Auto review: With Jetta, VW powers up a different sort of hybrid

By
Courtesy of the Associated Press

August 23, 2013

Someday soon, a couple of trendy downtown lofties — probably wearing clothes made from milk jugs — will name their first-born hipster “Hybrid.”

It’s got to happen.

Hybrids achieved critical mass in the past few years, showering us with the cool sparks of new green hype.

Heck, pop icons Bill and Hillary might even create a hybrid hip-hop or something. Tweet me on some hash thing as soon as the video’s up on Spacebook.

As you probably know, both Porsche and Ferrari recently introduced six-figure ultra-exotics that employ 700-plus horsepower hybrid powertrains.

And now Volkswagen, the king of Euro diesels, has also decided to go mildly electric — just as Bob Dylan did nearly 50 years ago.

Like Dylan, VW’s 2013 Jetta Hybrid is different and pretty darn good.

In fact, I think the Jetta illustrates just how much hybrids have evolved since Toyota introduced the sleepy, politically correct Prius more than a decade ago.

Most conventional hybrids use little four-cylinder engines — often detuned for even better mileage — and supplement them with an electric motor.

They are typically about as exciting to drive as a horse-drawn Amish cart.

Volkswagen, which puts some priority on performance and driving dynamics, relies on a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-banger for its gas engine in the new Jetta, supplemented by a 27-horsepower electric motor.

The result is 170 combined horsepower — nearly 40 more than the Prius — and fuel economy of 42 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway.

That’s not quite as green as the Prius’ 51/48, but Volkswagen gets extra points for not using a continuously variable transmission in its hybrid.

Rather than make drivers suffer with a dull, droning CVT — as most mainstream automakers do — VW bolted its electric motor between the engine and a real seven-speed automatic.

Push the Jetta Hybrid hard, and it actually runs to 60 in 7.9 seconds, shifting real gears as it goes, according to Motor Trend. That’s about 2 seconds quicker than a Prius.

Not that you’d ever guess it looking at the Jetta’s vanilla, resolutely conventional exterior.

My metallic tan Jetta looked like something an insurance agent might drive to a book club meeting.

On the car I had recently, a flat, smooth hood and highly aerodynamic headlamps shared real estate with a thin black grille.

Slab sides and big doors defined the car’s dowdy body, while standard wrap-around tail lamps looked like those on a dozen other midsize sedans.

Even the 16-inch alloy wheels seemed kind of clunky, wrapped in low-rolling-resistance 205/55 tires.

But as UPS knows, some fairly exciting stuff arrives in plain envelopes.

Here’s the deal: If my choices in a Jetta were the mediocre 2.5-liter five-cylinder version or the new hybrid, I’d find the extra 10 grand for the hybrid somewhere.

Like all good hybrids, the Jetta will crawl through traffic silently, shuffling along at 5 mph or so solely on the power of the electric motor.

And it goes through that automatic start-stop exercise at every red light, turning itself off when your foot is on the brake and instantly springing back to life when you lift.

But when the street clears, step hard on the gas.

Although hardly fast, the Hybrid surged eagerly at about 2,500 rpm as its little turbo huffed up the gas engine.

The engine gets additional boost in the mid-range from the electric motor.

As a result, this is a hybrid that feels as if it really could go 100 mph, accelerating smoothly and with a fair amount of lust.

It should be comfortable at speed. The front-wheel-drive Hybrid is the only Jetta other than the sporty GLI to get independent rear suspension.

Consequently, the car doesn’t handle like a conventional hybrid, turning pretty eagerly into corners with reasonably good balance.

With 3,300 pounds to lug — inflated by batteries and other hybrid paraphernalia — the Jetta is certainly not GTI-crisp.

But it seizes corners with minimal lean and holds a reasonably good line through them, limited mostly by its hard, hybrid tires.

While quick, the steering felt a bit fuzzy and heavy to me at slow speeds. With speed, though, it got lighter and livelier.

I really didn’t care much for the grabby, overly sensitive regenerative brakes, which help recharge the car’s battery pack but required a mighty light foot, I thought.

The Jetta also coasts freely when you lift off the accelerator, with the transmission momentarily decoupled from the engine to save fuel.

It’s a fairly odd sensation, kind of like being in a four-door soap-box racer.

Still, how often will you be coasting down steep hills in Dallas? More relevant, the Jetta’s ride was Euro-firm, clomping over expansion strips and uneven pavement, but mostly smooth and jiggle-free.

The Hybrid was nearly twice as expensive as a base, entry-level Jetta. But don’t try to find the extra cost in its interior.

The one in mine was gray, which didn’t seem to match the tan exterior. Maybe form follows function in a hybrid.

A broad black-plastic dashboard is wrapped around black-faced gauges.

In its middle, a wide center stack was topped by a relatively small navigation/radio screen.

Hard black plastic high on the door panels tumbled down to gray vinyl centers and padded-gray armrests. The seats looked like dark gray shells with perforated light gray centers.

In addition, the Jetta offered ample leg- and headroom in back.

But the car didn’t need to be Audi-exceptional inside.

Volkswagen bills the Jetta as a “hybrid for turbo fans.”

And it might be. At the very least, VW built a hybrid that reflects its values and personality — and not some tepid cover of a conventional Toyota hybrid.

Think of it as indie-label hybrid.

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2013 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA HYBRID SEL:

—Type of vehicle: Five-passenger, four-door, front-wheel-drive midsize sedan

—Fuel economy: 42 miles per gallon city, 48 mpg highway

—Weight: 3,362 pounds

—Engine: 1.4-liter direct-injected, turbocharged four and electric motor with a total of 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque

—Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

—Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds

—Base price, excluding destination charge: $24,995

—Price as tested: $30,155

SOURCES: Volkswagen of America; Motor Trend

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©2013 The Dallas Morning News

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AUTO-VWJETTAHYBRID-REVIEW

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