Road Review: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta HybridPosted: February 28, 2013
This is my mom’s new car, Volkswagen’s brand new Jetta Hybrid. Her Volvo was rear-ended and totaled back in December, so naturally the car search began. For some reason this car managed to fly under my radar until just recently. There hasn’t been much media coverage, and it debuted quietly at NAIAS last year. I had been triaging, and test driving a few different options when my dad asked me what I thought of the Jetta Hybrid. That got me looking, and when I saw the details, I was pretty blown away. I went and test drove one the next day, and my recommendation was set. This was the car, and you will soon see why.
Hybrids have really caught on as a way of saving gas here in America. For most hybrids, the focus is on fuel economy alone, all in an effort to woo people with the showroom window sticker. The undisputed leader of the hybrid movement has been Toyota, with cars that are as much a political statement as they are a form of transportation. We all know the Prius, some love it, some hate it, but it has set the standard for the hybrid segment. Other carmakers, like Ford, have hybrids too, but they are basically copies of the Toyota’s design formula. Because of this, people tend to know what to expect when they see a hybrid, but Volkswagen has taken a different approach.
The thing is, with traditional hybrids, the good fuel economy has always been used as an excuse to justify substantial shortcomings in other areas. “Yes it’s really slow….. but it’s a hybrid”, “Yes it handles like crap, and needs to be driven at a snails pace…. but its a hybrid”, “Yes it only seats four…. but its a hybrid”, “Yes it is a rolling bumper sticker that shoves my political beliefs down everyone else’s throats….. but its a hybrid”. I think you see my point.
This whole “but it’s a hybrid” excuse approach is the reason why many people dislike hybrids on the whole. There is often too much compromise in vehicle functionality, and too much stigma of branding yourself as a tree hugging hippie. What about the people who just want a competent, normal looking car that is able to get outstanding fuel economy? Why must you have to make tradeoffs to have a hybrid, and why can’t everything about the car just be great?
Here is where the Jetta Hybrid comes in. VW hasn’t just jumped on the same bandwagon everyone else has. They have been smart, calculating, and have come up with an entirely different sort of hybrid car. I like to refer to it as the “and it’s a hybrid” type of hybrid car.
One of the reasons I think I overlooked this car when it came out was because it just looked so normal. There is no radical aerodynamic shape to this car, or huge “HYBRID” written across the side. It just looks like your typical Jetta, which is a handsome and ordinary looking automobile. It is not a rolling political statement, and the “Hybrid” badges that are present on the car are small and tasteful. A discerning eye will be able to distinguish it, but to most your higher efficiency will be incognito.
One functional exterior change is the addition of a solid front grill, which lowers aerodynamic drag. Our top-range “SEL Premium” model also comes with some eye-catching spirally wheels, which I think look totally awesome. LED running lights and taillights are also fitted along with HID headlights. All of this would look sweet on any Jetta, though, so it’s not really a “Hey! Look at me, I’m in a hybrid!” sort of thing.
VW has placed the Hybrid in the upper echelons of the Jetta range, so as a result the interior is quite nice. Leather (or leatherette) comes standard on all of the Hybrid trims. Our car came loaded with every option, Navigation, Infotainment, Fender sound system, back up camera, sunroof, etc, all of it is included as standard.
Materials are all metal and plastic, but of a solid quality that expected from a German car. VW kind of straddles the line between luxury and economy class with their lineup, so the result here is a nicely appointed mid range product.
The front seats are a nice mix of comfort and support. There are no huge side bolsters like you see in a GTI/GLI, but they still hold you in place pretty nicely on the move. Finding the right driving position is easy, and you get comfortable in the car right away. The rear seats also have quite a bit of room for a car this size. In fact, if I sit behind my mom, who is just 5 feet tall, I have Audi A8 sort of legroom. Five people can fit comfortably in this car, and with four everyone will have more than enough space to stretch out.
