In a diesel-versus-hybrid comparison that usually pits Volkswagen against the rest of the world, did anyone really see this one coming?
Volkswagen building a hybrid? One that beats its own diesel model in fuel economy and comes close in price? Talk about a shift. Talk about the 2013 Jetta Hybrid.
Traditionally, fuel economy is what the Jetta - and a number of other VWs for that matter - does best, especially versions fitted with the automaker's 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (TDI) that features plenty of power, but maintains a strict fuel-consuming diet.
Despite all its strengths, the TDI is clearly not the first choice among North American car shoppers who are embracing gas-electric hybrids in ever-greater numbers. Not to be left out, VW has fitted its Jetta sedan with hybrid technology, but with some unorthodox differences.
The powertrain consists of a unique 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine worth 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.
It's paired with a water-cooled electric motor rated at 27 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. Electricity comes from a lithium-ion battery pack located behind the rear seat. Combined, the system generates 170 net horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That's less than a Toyota Camry Hybrid or Ford Fusion Hybrid, but keep in mind that the Jetta is closer in size to the Honda Civic and its estimated 8.6-second zero-to-60-mph time handily trumps the Civic Hybrid by about 1.5 seconds and the Jetta TDI by half a second.
Assisting the Jetta Hybrid in the performance department is a seven-speed automated manual transmission (Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG) that features rapid-fire gear changes. It can be left in automatic mode or the driver can take control manually. The DSG also features a sport mode that holds each gear for a longer duration when accelerating, but at the expense of fuel economy that in "normal" mode is estimated at 43-mpg city and 47 highway. That beats the Jetta TDI's 30/42 highway figures and rivals the slower Civic Hybrid's 44/44 ratings.
The only chink in the Jetta's fuel-efficiency armor is the turbo engine's demands for more expensive premium gasoline, which takes some of the edge off its otherwise stellar fuel-savings plan.
On the road, the Jetta's hybrid unit can briefly operate on electric power for up to 1.2 miles and at speeds up to 37 mph in standard mode, or 44 mph in "E-Mode". However anything more than a gentle nudge of the pedal will tell the gas engine to join in. The reality is the electric-only mode works best in slow-crawling traffic or when descending a hill, at which time the gas engine completely disengages from the drivetrain.
Physical modifications aimed at maximizing the Hybrid's fuel economy include a cold-air intake for the engine plus a special front air dam, side skirts and rear spoiler for the body. The underbody has been fitted with extra panels designed to further reduce air resistance and turbulence. The interior is pretty much standard Jetta fare, with the exception of a Power Meter that replaces the tachometer - which seems odd with the ability to manually shift the car - and displays when the Hybrid is operating in gas or electric modes, or when both are working together.
Jetta Hybrid pricing begins at $25,800, including destination charges (as a special-order model) and includes most of the basics, but few luxury items. The SE tosses in Light Emitting Diode (LED) taillights, touch-screen audio system and an "energy flow display" depicting gas engine and/or electric motor function. The SEL adds a power sunroof, heated and power-operated front seats and a navigation system.
Atop the Hybrid hierarchy, the SEL Premium gets high-intensity bi-xenon headlights (very bright high and low beams) that pivot as the car turns, Fender-brand audio package and a rearview camera.
The Hybrid might not displace the slightly cheaper Jetta TDI turbo-diesel as the fuel-saver's VW of choice, but it makes a sportier alternative to mainstream hybrids with their too-serious one-dimensional approach to lowering fuel consumption.
What you should know: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact sedan
Engine (hp): 1.4-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (150) with 27-horsepower electric motor (170, net)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual
Market position: With mid-size sedans constituting most of the Toyota Prius hybrid's challengers, the smaller Jetta finds itself as a more direct competitor than most. That will likely change as technology costs continue to decrease.
Points: Jetta now offers a range of fuel-saving choices, including diesel and hybrid; Prius remains tops in fuel economy, but is more of an economy appliance- than a sporty road car; Seven-speed DSG transmission a breakthrough for hybrid use; Too bad about the turbo's premium fuel requirement; Expect a VW Passat Hybrid version soon.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 43/47; Base price (incl. destination) $25,800
Base price: $24,800
King of the hybrids now offers a range of models, including a plug-in version.
Honda Civic Hybrid
Base price: $25,000
The Jetta's direct competitors stylish, comfortable and fuel-efficient.
Base price: $26,450
Well-priced mid-size model offers great looks and great gas mileage.