As we take the wheel of the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, we're wondering why VW bothered to build this car at all. This is the brand that touts the fuel efficiency and performance of diesel cars, and its diesel-powered Jetta TDI already matches the highway mpg of many hybrids.
But it's easy to forget that diesel is still just a cult hit in the United States. And it isn't even on the radar of your typical hybrid buyer.
"Toyota Prius buyers don't look at the Jetta TDI at all," Rainer Michel, vice president of product marketing and strategy for Volkswagen of America, tells us. "For somebody who likes the Jetta already, why wouldn't you want to give him a hybrid?"
Later this month, VW will reach out to Jetta fans who'd rather have a hybrid than a TDI with the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid sedan.
Top of the Line
With a base price of $25,790, the 2013 Jetta Hybrid definitely isn't a budget hybrid car. It starts $2,000 higher than the Jetta TDI and a grand more than even the 200-horsepower Jetta GLI sedan.
The real difference is even larger, because the base-model hybrid is special-order only. The cheapest version you'll encounter on a dealer lot is the $27,785 Jetta Hybrid SE. The loaded SEL Premium model we're driving costs $31,975. These are all sedans, by the way, and no, VW won't offer a hybrid Jetta wagon.
For perspective, a 2013 Prius starts at $24,995, and a comparably equipped version comes in at $30,800. Other key rivals like the Ford C-Max Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid and Honda Insight are cheaper still. For this kind of money, you could even think about hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry, which start around $27K and land in the low $30Ks when optioned like our hybrid VW Jetta.
New Engine, Real Transmission, 45 MPG
Judged on value alone, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is a tough sell. But if you're already a fan of the Jetta and its truly medium-size dimensions, there's plenty to like about this hybrid sedan.
It's a parallel hybrid like the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid and Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, so you have a fairly simple arrangement that includes a turbocharged and direct-injected 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine and a seven-speed version of VW's dual-clutch automated manual transmission (VW won't offer a conventional manual gearbox). In between, there's a 20-kilowatt electric motor and a clutch that connects it to the engine. Behind the rear seat there's a 60-cell, 1.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.
Unlike series-parallel hybrids such as the Prius, the Jetta Hybrid isn't able to operate its gas and electric sources at different rpm for maximum fuel economy benefit. The EPA has yet to release fuel economy ratings, but VW is predicting a 45 mpg combined rating, with city and highway figures around 43 and 47, respectively (and keep in mind, that's on the required 91 octane fuel). That falls short of the Prius' 50 mpg combined and the C-Max and Fusion Hybrids' 47 combined, but stacks up well against everybody else. The Jetta TDI rates 34 combined.
Notably, the DSG in the Jetta Hybrid differs from the six-speed unit we had in our long-term 2011 Jetta TDI, as the hybrid's DSG uses a dry clutch pack, which reduces weight and improves efficiency by eliminating the pumping losses that come with lubricating a wet-clutch setup.
The trade-off is that this seven-speed DSG wouldn't be able to cope with the Jetta TDI's hefty torque load. It doesn't have to, though, because the hybrid's 1.4-liter TSI inline-4 is rated at 150 hp at 5,000 rpm and 184 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm — versus the 2.0-liter diesel engine's 140 hp and 236 lb-ft. Factor in the contributions of the hybrid Jetta's electric motor and you're looking at a total rating of 170 hp.
It Barely Feels Like a Hybrid
Even if it gives up some efficiency to the Prius, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid pays you back with its completely normal driving experience.
Our route takes us from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico, and the elevation rarely drops below 7,000 feet. This would be a joyless experience in a hybrid with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which would have the gas engine pegged at redline for the duration. In the Jetta Hybrid, it's a downright enjoyable drive, as the turbo 1.4-liter never runs out of breath. It's also impressively smooth and quiet for an engine of such small displacement. Volkswagen's 8.6-second 0-60-mph claim feels on target, and if true, would make the hybrid exactly as quick as our Jetta TDI and scarcely slower than the five-cylinder Jetta 2.5.
The seven-speed DSG feels more alert than the unit in our Jetta TDI, but its Sport mode still doesn't offer an aggressive shift program. That would probably be out of character in a hybrid anyway.
Honestly, though, we're scarcely aware of any real compromise in this hybrid car until we're bearing down on slower traffic on a twisty downhill section of U.S. 64.
Lift off the throttle and the 2013 Jetta Hybrid coasts like crazy. The gas engine is decoupled from the gearbox in these situations (provided your speed is under 84 mph), so there's no engine braking, nor does the car transition into aggressive regenerative braking like many hybrids. It's only a big deal if you're someone who downshifts on mountain roads — in this car, you manage deceleration entirely with the brakes.
Brakes and Steers Normally, Too
Fortunately, braking feels a lot more normal in our preproduction car than it did in earlier prototypes. Even in resort town traffic, we hardly notice the transitions between regenerative braking action and the conventional friction brakes. The electric power steering feels good, too. It's crisper and more precise than the setup in our Jetta TDI.
Of course, that's not an apples-to-apples comparison, as our Jetta Hybrid SEL Premium has lower-profile 205/50R17 93H Continental ContiProContactE tires. They're low rolling resistance (which will lift the EPA ratings by 3 percent, we're told) but didn't hamper us at a moderate pace.
In addition, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is the only Jetta besides the GLI with an independent rear suspension, though its appearance here has everything to do with battery packaging. There aren't even any rough roads on our route to reveal any handling benefit over lesser Jettas' semi-independent twist-beam setup, but the hybrid feels balanced through sweeping turns.
The Cabin Gets Some Love
It's no secret that interior materials quality has slipped in the current-generation Jetta sedan, but Volkswagen designers have given the cabins some TLC for 2013.
All hybrid, TDI and 2.5 SEL models now have a soft-touch dash, and most Jettas also get extra padding on their door armrests. These details along with an upgraded trip computer in the instrument cluster give the place a classier feel than before — and go some distance in justifying the hybrid's price tag.
Bluetooth, automatic climate control and leatherette upholstery are standard fare in the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. Most versions will also have a keyless ignition, a touchscreen audio head unit (with the requisite hybrid-themed efficiency displays) and the MDI cable that allows Apple device integration — all part of the SE trim package.
Of course, our SEL Premium offers quite a few more amenities, among them adaptive bi-xenon headlights, a navigation system, a back-up camera and a Fender-branded audio system.
Trunk capacity dips to 11.3 cubic feet in the Jetta Hybrid versus 15.5 for regular Jettas. The trunk has an odd shape, but unlike in most hybrids, you're still able to fold the seats.
Hybrid or Diesel or Prius?
Undoubtedly, some will be put off by the high asking price on the 2013 Jetta Hybrid. But VW is only looking to attract about 10,000 buyers for the hybrid Jetta, whereas the company sells three times as many diesel Jettas.
Those Jetta Hybrid customers probably won't sweat the price tag, either. This car feels more refined than the Jetta TDI and should return higher mpg. And while it won't challenge the Prius for mpg supremacy, the VW is far more enjoyable to drive every day, with its powerful turbocharged engine and conventional transmission.
Of course, if you're into Jettas, it's still tough to pick the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid over the quicker, cheaper GLI, but if we simply had to have a car that gets 40 mpg without breaking a sweat, this hybrid would be on our short list.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.