If a hybrid vehicle is what you seek, there are two ends of the spectrum. On the left: the Toyota Prius, sipping fuel at 51mpg through an uninspiring 98 hp engine for $24K. On the right: the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, which will run you close to $100k, with an “is-this-really-a-hybrid” 22mpg due to its explosive 380 hp engine. Thanks to the people at Volkswagen, however, the 2013 Jetta Hybrid ($25,000) finally provides a middle ground alternative (albeit still leftward leaning).
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In the past, Volkswagen has relied on their TDI (Turbo Diesel Injection) engines to fulfill the demand for increased fuel economy, but lately the word “hybrid” has gained more street cred than a Kendrick Lamar mix tape. So VW grabbed some batteries, a 20kW motor, a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox (DSG) and a 1.4-liter turbo, threw them together (might be paraphrasing here) and got a car with 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
The Jetta Hybrid uses a clutch to decouple the engine and drivetrain and shut off the engine entirely, allowing the car to coast silently while utilizing only the battery to maintain speed; then, once deemed necessary by the earth-friendly tech, it seamlessly reengages once again. This happens most often when driving downhill or on a flat freeway stretch, when the object in motion wants to stay in motion and doesn’t need loads of power to keep it rolling. It’s kind of like when you used to shut off the car and cruise into your parents driveway (stealth mode) after breaking curfew.
We had the chance to road trip it from East Tennessee to our nation’s capital and back, exploiting the stickered 48 mpg (we averaged 41), crisp Fender sound system and winter-ready seat heaters. During the 1,000+ mile East Coast jaunt, our $31,000 fully loaded SEL model performed quite well, and left us grateful: it got hybrid numbers without driving like one.
They’ve replaced the traditional tachometer in the dash with a “Power Meter” that indicates either when the regenerative braking is charging the battery, the engine has entered “sailing” mode (see sidebar), or when the engine and motor are working in unison to give shocking (think Will Ferrell in Elf) acceleration. Pushing the E-Mode button increases the car’s “pure electric” threshold to 44 mph (or after 1.2 miles) before the engine takes over, providing a ninja-like getaway. The interior materials are higher quality than a base Jetta, with a soft dash and cow-friendly faux leather seats and accents; the back seat has decent room — the same as the base model. And the best part? Streaming audio via Bluetooth so I didn’t have to plug and unplug my phone every time we stopped for a taco.
All hybrids, however, have inherent compromises. Those fuel-saving batteries ended up stealing precious trunk space and caused our suitcases and Christmas gifts to spill over to the back seat, which is not safe for a parked car. Another dark mark of the hybrid is the regenerative braking, which uses the motor to slow the car and send energy back into the battery. The abrupt “regen” and somewhat uncomfortable seats created a pairing that took some getting used to; the sport mode and paddle shifters were more like decoration because the additional 500 pounds of hybrid-ness kept the cornering soft.
Overall, the 2013 Jetta Hybrid does what it aims to do: provide great fuel economy with German-ish driving dynamics. All things considered, it’s probably the best hybrid on the market. But if offsetting fuel economy is your true aim, you’ll do well to consider a Nissan Leaf and 458 Italia to keep things balanced.