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Cato: Pick Prius for the price, Jetta hybrid for style

Even after a decade of driving the 2013 Jetta Hybrid, you will not regain the hybrid price premium in fuel savings.


Overall Rating
I’d like to rate this one higher, but the price is a stumbling block in that no driver will save enough fuel to recoup the hybrid price premium.
Looks Rating
Nothing wrong with this design, but nothing stands out in particular, either.
Interior Rating
The cabin is roomy and well equipped, and the Hybrid has the upmarket trim bits and so on. The infotainment system is easy to use.
Ride Rating
The lightweight hybrid system means the road manners are much like a good compact car with a traditional motor. The seven-speed manumatic is slick and the steering is tight.
Safety Rating
Lots of safety features.
Green Rating
Not a plug-in hybrid, but fuel efficient and able to operate in all-EV mode.

When it comes to the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, two questions: First, why is VW doing this? Second, why would you consider buying it?

The first answer is easy. Government regulators insist. To meet ever-tougher emissions and fuel economy rules – particularly in California, but elsewhere, too – car companies must "electrify" their fleets.

Really? Yes. Eight U.S. states have rules requiring a percentage of new vehicles sold to be zero emission by 2025. California's roads must be filled with 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025, or 15.4 per cent of the total. We're talking electric cars, hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids as zero-emission rides. In California, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles currently make up less than 2 per cent of the auto market.

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So, if VW wants to sell cars in California and seven other U.S. states with similar regs, VW must have electrified vehicles and find a way to sell them to consumers who, so far, have shown almost zero interest. Canada does not have the exact same regs, but because the U.S. and Canadian markets are so tight, we get hybrids and the like.

None of this makes the case for buying this new Jetta hybrid, though. This is the latest version of the Jetta introduced late last year as a 2013 and it remains unchanged for 2014. The base version for 2014 starts at $28,490, which is almost twice the starter sticker on the Jetta ($14,990). For the extra dough, you get more power and a tidy fuel economy bump: the 170-horsepower (combined) hybrid is rated at 4.5 litres/100 km city, 4.2 highway using premium fuel, while the 115-hp Jetta non-hybrid is rated at 9.1 city/6.0 highway using regular gas.

I'll save you the trouble of doing the math: you will not regain the hybrid price premium in fuel savings, not if you drive this clean car for a decade. Natural Resources Canada says the hybrid will save you $856 a year at the pump versus the non-hybrid base model Jetta, though. But by then, the healthy eight-year/160,000-km warranty on hybrid components will have been expired for two years.

So again, why buy the Jetta Hybrid? It's certainly not about the money.

Or why would you buy the Jetta Hybrid instead of the world's best-selling hybrid, Toyota's Prius? The Prius is cheaper, for starters. Any outgoing 2013s start at $26,100 minus $1,250 in a factory discount, which can be combined with zero-per-cent financing for four years.

That's a good deal on what Dan Neil of The Wall Street Journal accurately describes as a "design masterpiece: a dead steady, massively functional, safe, flexible and affordable five-seater … with fuel economy that makes it among the most fuel-efficient automobiles of any size sold in America, year after year." Even after 10-plus years in the marketplace, Consumer Reports' research shows the Prius to be stunningly reliable.

You might argue that the Prius is not as pretty as the Jetta, nor is Toyota as technologically advanced. There's a case to be made here.

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The gas engine in the Jetta is a 1.4-litre turbocharged power plant weighing only about 98 kg. Its 150 hp combines with a 20 kW (27 hp) electric motor to put out 36 hp more than the Prius's 134 hp. The Prius has a nickel metal hydride battery pack, which is slightly dated, while the VW has a fully modern lithium-ion battery to power the electric motor.

And the VW Hybrid is a genuinely sporty vehicle. The transmission is an ultra-slick seven-speed auto-shift manual gearbox. VW calls it a DSG or dual-clutch transmission and is right to say the automatic shifts are super-fast and efficient.

The Prius? The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is excellent for fuel efficiency and dependable. But bury the throttle to merge into traffic and that CVT sings like a snowmobile and there isn't a lot of acceleration effort on tap, either. The Prius is many things, many of them good, but entertaining to drive it's not.

Ah, but the Prius is a hatchback and this is the most functional design you can get in a compact car. The Jetta is a sedan and, while roomy inside, a four-door with a trunk is not as useful as a four-door with a hatch. Alas, VW does not yet offer a Golf hatch with a hybrid power train, but surely will eventually.

The Jetta's cabin is nicer, more refined and dressier, however. The seats are better and, for that hybrid premium, you get loads of standard gear. The edge to VW here.

This car can be driven at speeds of up to 70 km/h for nearly two kilometres in pure electric mode. Press the "E" button and you're all EV. Toyota has something similar, however.

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What we have from VW, then, is a sophisticated bit of engineering, but an expensive one. Why buy? Perhaps because you are a moneyed and a "green" true believer, with a love of VWs.

Tech Specs

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Turbocharged Hybrid

Type: compact hybrid sedan

Base price: $28,490 ($1,395 freight)

Gas engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 150/184 lb-ft

Electric drive: 27-hp electric motor with 220-volt lithium-ion battery pack

Combined output: 170 hp

Transmissions: seven-speed auto-shift manual

Drive: front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.5 city/4.2 highway using premium fuel

Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Kia Optima Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid

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