America: land of the free, home of the hybrid. Sure there are people in other nations who also buy hybrids, but many favor diesel power instead, while the D-word still doesn't go down well with US drivers. A gasoline/electric hybrid, though, that's a whole other ball game.
Recognizing this, and despite having some fantastic diesel engines in its global portfolio, Volkswagen has dipped its corporate toe into the gas/electric waters once again (following the 2011 Touareg Hybrid) and has come up with the 2013 Jetta Hybrid.
It's a turbo-hybrid, to boot. Electric motors are known for maximum torque from zero revs but turbo engines are similarly popular for lush torque at low revs. Putting them together was a great idea. Total twist is 184 lb-ft from just 1000rpm, which is limited by the transmission but is enough punch for inclines or passing opportunities. The full combined output is unleashed either on kick-down or when the DSG is put into "S" mode.
For a car returning a claimed 45mpg average, this isn't an anemic driveline. The 150hp EA211 1.4-liter four-cylinder TSI turbo engine (which runs on premium gas) is supplemented by a 27hp electric motor (placed before the transmission) to conjure up 170hp. It drives the front wheels via VW's excellent DSG seven-speed gearbox in favor of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) used by some of the competition. But where these are slow to respond and prone to drone, DSG is a joy to use. Inevitably, the Jetta Hybrid lacks paddle shifters but pushing the lever forward or back still adds to the fun.
And fun can be found, which isn't a common statement for hybrids. The Jetta seems to overcome the usual problem of low rolling resistance tires, electric steering assistance and an odd-feeling brake pedal (because of regenerative braking). In fact, the Continental ProContact tires don't mess up the handling, the steering feels quick, and the brake action is quickly learned.
What's more, the car's nose tracks around corners in an unflappable manner and the tail behaves itself. It's also the quickest compact hybrid, assuming VW's 0-60mph time of 8.6sec is correct...
Given that people don't purchase hybrids for the thrills, the Jetta straddles the line between these contradictory elements quite well.
There is a price, however, and not just in terms of cash. To make space for the 60-cell lithium-ion battery pack, trunk volume is reduced from 15.5 to 11.3cuft. The pack is raised toward the rear of the load space, so some practicality is lost as well. Weight is another factor, with the hybrid 229 lb heavier than a 2.5-liter Jetta automatic.
The Jetta Hybrid comes in base, SE, SEL or Premium trim, with amenities such as leather, nav, rear-view camera, LED headlamps and premium audio introduced at various points. Interestingly, the lower trim's cabin seemed quieter, possibly thanks to smaller wheels (15" rather than 17") and therefore less tire noise.
In our real-world test over 141 relatively traffic-free miles, but with plenty of elevation changes, our SEL averaged 36mph and 44.1mpg. And we weren't hyper-miling to set any records.
On downhill sections the car can "coast" up to 84mph with the engine off while recharging the battery. In fact, VW claims the Jetta Hybrid can run for 1.2 miles in electric-only mode and accelerate up to 37mph before the gas engine kicks in. That figure increases to 44mph in special E-Mode, but the engine always joined in earlier during our drive. Presumably, the battery either wasn't sufficiently charged or cool enough to meet the demands. Fortunately, you can see battery charge and drivetrain status on a special display that appears in the main screen on any model except the basic one.
A smaller-than-usual gas tank holds 11.9 gallons instead of 14.5, but range is still expected to be around 500 miles.
Thanks to a bespoke aero kit, a drag coefficient of 0.28 represents an improvement over the regular Jetta's 0.30 (the Prius is 0.25).
Prices start at $24995 and rise to $31180. Even with the extra tech and eco-kudos of a hybrid system, parting with $31k for a Jetta is a stretch. But if you're looking to save fuel, help the environment and have some zing, the Jetta Hybrid could be the ideal compromise. However, lets not forget the Jetta TDI starts at just $22990 and offers a combined economy figure of 42mpg with more torque. It's slightly slower to 60mph but ironically could be one of the Jetta Hybrid's biggest competitors.
2013 VW Jetta Hybrid
Engine 1.4-liter, inline-four DOHC 16v turbocharged and intercooled with TSI direct injection, water-cooled electric motor
Transmission seven-speed DSG semi-automatic
Suspension McPherson struts f, multi-link r
Brakes 11.3" vented discs f, 10.7" solid r
Wheels & Tires 15x6", 195/65 R15 up to 17x6", 205/50 R17
Power TSI-150hp at 5000rpm
Power combined-170hp at 5000rpm
Torque TSI-184 lb-ft at 1600rpm
Torque electric-114 lb-ft constant
Torque combined-184 lb-ft at 1000rpm
Top Speed 125 mph
Economy 42/48/45mpg city/highway/combined (estimated)
MSRP $24995 (plus destination)