I never saw mileage in the 40s.
If you really want to know what the powertrain is up to at any given moment, the e-meter (which replaces the tachometer) gives a pretty good indication. For even more detail, the central LCD screen can present information about energy flow -- but we wonder whether anyone still finds that interesting.
Four Trim Levels
Other than the special instrumentation, there aren't many visual clues to distinguish the Hybrid from other Jettas. The exterior has a Hybrid-specific grille and wheels, and the VW logo is edged in blue. Oftentimes, a hybrid version of a specific car will be its own trim level, but the Jetta Hybrid can be had four ways. The base model starts at $25,790 (with destination) and includes Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Next up is the SE ($27,785), which adds a touch-screen radio and keyless start. The SEL ($30,120) includes a sunroof, navigation, a power driver's seat, and heated front seats -- the latter being particularly important given how icy the "V-Tex leatherette" upholstery can feel in cold weather. Predictably, our test car was the top-spec version, the SEL Premium ($31,975), which comes with Fender premium audio, a backup camera, and bixenon headlamps. This top-spec Hybrid is about $5000 more than a roughly equivalent 2.5 SEL with Navigation and about $3000 more than a similar TDI SEL. At the lower end of the spectrum, the base Hybrid represents only an $840 premium over the base TDI.
Hybrid vs. diesel
The Hybrid's EPA ratings of 42/47 mpg beat the TDI's 39/42 mpg, but anecdotal evidence suggests that EPA ratings are likely to understate a diesel's real-world mileage, whereas they tend to overstate what you'll probably see with a hybrid. Consider also that the Jetta Hybrid requires premium gasoline, which in many states is almost as expensive as diesel, and it becomes harder to make the case for the Hybrid, at least budget-wise. Volkswagen may have come late to gasoline-electric powertrains, but it has done an impressive job with the Jetta Hybrid. It doesn't have the lethargy of a hybrid -- but then again, it doesn't always have the great fuel economy of a hybrid, either. As it turns out, the Jetta makes a pretty good hybrid, but I'd still say that it makes a better diesel.