One aspect the Jetta Hybrid does share with other hybrids is a somewhat compromised trunk, but please don’t let anyone embellish too much over this. The trunk still has plenty of useable space for most people who would buy a midsize sedan like this. There is a big hump in the back of the trunk where the battery is, but it acts more as a shelf in terms of storage, with a nice amount of space before it. Germans always being clever, VW fitted the car with both 60/40 folding seats, and a small passthrough in the middle that is great for things like hockey sticks. When folded down, the seats are about even with the top of the battery shelf in the trunk, so there is no awkward ledge to deal with. Overall, despite cargo space being little compromised over a standard Jetta, the Hybrid is still plenty functional for most buyers looking in this segment. We have had the car for a month now, and have never found it even remotely tight on space.
On the road: The hyrbidy stuff
Overall the Jetta Hybrid drives just like a normal car, but there are a few little things to get used to as you live with it. The biggest thing is how to go about using the electric motor. There is an “E-Mode” button, and you can drive the car on electricity alone for around 2 miles, but that is not the most effective way to use it. The car’s hybrid system works well on its own, so focus more on how much gas pedal you are giving it, and it will switch to electricity automatically when it can. I find the most effective way to use the system is to use the electric motor to maintain 25-35mph through towns, but use the gas motor to get up to the speed you will be cruising at. VW calls this “sailing”, and the car can even do it on the highway, at times, up to speeds of 84mph.
Between the two dials there is a center screen that can show you various things about the car. I find it most useful to leave it on the “Hybrid” screen that shows me what the car’s systems are doing. It lets me know when E-Mode engages, as well as what portion of the electric motor’s power I am using (if you exceed it, then the gas motor turns on). You can also see your real time fuel economy, total trip fuel economy numbers, and various other things about the car on the MFI page.
Most of the time the transition between electric and gas modes is seamless. The only time I have found any jerkiness is when I gun it from a stop. The car wants to start off in electric mode, but then senses the heavy throttle input, and the engine kicks on pretty hard. The way around this is to get the car rolling a little bit before you nail the throttle. It’s that not hard to do smoothly, and you get used to doing it fast.
The brakes are also a bit more grabby than you’d think if you’re used to a normal car. This is because of the regenerative braking system, which uses friction from the brakes to charge the battery. The car just seems to stop harder than you’d think at first, so you wind up using a lighter foot on the brake pedal when slowing down. Again, its easy to get used to.
Glance down at your instruments, and you’ll notice that, in place of the rev counter, VW has fitted a sort of “how’s my driving?” gauge. I tells you how efficiently you are driving, and when the battery is being charged. The green zone is where the battery is being charged by regenerative braking or coasting. The blue zone is where you will get the best fuel economy. After the blue zone is where you will get a decent amount of power. The “Boost” position denotes maximum power, where both the engine and electric motor give you everything they can muster for the cause of acceleration. I found this gauge to be similar to the “Power Reserve Meter” found in a Rolls Royce, only much more functional, and much less snobby.
The not-so-hybridy stuff
This is where the Jetta Hybrid separates itself from the rest of the hybrid pack. This car performs in an entirely competent manner, and not just for a hybrid, but for any car in the Jetta’s segment. In fact, it drives exactly as you would expect a sporty, European car should, without compromise. That’s right people, I said “sporty”, and I mean in handling, in speed, and in the way it feels to the driver. Lets take a look at what has gone into making this happen.
Believe it or not this economy minded hybrid shares the same basic suspension found on the Jetta GLI, just with softer settings. This gives the Jetta Hybrid very confident, composed, and dare I say fun, handling when going through corners. The chassis feels nice and communicative, you can really sense the road surface, but bumps are also soaked up nicely. Also, despite all of its extra electronic baggage, the Jetta Hybrid only weighs a little over 3300lbs, so it remains reasonably light. Its handling is not as solid that of the GLI by any means, but it is certainly good enough to have some fun with on a winding back road. It is also noticeably more comfortable over bumps than a GLI, something the standard hybrid crowd will definitely appreciate.
The Jetta Hybrid handles well by any reasonable standard, but in the context of a hybrid, it is truly in a different league. And believe it or not, having a good suspension allows you to conserve more momentum through corners, which helps your fuel economy. In a nutshell, if you can keep a steady pace of 55-65mph on a winding road, then you should be able to see highway-like MPG numbers on normal roads….. now imagine that!
