Picture a plodding Percheron that becomes a thundering thoroughbred when prodded, or mild-mannered Clark Kent as he sheds his suit to soar away as Superman.
Those are exaggerations, of course, but they give some idea of the personality of the 2013 Jetta Hybrid, a new car from Volkswagen that is designed to have it both ways.
Until now, VW has focused mainly on diesel engines to improve the fuel economy of its cars. But in an era of proliferation of gasoline-electric hybrids, the company could not sit idly by.
Yet being a German manufacturer, it could not ignore the performance pole of the equation. Thus it is that we are introduced to the Jetta Hybrid, the second hybrid after the Touareg SUV and the first hybrid sedan to bear the VW badge in this country.
It is a car of contradictory urges. In ordinary driving, it is reined in to deliver fuel economy that is rated at 42/48/45 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined fuel consumption cycles. It does that with an electric motor and gasoline engine that send their power to the front wheels through a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission.
It can do limited duty on strictly electric power, which enhances the fuel economy. If you feather-foot the throttle, you can squeeze maybe a mile of slug-like motion from the 27-horsepower electric motor. Mostly, however, you'll be using 170 horsepower from the motor connected to the 1.4-liter gasoline engine -- and even that is leisurely because the Jetta Hybrid is set up to resist gas guzzling.
But you can force the issue by jamming through the accelerator pedal's resistance. Then you experience the other way, when the gasoline engine's turbocharger spools up and gives you a kick in the shoulder blades. Suddenly, you forget that this is a mild-mannered hybrid. Of course, regular behavior of that sort severely affects the fuel economy, but it's nice to know you have a sort of afterburner to avoid trouble.
The Jetta claims the title of fastest hybrid. In October 2012, Motor Trend Magazine's road test editor Carlos Lago averaged more than 186 miles an hour over two runs in a modified Jetta Hybrid at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Southern California Timing Association certified it as the world's fastest hybrid, according to VW.
Not surprisingly, the turbo Jetta Hybrid requires premium gasoline, which impacts the fuel economy. But it's doubtful anybody will mind. Another minor downside is that the 60-cell lithium ion battery reduces the trunk to 11 cubic feet of space, compared to a standard gasoline Jetta's 15.5 cubic feet. The gasoline engine and regenerative braking keep the battery charged.
In daily urban and freeway driving, the Jetta Hybrid is pleasant and uninspiring. Handling is decent and it tracks true down the highway with good steering feel. It's only when you punch the pedal and get the turbo going that things get exciting.
The twin-clutch automatic transmission is a computer-operated gearbox that shifts smoothly and is uncanny in its capability to anticipate the driver's inputs, especially when shifting manually. It always seems to know what the driver plans to do next. However, the manual mode does not include shift paddles on the steering wheel.
Inside, the front bucket seats are well bolstered to keep the torso in place around corners, and they provide long-distance support and comfort compromised slightly by the upholstery. Volkswagen calls it VW-Tex, which is a perforated vinyl that is marginally less comfortable than leather. However, it's about the classiest looking vinyl you're likely to find anywhere. On the test car, it was done up in contrasting gray and black that looked better than leather on some other cars.
The test car was an SE model, which had a starting price of $27,785. It covered full safety equipment, including electronic stability control and tire pressure monitoring. Also included were automatic climate control, SiriusXM satellite radio, pushbutton starting, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, LED taillights and alloy wheels. With a $35 first aid kit, the sticker price was $27,820.
There was some evidence of cost cutting: no backup camera and the front seatbacks had power adjustments but the fore-and-aft adjustments were manual. Also, there was no automatic setting for the headlights, which only had an on-off switch. And the passenger side sun visor did not slide to block sunlight from the side.
Model: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SE four-door sedan.
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline; 20 kW electric motor, 170 combined horsepower.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
Overall length: 15 feet 3 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 94/11 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,312 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 42/48/45 mpg. Premium fuel required.
Base price, including destination charge: $27,785.
Price as tested: $27,820.