Mild-Mannered Fun At 45 mpg

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

The world doesn't need another automaker claiming to have cracked the code for a fun-to-drive hybrid. The concept hasn't worked particularly well in any application. Just ask Lexus. And Honda. Twice.

Granted, we don't know how Volkswagen plans to pitch the 2013 Jetta Hybrid when it goes on sale this fall. We didn't get a two-hour long marketing presentation and associated PowerPoint. Instead, we snagged the keys while an executive-level engineer droned on about next-gen modular EGR systems and EU4-compliant oxidation catalytic converters.

We needed an escape and the Jetta Hybrid was it.

So maybe it was the sub-zero temps outside the VW pavilion in Wolfsburg, Germany or the chance to do something – anything – to combat the effects of three hours of sleep in 36 hours. But what we found during our all-too-brief drive of the Jetta Hybrid wasn't a cynical engineering-meets-marketing stop-gap, but instead the first compelling alternative to the Toyota Prius.

The Jetta Hybrid made its debut at last month's Detroit Auto Show and – considering everything else clogging the halls at Cobo – it didn't get much interest. That's because it's not that interesting.

The exterior is barely distinguishable from a standard Jetta, although the new front air dam, rear diffuser and spoiler are supposedly good for a 10-percent decrease in the sedan's coefficient of drag. Further boosting efficiency is a set of 15-inch wheels with low-rolling resistance rubber and a grille-mounted VW logo with a blue background – sure to be good for a few fractions of an MPG.



The underlying tech is just as mild-mannered, with a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine putting out 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque between 1,400 and 3,500 rpm. Sandwiched between that small-displacement mill and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is an electric motor outputting an additional 27 hp (20kW). Unlike VW's first hybrid (the Touareg) that relied on a nickel metal hydride battery pack, the Jetta uses more modern and efficient lithium-ion cells – 60 in total, mounted behind the rear seat backs and weighing less than 80 pounds.

If that doesn't sound like much, that's because it isn't. The batteries only provide 1.1 kWh of juice. Thankfully, that means tonnage has been kept in check, with the whole package adding 221 pounds to the Jetta's curb weight for a total of around 3,300 pounds.

All this adds up to a claimed 45 MPG combined – five MPGs fewer than the Prius, but it's a fair trade.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid gauges

Out on the drive loop that combined a short burst of autobahn with some residential and industrial driving, the combination of the turbo'd 1.4 and electric motor proved more than adequate to scoot around town and up to freeway speeds. Nail the throttle past the kick-down point and the "power" gauge taking the place of the tachometer swings from zero, passes 10 and moves into the "Boost" section. Thrust is far from overwhelming, but it feels quicker than the claimed nine-second 0-60 mph run. We'd guess something in the low eights or high sevens.

But naturally, the Jetta is more about fuel efficiency and all-electric motoring than outright power. And compared to the Prius, it's even easier to keep things humming without the aid of internal combustion.

While the Prius requires micro-millimeter precise control of the throttle to keep it from clicking over the engine, the Jetta Hybrid prototype would only demand the four-pot's assistance when we flexed our right foot just slightly more than maintenance throttle. Moreover, VW claims you can run the Hybrid up to 44 mph in EV mode and for up to 1.2 miles before the battery is tapped of juice.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid driving

Even more impressive is VW's ability to get a much more progressive and compliant braking experience from its regenerative system. Unlike the Prius, which has always been plagued by overly-grabby brakes, the Jetta Hybrid manages to allow more modulation. The only ding is an odd regen sensation when lifting off the brakes – it feels like a strong headwind slowing things down.

Couple the better brakes and highly controllable throttle with the seven-speed DSG – an obvious improvement over CVTs fitted to most hybrids – and VW has a gotten remarkably close to creating a valid contender to the Prius, while not leaving the driving experience out of the equation.

With only a short drive under our belt, that's not a definitive call by any means, but it's an impressive proof of concept that, with the proper pricing (figure around $25k), delivers everything we want in a hybrid, plus something that's been missing: driver engagement.