Volkswagen already offers their best-selling model, the Jetta, with a fuel-efficient TDI diesel, but now they're offering a second high-MPG drivetrain: A high-tech hybrid with a turbocharged engine. Can the Jetta compete with other hybrids -- or VW's own TDI? Read on.
First Glance: Who needs a hybrid when you have diesel?
Let's start with the obvious question: Why does Volkswagen need a hybrid when they have the fantastically fuel-efficient TDI diesel engine? The answer is simple: Americans prefer hybrids. Last year, hybrids made up 3% of car sales in the US, while diesels made up only 0.85%. VW's long-term goal, you'll remember, is to become a major player in America -- that is the whole raison d'etre for the Jetta's most recent makeover, the result of which (despite a drubbing from critics like me) has been an explosion of sales. Never mind that one can make an argument for the superiority of diesels -- we want hybrids, so Volkswagen is giving us a hybrid.
Not that this is a half-hearted effort, mind you. Rather than license someone else's technology, Volkswagen has taken their own road. Their goal was to make the most un-hybrid-like hybrid they could -- one that sips gas like a Toyota Prius but drives like a proper VW. And if you'll forgive me for giving away the ending early -- I never was much good at foreshadowing -- they've done it. If VW had pried off the hybrid badges and put black tape over the hybrid power gauge, I'd never have guessed this thing had a gas-electric drivetrain -- until I calculated my gas mileage, that is.
In the Driver's Seat: Jetta puts on its best duds
I've always liked the Jetta's for its interior space; it occupies that "tweener" space between compact and mid-size sedans, and that doesn't change with the hybrid. Like most hybrids, the Jetta mounts its battery pack over the rear axle, but instead of truncating the trunk, VW has provided a shelf -- a brilliant idea, because even though volume drops from 15.5 cubic feet to 11.3, you can use that space above the battery pack for suitcases.
My biggest complaint about the regular Jetta is the cheap interior fittings. Volkswagen has addressed this by giving the Hybrid the soft-touch dashboard from the hot-rod Jetta GLI, along with a two-tone color scheme and nicer trim. (Starting in 2013, the diesel-powered Jetta TDI and top-of-the-line 2.5 SEL will get the same treatment.) The effect works: The Jetta Hybrid feels nearly as classy as the bigger Passat. It's nice, for once, to sit in a Jetta that feels worth the price tag -- which in this case ranges from $25,790 for the base model with Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control, up to $31,975 for the SEL Premium with a sunroof, navigation and Fender stereo.
As with most hybrids, there are some minor instrumentation differences. The tachometer is replaced by a power meter (marked "charge", 0 - 100% and "boost"), a good visual aid if you're trying to hypermile. The stereo's LCD touch-screen has a traditional power-flow screen as well as a pat-yourself-on-the-back graph that shows how many minutes the Jetta Hybrid has run in zero-emissions mode.
On the Road: The hybrid that doesn't drive like a hybrid
VW's hybrid driveline uses the same approach as Honda, sandwiching an electric motor between the engine and transmission to provide boost power as needed. (Toyota and Ford use the gas engine and electric motors as multiple inputs to a power-split transmission.) The engine itself is a 1.4 liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder, and the transmission is a 7-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic. Unlike the Honda system, the engine can be declutched from the driveline, allowing it to be shut off while the car cruises on battery power.
The Jetta Hybrid is unique in that it doesn't seem to blend the two power modes as much as other hybrids. Pull away from a stop and the Jetta moves off under battery power, transitioning to gasoline as your speed builds. Hold a steady, moderate speed and the system declutches the engine and runs on electricity. An "E-Mode" button forces the Jetta to run all-electric at up to 44 MPH, with a range of just over a mile. Nail the throttle and the gas engine and the electric motor work together, delivering 170 hp and 184 lb-ft and providing acceleration and passing power comparable to the 2.5 liter Jetta. The ride and handling are even better, thanks to the independent rear suspension from the Jetta GLI and a choice of 15", 16" and 17" wheels that subtly alter the road manners (15" rides better, 17" handles better).
What the Jetta does best is the transition between gas and electric power; I hardly noticed the engine starting and stopping. What it worst is braking: Like most hybrids, the Jetta uses a mix of regular and regenerative braking (the motor/generator charges the battery, creating resistance that slows the car). But the pedal feel is unpredictable -- you never know if it will bite right away or slide halfway to the floor, and a slight increase in pressure might slam you into your seat belt or do nothing at all. It's a big black mark on an otherwise excellent car.
So what about fuel economy? Volkswagen did not have official EPA figures at our press preview, but they said they expected a combined figure of 45 MPG (5 MPG less the Prius) with highway MPG higher than city. I took several gentle loops and repeatedly saw fuel economy figures ranging from the low 40s to the mid 50s. Unfortunately, the Jetta's turbo engine requires pricey premium fuel; most hybrids run on regular.
Journey's End: A good alternative -- but so is the diesel
Overall, I'm impressed with the Jetta Hybrid. In many ways, it's the exact opposite of the Toyota Prius -- while the Prius screams "HYBRID" to everyone inside and out, the Jetta Hybrid is as subtle as... well, as a Jetta. The only thing it has in common with the Prius is the gas mileage.
What I like best about the Jetta Hybrid is that it gives Volkswagen buyers two solid high-MPG choices. Personally, I prefer the diesel-powered TDI. It's less expensive (about $2,500 over a comparably-equipped gasoline Jetta, vs $4,500 for the hybrid), it's mechanically simpler, and it regularly out-performs its EPA estimates of 30 MPG city and 42 MPG highway, especially on the open road. That said, there are situations where hybrids have the advantage: Hybrids generally get better fuel economy than diesels at lower speeds, especially in slow stop-and-go traffic. And in most areas of the country, gasoline is cheaper than diesel fuel (although the Jetta Hybrid's need for premium narrows the gap). If you do a lot of long-distance or highway driving, you're better off with a diesel, but if most of your driving is in town, a hybrid is the way to go.
But should you buy this hybrid? I think you should certainly consider it. The Jetta Hybrid is handsome, roomy, and easy-to-live with, and aside from the lousy braking feel, it feels exceptionally well engineered. If you want to impress the neighbors with your eco-friendly attitude, buy a Prius -- but if you want a car that's enjoyable to drive and leaves a smaller environmental footprint, the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is the car for you. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid:
- Smooth, un-hybrid-like driving experienced
- Excellent ride, handling, and fun-to-drive factor
- Roomy interior and well-thought-out trunk
What I didn't like about the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid:
- Unpredictable brake feel
- Requires premium fuel
- High prices on higher trim levels