Mixing with the great suspension, the steering feels nice and connected as well. I’ve driven a Prius, a Volt, and a Camry Hybrid, and they all felt like an appliance from behind the wheel. Traditional hybrids have overly-light steering, that gives no road feel whatsoever. The Jetta is an entirely different story. It uses the same steering found in other VW products, and it feels responsive with a good amount of feedback for an electrically assisted setup. The Jetta Hybrid is a tight driving car, and connects well to the driver, helping to give that “sporty” feel I was talking about earlier.
Under the hood VW took a very different route from most Hybrid carmakers. Most hybrids use an Atkinson cycle engine, which helps sip gas, but generally sucks for any sort of performance. This condemns most Hybrids to a life in the slow lane, with barely enough grunt to get on the highway safely. This Jetta, on the other hand, has a turbo. VW’s 1.4 TSI, to be exact, producing 150hp and 184ft/lbs of torque. A similar type of engine, with similar performance, is used in Fiat’s performance heavy Abarth. Add in the electric motor, and the total becomes 170hp, right on par with the Jetta 2.5. Also keep in mind that being turbocharged, peak torque is available from 1000rpm-4500rpm. That means that the Jetta Hybrid will be able to supply useable power anytime you put your foot down, and on the road it feels effortless.
So what does this translate to on real roads? In a nutshell, I’ve had no trouble at all reaching 80-90mph when merging onto the highway. No waiting or anything, I just put the foot down, get over to the left lane, and when I look down, there’s 90mph. So the Jetta Hybrid is actually pretty fast, especially compared to other hybrids. It also has no trouble commanding itself in traffic, there is plenty of squirt to pass slow people, or get by an 18 wheeler on the freeway. VW claims 0-60 takes 8.5 seconds, but I saw a recent test that achieved 0-60 in 7.1 seconds. Compare that to the Civic Hybrid’s 10.8 seconds, and just consider how much more time you will have in your day with the Jetta. Being German, and designed to handle the Autobahn, VW also claims the Jetta Hybrid can reach a 130mph top speed. Just think of how much more trouble Al Gore’s son could get in if he had one of these.
Another area where VW didn’t follow the herd is the transmission. Most Hybrids use a CVT, which is essentially a glorified rubber band that connects the engine to the wheels. VW decided that wasn’t the way to go, so they fitted this Jetta with their highly acclaimed 7 speed DSG gearbox. Most people will drive it like a normal automatic car, but enthusiasts will be delighted at the responsive shifts in manual mode. That said, there is no rev counter on the dash, so precise redlining isn’t really going to happen. In fact, that is the one real niggle I have found with the car so far. They could have easily had a rev counter automatically pop up on the digital display between the gauges when manual mode was selected, but they didn’t. Honestly, it would be such a simple thing to add, they could even use the same “E-Mode bar” and just label it “RPM”. I am hoping there may be a software update for this in the future, but for now the manual mode is more of a functional control, like selecting lower gears in the mountains. I find it best to just put the car in Sport (S) mode for spirited driving, because it does pretty a good job shifting on its own, and it becomes a lot more responsive to throttle inputs.
Look at everything above, and now consider that VW claims this car will average 45mpg (42city/48hwy). The Jetta Hybrid is a very different approach to the hybrid automobile, one that is far more competent on real roads than those before it. It is very European, and still has everything you’d expect from a European car. Premium fuel is required because of its boosted engine, but you will only need to fill an 11.8 gallon fuel tank, so it will never kill your wallet at the pump. The Jetta also matches the Prius’ highway MPG rating, as well as its theoretical highway range.
Another thing I’ve noticed is how I feel while driving the car. It is very easy to relax in, but in a far different way than I found in the Prius. The Prius kind of forces you to relax behind the wheel because it has no performance ability whatsoever. It is more of a “I had better relax so I don’t hurt myself” sort of thing. However, being forced into driving at a snail’s pace doesn’t help you relax because it creates an angry traffic jam behind you. The Jetta is entirely different, it’s more like a luxury car. You can relax because the car feels confident on the road, so even if you’re driving fast, you can keep your pulse rate low. That, for me, yields true relaxation behind the wheel, because I know I can trust the car’s abilities.
