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.
In particular, the Jetta Hybrid is significantly smoother and less obviously a meshing of two power sources than the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, also a single-motor, twin-clutch design.
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.