Fast Take: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid – a Driver’s Hybrid

Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid_open
It even looks like a “normal” car; Volkswagen, thank heaven, doesn’t make you drive a billboard for buying a hybrid.

The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid is the first hybrid I would buy with my own dough. There – I’ve come right out and said it. Now you know that I don’t want any Prius. I could live with a Honda Civic Hybrid if it were a gift, but wouldn’t choose one by a long stretch. And although the Focus is pretty good on the wan scale of hybrid cars (i.e., mostly all about as thrilling as microwave ovens with four wheels), only this new Jetta Hybrid is actually made for people who like to drive.

You’re also on notice that I’m not about to jot down every single fact in an actuarial table for you, why the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid scores a point and the Prius or Civic doesn’t, etc.

One could easily argue that the Prius is a better “hybrid” because by the EPA’s count the stock Prius gets a combined 50 mpg, while the Jetta Hybrid only scores 45 mpg. Also, you can get into the base Prius for $24,200, vs. $24,995 for the base Jetta.

Tabling all that, I’d argue instead that the Jetta Hybrid competes not against other hybrids, but against the Jetta GLI. More on how those scales are balanced in a moment.

First, the reason why I like the Jetta Hybrid vs. those other hybrid options is because during the week that I had it it snowed. And sleeted. And rained. The weather flat out sucked. (All these pretty photos came from the Jetta Hybrid’s launch because shooting a car in lousy weather is unkind to both photographer and subject.) And yet the Jetta drove exactly like a car, not like an appliance. Safely, predictably. Even sportily, to stretch my adverbs to the limit. In fact, I’ll praise even more: The Jetta Hybrid drives like a German car. That is, the steering is tactile, communicating tire scrub in a corner. The unique, 1.4-liter turbocharged four hits peak torque at a mere 1,800 rpm, so unlike other hybrids there’s never that death-grip fear that you’ve been shortchanged, that merging or passing might just be precisely what you’ve given up for your high-minded ideals of saving Mother Earth.

And with all that snow around, there’s something else far too many hybrids sacrifice in the name of green intentions: confidence in a crisis.

Buyers won't be startled in the cockpit by too many hybrid cues; see the one "mis-cue" below, however.
Buyers won’t be startled in the cockpit by too many hybrid cues; see the one “mis-cue” below, however.

Put a Prius sideways and bad things happen. Yes, stability and traction control will save your misguided carcass most of the time, but trust me, it’s not an action you’d readily engage in again on purpose. But the Jetta Hybrid I drove wagged its tail more than once on a glazed-ice road and I was able to do something oh-so-rare in hybrid-dom: manually select from seven forward gears via the DSG transmission, rather than solely pray electronic nannies would come to my aid. Downshifting helped me straighten out the Jetta Hybrid in a hurry, avoiding an oncoming snowplow. Again, I could drive this Volkswagen like a car, not a four-wheeled symbol of noble intentions.

As for my comparison not with the other hybrids, but with the Jetta GLI, that’s precisely because like the $25,045 GLI, the Jetta Hybrid gets a fully independent suspension, where base Jettas, and even the TDI, get a less supple torsion beam rear. Also both the GLI and the Jetta Hybrid ride 0.6 inches lower to the ground, again, improving driver control. The GLI is a little lighter, by about 150 pounds, but the weight of the battery is aftward, between the back wall of the trunk and the rear seats, so it’s arguable that the Hybrid is a little more balanced in a corner, with more junk in that trunk, so to speak.

The "tach" has been replaced with this strange instrument, a measure of boost vs. battery charging. It's almost surely going to be ignored entirely by any buyer.
The “tach” has been replaced with this strange instrument, a measure of boost vs. battery charging. It’s almost surely going to be ignored entirely by any buyer.

And speaking of the trunk, Volkswagen doesn’t wall off passengers and cargo hold, as so many sedan hybrid setups do. The rear seats still split 60/40, and although it’s a little more work to use this pass-through, skis and snowboards, as well as a bike did slot through as needed.

Naturally you might argue that Volkswagen’s pricing structure is, like so many German carmakers, bothersome the second you want to add a single extra.  For instance, to get bi-xenon headlamps you have to spend thousands extra to get up to the SEL trim level. But note that such extras don’t weigh much toward why even the base Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid rocks. Because even on that car there’s the excellent transmission, suspension, steering, driver position and sense of control, all standard. And you’re getting 42 city/48 mpg highway mileage vs. 24/32 in the GLI. Diesel heads will counter that there’s more torque from the TDI, but that also means dropping to 30/42 fuel economy and a price premium at $26,990. Not to mention the 30-40 cents per gallon surcharge on diesel.

The funny part: Volkswagen, the champion of great diesels, has just given a very good argument for hybrids. I guess they win either way.