As I said before, this Jetta is a totally different type of hybrid. It will do all of the European car stuff mentioned above….. “And it’s a hybrid”. There are no excuses to make, and that one significant detail to add. It would seem that the Germans have set their full blitzkrieg upon the established hybrid segment.
In the market
All that said, I’m not so sure this car will steal that many Prius or Camry buyers from Toyota because the Jetta seems to appeal to a different sort of motorist. My family, for example, was not considering any hybrids in our search until we found this car. We desire competent performance, and don’t like to risk our lives struggling to merge onto the highway. This Jetta offered us the sort of real world performance competency we sought, with the enormous added bonus of hybrid fuel economy. I think buyers of the Jetta Hybrid will tend to be more serious drivers, who want to save money, but don’t want to drive around in an toaster. Prius people are a different sort by in large. I think the real worry should lie on Buick, Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Ford, etc, because this Jetta vastly outguns their hybrids in performance, and decimates their standard sedans in fuel economy.
Pricing for the Jetta Hybrid starts at $25k, and ours came in around $32k for the Premium SEL. This puts it right in the neighborhood with the Prius family, the Camry Hybrid, and Civic Hybrid. The Jetta is a way nicer car in terms of fit and finish, though, especially near the top of the range.
Compared to the Chevy Volt, the Premium SEL is about the same price as the base Volt after the $7500 tax rebate. But keep in mind, Volt buyers will still be making monthly payments on a $40,000 car, and Jetta buyers will have $10,000 less to pay off. Also, the Jetta just feels like it’s put together more solidly than the Volt at this point. I love the idea of the Volt, and its “plug in hybrid” design, but it just isn’t worth the money, especially with this new Jetta out now.
Looking at Acura’s new ILX Hybrid, one has to wonder if a thinking person could buy one. The ILX Hybrid has to make due with a completely gutless 111hp, compared to the Jetta’s 170hp, and the ILX pales in comparison in MPG with an average of 38mpg to the Jetta’s 45mpg. Now consider that the ILX Hybrid costs around $3,000 more than the Jetta Hybrid at all trim levels, and you can see just how dumb someone would have to be to buy the Acura…. yes, dumb.
Average fuel economy wise the Jetta is just 5mpg down on the almighty Prius, 2mpg down on the Fusion Hybrid, but outperforms both by a large degree. The Jetta gets better MPG than the Prius V, Camry Hybrid, Civic Hybrid, and the Chevy Volt when it is running on gas. It is right in the middle of the pack, as far as window stickers go. You can make fuel economy the end-all-be-all if you want, but in reality every car listed here gets great mileage. The real difference is that the Jetta Hybrid has legitimately competent performance, and is even fun to drive. With this Jetta you are getting way more car for your money, it’s that simple.
The Jetta Hybrid may be one of the best cars on sale right now, overall. It looks good, its nice inside, its pretty darn fast, it is fun to drive, o yeah…. “And it’s a hybrid”, so it will get 45mpg. There are no compromises being made here, plain and simple this car is just a damn good product. VW’s decision to mix hybrid technology with a small turbo engine was genius, and it is decisions like that which have put German car companies above everyone else time, and time, again.
This is my preliminary review of our Jetta Hybrid after living with it for one month. I will have an update when the car reaches around 5,000 and 10,000 miles to report our actual fuel economy, and other experiences with the car once it has been fully broken in. My mom is really loving the it so far, though. Seeing as how we were the first to take delivery of a Jetta Hybrid from our local dealer, I wanted to share this experience while it is still new to the market. The Jetta Hybrid really is a fantastic package, and for the price, it is almost unbeatable.
WoM Score: VW Jetta Hybrid
Primary Function: Practicality: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(2), Luxury(2) MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 1.5…normal Jetta look, but many want an incognito hybrid
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9.5/10
PS: A special thanks to Ken Doebler at Volkswagen of Langhorne.