Until now, gasoline-electric hybrids generally haven't been noted for their sporty demeanor. There are some exceptions of course, but most auto enthusiasts typically don't list hybrids among affordable sedans that are also great fun-to-drive vehicles.
Volkswagen seems out to change that with the new-for 2013 Jetta Hybrid. It’s no sports sedan, but it is fun to drive, handles nicely and has an eager drivetrain. It’s even capable of reaching its EPA rated fuel economy numbers, which come to 42 miles per gallon during city driving and 48 miles per gallon on the highway. However, most drivers will probably fall short of reaching these figures.
If so, they’ll only have themselves, along with the smooth and eager gasoline-electric drivetrain, to blame. This hybrid almost demands that the driver use a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal. Do so, and the 1.4-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine – unusual in a hybrid – and electric motor spring to life to produce surprisingly brisk and soul-satisfying acceleration.
Aiding this performance is the seven-speed dual-shaft transmission. It acts as an automatic from the driver’s perspective, but performs as a manual based on its mechanical layout. Its performance is excellent. The shifts are smooth, quick and properly timed. This gearbox was also exceptionally quick to drop down to a lower gear when acceleration for passing or merging was needed. The only hint that it’s not a regular automatic transmission is a little roll-back when starting on an uphill surface.
The Jetta hybrid takes eight seconds to reach 60 miles per hour and the car’s midrange performance feels even faster than that. Drivers who tap this snappy performance can expect fuel economy results – on premium gasoline – to fall into the high 30s, which is still significantly better most subcompacts.
The independent rear suspension is back in the Jetta hybrid, which is good news. This feature is borrowed from the performance-oriented Jetta GLI, and it transforms the car. Base models are competent in turns, and the Hybrid is eager, displaying a level of grip, balance and responsiveness that makes every trip something to be savored. The only negative is brake feel. The regenerative process creates a bit of grab when the brakes are first applied and less braking power at the very end of the stop, which requires an additional push on the pedal.
My wife Paula and I had the SEL trim level for review. This version featured an upgraded interior with soft-touch surfaces and a more appealing trim that gives it an upscale look and feel.
That’s good news, since our review car had a decidedly upscale price. The base Jetta Hybrid starts at $24,995. However, our SEL with its standard navigation system and a host of additional extras came to just over $30,000.
Nonetheless, a case can be made for the Jetta Hybrid based on its driving feel and performance. Throw in a better-than-subcompact car fuel economy and there should be enough customers willing to consider this latest hybrid from Volkswagen to keep assembly lines moving.
The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is great fun to drive, but if I were to be sold on this car, it would be for its fuel economy. My husband Jim and I averaged 45 miles per gallon, although that dropped to 38 miles per gallon when Jim tapped into the Jetta’s performance potential. He then used his featherfoot approach, raising the total to 48 miles per gallon, alas on premium grade gasoline.
We had this Jetta Hybrid during the latest heat wave and I have to say that the leatherette upholstery and parking in the sun are not compatible with shorts. Those seats get hot! And, while Jim found the interior metal trim upgrades appealing – they do look good – the metal trim on the shift lever also gets really hot in the summer. I’ll also bet it feels exceptionally cold in the winter.
The front seats are comfortable for drivers of all sizes and the back seat also accommodates adults. The lithium-ion battery pack and other hybrid components take up some trunk room at the very front of the trunk. The rear seatbacks still fold, but you can forget about a flat load floor.
This Jetta’s price is of some concern. I liked the car, but for $30,000 I think that Volkswagen should include a blind spot warning system and backup camera. Our review car had neither, but the backup camera is standard on the SEL Premium model.
All of this raises some interesting questions. Just how much money are people willing to spend to save money at the gasoline pump? Would the less-expensive Jetta TDI diesel be a better buy? With this model, you could get a manual gearbox, which I like better than the Hybrid’s slick-shifting automatic. The larger Passat diesel is available for the same price as the Hybrid Jetta, and delivers excellent fuel economy as well.
In short, as much as I liked the Jetta Hybrid, I’m not completely sold, though it sure is nice to drive.
Jim MacPherson is the host of "The Car Doctor" show airing Sundays at noon on WTIC-AM. Paula MacPherson is his wife and new-car review partner. Send comments, questions, suggestions in care of Special Publications, Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115, or email firstname.lastname@example.org