Volkswagen may be late getting to the hybrid party, but it is arriving in style.
The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid has a turbocharged and direct-injected gasoline engine, 27-horsepower electric motor, lithium-ion battery pack and seven-speed automatic transmission. Volkswagen calls it the "no-compromise" hybrid and, after several hundred kilometres of hard driving, I would call that an apt description.
Some may question why VW is bothering with a hybrid when it already offers one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the market – the Jetta TDI. The company counters that hybrid consumers would not consider a diesel and, although hybrids have captured only 1 per cent of the new-car market, sales are expected to double in the next 10 years.
Others will wonder why VW did not use its diesel engine in the hybrid. After all, a diesel engine is 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than a gasoline version so a diesel hybrid would appear to be a no-brainer. There are two issues: 1) North Americans have not yet embraced the diesel. Fewer than 2 per cent of new-car buyers chose one compared to more than 50 per cent in Europe and 2) Cost. Both diesels and hybrids are expensive to produce and combining them would have pushed the resulting vehicle out of a price-competitive position.
So we have a "conventional" Jetta hybrid and it is a jewel. Product planners and engineers decided early in the development process they would brook no compromises; the Jetta hybrid was to offer the same qualities that have made the Jetta the mainstay of the company's success in North America – German engineering and quality combined with a serious dose of fun-to-drive.
Three important items contributed to fulfilling those goals. The first was to use the brand-new EA211 TFSi engine, a turbocharged, DOHC four with direct injection that tips the scales at a mere 211 pounds. This engine will become the baseline across the VW-Audi lineup in the coming months and years. Next, a compact and lightweight (36-kilogram), 1.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack instead of the older and less power-dense nickel-metal-hydride ones used by most others, as the source for electricity for a 27-horsepower electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission. The final piece was the decision to employ a seven-speed DSG (Dual Shaft Gearbox) automatic transmission instead of the fun-robbing CVT used by almost everyone else.
The result is a hybrid that drives like a normal Jetta – and that is high praise. There is plenty of electronic action at play, but it is invisible to the driver until you come to a stop and the engine shuts down, restarting instantly when you lift your foot off the brake pedal.
Like the other Jettas, the hybrid comes in multiple trim levels – Trendline ($27,875), Comfortline ($30,175) and Highline ($34,025). The standard equipment in the base Trendline version includes automatic transmission, cruise control, 15-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, power windows, locks and mirrors, a hybrid specific instrument cluster with energy flow display, leatherette seats and a multilink rear suspension. The Comfortline adds an audio upgrade, larger alloy wheels, eight-way power seats, energy display in audio face, keyless access and start/stop button and LED taillights. The range-topping Highline gets a further step up in wheel size (18-inch), adaptive bi-xenon headlights, leather seats, sunroof, touch-screen navigation system, rear-view camera and a 400-watt Fender audio system.
This is a parallel hybrid, able to run on the electric motor, the engine or both. It employs stop/start technology and regenerative braking and will go up to 60 km/h on electricity alone, 70 km/h for two kilometres if "E-Mode" is selected. This button on the centre console maximizes the use of electricity. The extent of this "zero emission operation" can be tracked on a separate sub-menu on the audio system display.
There is nothing about the interior of the Jetta Hybrid to distinguish it from the rest of the line except for a hybrid-specific instrument panel, which includes a multi-faceted energy flow meter to the left of the speedometer. The trunk is smaller because of the 220-volt, 60-cell battery pack over the rear axle but there remains not only a pass-through, but also the ability to lower one or both sides of the rear seat for extra cargo space, albeit through a much shallower opening.
Our drive route started at 7,000 feet above sea level and climbed through 8,500. It was chosen by Volkswagen to show how its hybrid did not suffer from the altitude sickness that plagues normally aspirated internal combustion engines, which lose about 3 per cent of their power output for every 1,000 feet or altitude. Turbocharged engines do not suffer this malady since they simply force more air into the engine to make up for the loss of oxygen in this thinner air. The Jetta hybrid will scoot from rest to 100 km/h in 8.7 seconds.
The Jetta Hybrid behaves like other hybrids – until you need some extra oomph. You can run along silently at low speeds on electric power, cruise at 120, pass or climb hills with ease. The transitions between electric motor and gas engine operation are seamless. The electric power steering retains a good amount of feel and feedback and the car remains pretty flat in the corners, even when pushed hard thanks to the independent rear suspension from the GLI, instead of the solid axle employed in lesser trim levels.
When the Jetta hybrid arrives at dealerships in early January, it will be the fifth engine choice for buyers joining the 2.0-litre four, 2.5-litre five, turbocharged four and the TDI. From less than $15,000 to just more than $35,000, there will be a Jetta for every person and budget.
Volkswagen has an internal policy called "Think Blue," which is about developing vehicles that are more efficient, but remain fun to drive. The 2013 Jetta Hybrid will have a lot of customers thinking "blue."
2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid
Type: Compact hybrid sedan
Base price: $27,875; as tested, $34,025
Engine: turbocharged, 1.4-litre, four-cylinder and electric motor
Horsepower/torque: 150-hp/184-lb-ft (gas engine); 27 hp/114 lb-ft (electric motor); 170 hp/184 lb-ft (combined)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.4 combined city/highway (estimated); regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Civic hybrid, Toyota Prius and larger mid-size hybrids like the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Toyota Camry