Test Drive: A hybrid with a kick

Friday April 26, 2013

MANCHESTER -- A review of the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid could read quite simply: "The driver's hybrid."

Now a hybrid Volkwagen may seem incongruous parked alongside the rest of the lineup, especially given the German automaker's staunch backing of diesel passenger vehicles -- TDIs are available today from Golf to Touareg.

And in a now-crowded market of hybrids (a segment the Toyota Prius pioneered in 1997) Volkswagen's Jetta-come-lately may be perceived at a disadvantage. But their entry shoots to the top, chiefly because of all its solid car components.

Frugality a foregone conclusion with hybrid badging -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 42 mpg city, 48 mpg highway here -- the new-for-2013 Jetta Hybrid succeeds because of the underlying platform. Similar to the Jetta TDI SportWagen driven by the Banner last August, the gasoline-electric hybrid version offers the same solid construction and engaging drive, cloaked in handsome packaging. (The hybrid-specific front grille treatment here imparts Darth Vader overtones, keeping with the recent Super Bowl commercial, particularly in the as-tested Deep Black Pearl.)

The Jetta Hybrid rides comfortably while still feeling sporty, to the point where the handling contrasts with steering that may be a touch too slow at initial turn-in -- but only when you're pushing it.

Interior-wise, what some could call outmoded I prefer to call restrained: The center touchscreen display is functional and all dashboard controls look like they belong in a car as opposed to a video arcade. The most notable difference inside between the hybrid and other Jettas may be the tachometer, which -- oh no, wait, that's not a tach at all. Replacing the traditional engine speed readout is a "power" meter that gauges where your foot is on the accelerator or brake pedal.

For economy's sake, this switch makes sense. During around-town and normal cruising, drivers can keep it below "4" (as in 40 percent, not 4,000 rpms) for top frugality. Foot to the floor, the meter's needle pegs to the right and you realize there's a turbocharger under the hood.

The Jetta Hybrid feels punchy and chirps its front tires from a standstill, but the fun factor is deflated a little when you try to put the dual-clutch DSG transmission into manual shift mode: Without a tachometer or much noise (engine or exhaust) at all, it's difficult for the driver to judge when to shift. There's also an additional speed added to the DSG, the only available transmission in the hybrid: seven gears, count them, seven.

"Sure it's a hybrid. But it's a turbo hybrid."

Marketing out of Wolfsburg touts the fact there's a turbo attached to this hybrid mill that, in combination with the electric motor, allows the gasoline four-cylinder to shed displacement: It's only 1.4 liters, smaller than that found in the regular Prius. But combined power totals 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, a healthy dose 30 percent greater than the Toyota that gives the Volkswagen normal-car acceleration and passing ability.

The Jetta Hybrid incorporates regenerative braking to replenish the lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk, and can cruise all-electrically (read: emissions-free) for more than a mile, up to 44 mph. Unusually grabby brakes require growing accustomed to.

According to the on-board computer, I managed 36 mpg enjoying myself on back country roads and a cool 46 mpg commuting back to the dealership the next morning. While the Prius manages better EPA estimates, potential buyers should be aware of decreasing returns here. Going from 20 to 25 mpg is a 25 percent improvement in economy; moving from 40 to 45 mpg is half that, and at some point it's not worth niggling over a few mpgs.

Which Jetta for me?

With similar power output, the Jetta reaches 60 mph (and crosses a quarter-mile) in roughly the same time no matter what's under the hood, be it the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter five-cylinder, 2.0-liter TDI, or 1.4-liter hybrid. (The GLI's 2.0-liter turbo gasoline four is still the fastest and most fun.)

How many miles you drive -- and in what fashion -- then determine whether the increasing upfront costs of the diesel or hybrid make the most sense. Over the base Jetta, there's about a $6,000 premium for the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, which starts at $24,995. In SEL trim as tested, the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price comes in at $29,325.

Worth noting for fun: A modified Jetta Hybrid was clocked averaging 187.147 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting a new speed record for production hybrids.

Follow @Zeke_Wright on Twitter or email ewright@benningtonbanner.com


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