2013 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Hybrid

Volkswagen focuses on sportiness for its first hybrid-powertrain passenger car

Volkswagen held its preview drive for the 2013 Jetta Hybrid not on flat terrain but through curvy roads in the high altitudes of New Mexico, north of Santa Fe. Clearly, in line with the claim for sporty behavior, they wanted to flaunt the Hybrid's performance potential under relatively demanding conditions.

Long known for selling substantial numbers of diesel-powered cars in the U.S., Volkswagen hasn't participated in the fast-growing hybrid field. Not until the 2011 model year did Volkswagen launch its first battery/gasoline vehicle - a version of its Touareg SUV. Now, the German automaker is introducing its second contender: the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Hybrid.

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For its powertrain, the Jetta Hybrid combines a turbocharged, direct-injected 1.4-liter TSI gasoline engine, developing 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, with a 27-hp electric motor. Combined output is 170 horsepower, driving a seven-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Gas-mileage estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not yet available, but Volkswagen anticipates a combined (city/highway) figure of 45 miles per gallon. As for performance, VW claims 0-60 mph acceleration in an estimated 8.6 seconds, versus about 10 seconds for Toyota's Prius.

Weighing less than 80 pounds, the 222-volt lithium-ion battery is mounted at the rear. When starting off, a Jetta Hybrid can go up to 1.2 miles in electric-only mode-not exactly a breathtaking distance-at up to 37 or 44 mph (depending on whether the e-Mode button has been pushed). While braking, the gasoline engine is decoupled from the system.

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Driving Impressions

Both claims sound reasonable after driving the Jetta Turbo Hybrid up to the 8,500-foot level. Handling falls on the sporty side, for sure; yet despite quite precise steering feel and control, the Jetta's status as a full-fledged sport sedan is debatable. Regardless of powertrain, a Jetta does rank as a superior road car, with a ride that approaches elegant on relatively smooth pavement.

Even at high altitude, there's no shortage of performance, whether accelerating from a standstill or preparing to pass/merge. The hybrid system works fine. So neatly, in fact, that it's virtually impossible to discern when the gas engine kicks in after starting off in battery mode. To know for sure, you have to observe the energy flow on the display screen. The needle in the large gauge at the left, replacing the usual tachometer, may be in Green (charging) or Blue (efficient) range.

Volkswagen's DSG transmission behaves so well, it's hard to believe that it's a dual-clutch unit. Not the tiniest hint is evident of the jerkiness that has marred some gearboxes of this sort. Shifts are almost imperceptible most of the time; seldom noticed at all. Add a roomy interior with comfortable, moderately-bolstered seats to the Jetta's merits.

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Hybrid Jettas get unique wheels, an enclosed grille, air dam, side skirts, spoiler, and rear diffuser. Standard features include Bluetooth connectivity, alloy wheels, automatic dual-zone climate control, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. Available are bi-xenon headlights with LED Daytime Running Lights, a sunroof, Fender premium audio system, navigation, and a rearview camera. The Hybrid Jetta is a bit more aerodynamic than a regular model, with a drag coefficient of just 0.28 (versus 0.30).

Trunk space totals 11.3 cubic feet. Volkswagen claims to beat the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in rear-seat legroom.

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Hybrid Future

Expectations are modest for the Turbo Hybrid, on the order of 5 percent (plus or minus) of total Jetta sales. "We view it as incremental sales," said communications director Scott Vazin, "not just taking a piece of the existing pie."

Hybrids, it must be noted, account for no more than 3 percent of the U.S. market. Diesels are lower yet: just 0.85 percent. On the other hand, compacts (like the Jetta) are said to amount to two-thirds of total hybrid sales.

All told, this rendition of the Jetta continues VW's reputation for solid engineering and tight construction, in a serious driver's car. However, a couple of questions come to mind. First, is it really necessary to focus so hard on the sporty aspect, to attract attention? Other automakers manage by pushing fuel economy, coupled with other attributes. Still, the hybrid market has become somewhat glutted, and interested buyers are fewer than hoped for, so promoting a specific alternative benefit probably makes sense.

Secondly, since even Volkswagen marketers don't expect big sales, one has to wonder why they elected to add a hybrid at this particular time. Cynics might suggest that it was done at least partly to enhance the company's "green" credentials, augmenting the impact of VW's diesel popularity.

Jetta Hybrid pricing starts at $24,995 for the base model. Stepping up to a Hybrid SE raises the ante to $26,990, while the Hybrid SEL goes for $29,325. Topping the electric/gasoline roster is the Hybrid SEL Premium model at $31,180.

In comparison, gasoline-engine Jettas start at $16,675, escalating as high as $23,945 for a GLI or Autobahn edition. Price tag for the diesel-powered Jetta TDI is $22,995. The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is on sale now.

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