The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid gives VW something it hasn’t had before: a way to appeal to hybrid buyers who won’t consider its TDI diesels—no matter how fuel-efficient they may be.
The result is a relatively sporty, conventional looking compact sedan that’s fun to drive, comfortable to ride in, and appears to return 40 mpg or more in mixed usage.
40 mpg or more
On two different legs of our road test around Santa Fe, New Mexico, our Jetta Hybrid test cars returned 45.2 mpg and 41.7 mpg over hilly routes of 71 and 150 miles.
One note on those gas mileage numbers: We’re reserving some judgment until we have a chance to test the car on our usual test cycle.
Volkswagen projects that the 2013 Jetta Hybrid will be EPA-rated at about 45 mpg in combined city-highway use.
The Santa Fe test routes had several sharp climbs to higher altitudes, followed by a large number of gradual downhill roads. On those roads, the Jetta Hybrid could glide solely on electric power with the engine switched off—as high as 60 mph—which used no fuel over those stretches.
Small engine, single motor
To launch its first mass-market hybrid model, Volkswagen put a new powertrain into its three-year-old Jetta sedan.
The hybrid Jetta uses a 150-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, one that hasn't been offered in any VW sold here until now.
It’s paired to a single 20-kilowatt (27-hp) electric motor, with a clutch on either end, and Volkswagen’s 7-speed direct-shift gearbox automated manual transmission. Output of the combined gasoline-electric powertrain is 170 hp.
While the 20-kW electric motor is smaller than the 33-kW traction motor in the Toyota Prius hybrid, it nonetheless puts out 114 lb-ft of torque by itself.
That’s enough to accelerate the car away from a stop with a light foot on the accelerator, up to speeds as high as 37 mph.
Easy all-electric range
But Volkswagen has done its homework in figuring out what many hybrid buyers actually want: all-electric range.
The car’s stated electric range is up to 1.2 miles under ideal circumstances, but VW lets drivers opt for all-electric power by pushing the “E-Mode” button on the console.
That locks the gasoline engine out altogether, though it compromises acceleration, and raises the all-electric top speed of the hybrid Jetta.
As long as the car stays below 44 mph, driving in E-Mode keeps the car running only electrically until the 1.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is depleted.
VW engineers stressed that E-Mode is not the most energy-efficient way to cover miles, overall. At times, using the engine to move the car and recharge the battery conserves more energy.
But most hybrid drivers like all-electric travel, and VW has given them the ability to call it up as often as they want below 44 mph, within the limits of the battery.
On-the-road performance is sporty, with acceleration that's both quicker and more linear than a Toyota Prius. Volkswagen quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.6 seconds.
But it's the roadholding and handling that set the Jetta Hybrid apart from the rest of the hybrid pack.
VW has managed to imbue the electric power steering with enough feedback and feel that most drivers won't be aware the wheel isn't responding directly to the road surface.
And the hybrid Jetta doesn't feel notably heavier than the gasoline model, with a weight difference of just 229 lbs from the 2.5-liter automatic version of the gasoline car.
And with the standard 15-inch wheels and tires, the car both holds the road and rides comfortably.
The optional 17-inch alloy wheels and lower-profile tires, sadly, exact a significant penalty on ride comfort. They transit surface imperfections into the cabin, not to mention considerably more road noise.
We'd ignore the larger wheels, as great as they look, if we were ordering a Jetta Hybrid ourselves.
No hybrid feel
Best of all, the Jetta Hybrid doesn't "drive like a hybrid," which is to say with sluggish performance and an engine that howls under protest when pushed.
The use of a conventional 7-speed DSG transmission gives it a more conventional engine note, with shifts occurring even in E-Mode--an unusual thing for a car being driven on electricity.
But VW has done a stellar job at blending the two power sources together seamlessly. We experienced almost none of the lurching and nonlinearity of some other hybrids, despite a high rate of switching the electric motor in and out.
While power delivery is smooth and seamless, we weren't as thrilled with the brakes, which weren't very progressive and tended to slow the car aggressively with just a little pedal application. VW could do with another round of refinement to the pedal feel.
From tach to power meter
You'll have to look closely to distinguish the 2013 Jetta Hybrid from any other Jetta sedan model.
Exterior modifications are limited to a blanked-off grille, slightly different front and rear bumper shields, a tiny lip spoiler on the trunk lid, and some lower-body aero panels.
Inside, the cabin is pretty much standard VW Jetta. The front seats are comfortable, with bolstering in the right places.
On the models we drove, the seats were upholstered in a tasteful grey-and-black two-tone that lightened the cabin and extended to the door panels as well.
The instrument panel, befitting a car for which the phrase "German engineering" gets used half a dozen times, is sensible, straightforward, and no-nonsense.
The tachometer has been replaced by a power meter, with simple graphics that show when the car is operating up to the limits of its electric power, when it's recharging, and when it's coasting.
Reduced trunk volume
Rear seats were comfortable too, and trunk space was less compromised by the air-cooled 1.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack than might be expected.
The carpeted battery sits across the trunk at the base of the rear seat-back, but the split rear seats still fold down, retaining the ability to pass through skis or other long objects.
Trunk space in the hybrid Jetta 11.3 cubic feet, down 27 percent from the 15.5 cubic feet of the standard Jetta.
Due to the greater fuel efficiency, VW has reduced the size of the gasoline tank to 12 gallons from the gasoline version's 14.5-gallon capacity. It should still give a range of 500 miles or so.
We were disappointed to note that the 2013 VW Jetta Hybrid is recommended to run only on Premium fuel, though to be fair, that's common with many turbos even today.
A few oddities
We did notice some oddities on the hybrid Jetta, indicating its age (it will likely be replaced with an all-new model for the 2015 model year, based on the upcoming new 2014 Volkswagen Golf).
The adjusting lever for the power mirrors is located on the driver's door at an odd angle that requires crooking the wrist to use it. We've never seen a mirror adjustment quite like this one.
The upper trim levels of the Jetta Hybrid with the keyless entry and Start button have that button located on the console, with a crude plastic blanking plate pasted over the steering-column hole where ignition keys insert in lesser models.
And as far as we could tell in our pre-production models, no version of the Jetta Hybrid offers a USB outlet, which seems almost willful these days in a car aimed at early adopters. There's only an audio-in, a 12-Volt power outlet and on top trims, an iPod connector.
Four trim levels
Most hybrid offerings except the Toyota Prius tend to come in only one or two trim levels, with a limited suite of optional equipment available. Mostly, they're at the top end of the range.
But Volkswagen offers the hybrid Jetta in no fewer than four trim levels, from base to SEL Premium.
All 2013 VW Jetta Hybrids come with 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a leather-trimmed steering wheel with multifunction sitches, Bluetooth device pairing, and automatic climate control.
Then, depending on trim level, you can add premium featured that include a Fender audio system, a navigation system, 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels, Bi-Xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, a power driver's seat, a rearview camera, and keyless entry.
Prices for the hybrid Jetta start at $24,995 for the base model, rise to $26,990 for the SE trim level, and then top out at $29,325 for the SEL model--or $31,180 for the SEL Premium model.
We think Volkswagen's done a very creditable job with its first mass-market hybrid car, in the volume leader Jetta compact sedan.
It's fun to drive, avoids most of the stereotypical hybrid annoyances, and seems on first glance to deliver a real-world 40 mpg or more, perhaps close to its projected 45-mpg combined rating.
The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid will arrive at VW dealers at the very end of the year, which in reality may mean the first week or two of January.
If VW is right, each group will head straight for the one it wants--and everyone will drive out in the Jetta they're happiest with.
(c) 2012, High Gear Media.