Volkswagen’s New Jetta Hybrid

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid.

When it comes to hybrid cars in the sub-$30,000 price range, you tend to get fuel efficiency at the expense of any kind of sporty driving feel. And actually, that trade-off applies to most hybrids in higher price ranges as well.

Then along came German brands like Porsche and BMW, offering hybrid powertrains that worked in such a way that the sporty driving feel wasn’t lost. The Porsche Cayenne and Panamera, as well as the various BMW Activehybrid models, combine hybrid technology without the driver feeling disconnected from the car or the road.

Now, Volkswagen has done a bit of a breakthrough, introducing a hybrid that starts in the mid-20s and is also fairly sporty. The 2013 Jetta Hybrid behaves like a compact German sedan, but returns fuel economy of around 45 miles per gallon.

The engine is a turbocharged gasoline 1.4 liter, which puts out 150 horsepower. It’s mated to a dual clutch sequential automatic gearbox, which is connected to the engine directly, like a manual. Many hybrids use a CVT automatic, which has a kind of slipping feel at times. In between the engine and gearbox is a motor-generator which produces an additional 27 horsepower.

By itself, the electric motor can propel the Jetta Hybrid down the road at low speeds. When it’s time to call up maximum power, the motor boosts the gas engine’s output for a fairly good level of performance. And when you’re coasting or braking, the motor turns into a generator to put juice back into the trunk-mounted battery.

That battery does steal some luggage space, and also thwarts the use of a fold-down rear seat for carrying large items, but the trunk is still fairly roomy nonetheless. Interior dimensions are the same as the regular Jetta, which is pretty spacious for a small sedan.

Like the hybrid systems in the other German cars, this one allows for the engine to de-couple from the transmission and “coast” to save fuel at certain times. For example, descending a long grade like the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. No use having the engine turning at speed when it’s not needed.

I was not only impressed with the Jetta Hybrid’s acceleration, but its road manners as well. Handling is crisp and solid, even with the special low rolling resistance tires that are specified for maximum fuel economy. I expected it to be a bit of a slug compared to the non-hybrid Jetta, but there’s hardly any difference in driving dynamics as far as I can tell. (There is an extra-sporty Jetta model called the GLI that I haven’t yet experienced.)

And as a day-to-day car, the Jetta is quite competent, especially when it comes to seat comfort. I spent a good deal of time in the car in heavy freeway traffic, and was very impressed with the back and leg support in the SE grade car I tested. Other amenities include a wonderful leather-wrapped steering wheel, a large touch-screen display for the audio system and Bluetooth hands-free telephone connection.

You can step up to the SEL from the $26,990 SE model for about $3,000 more, and even if you add the Premium package to that, you’re still just over $31,000 for a full-loaded car. There is a “base” model that’s by special order only for $24,995, but I have a feeling that’s just for dealers to have a super-low-priced example to put into ads. Most Jetta Hybrids you find in showrooms will probably be priced in the $28-30,000 range.

Volkswagen enthusiasts will point out that there’s also a Jetta TDI available, with clean diesel power and exceptional fuel economy of its own. But some VW executives I spoke with said that the Hybrid is for people who aren’t ready to make the jump from gasoline to diesel just yet. They also pointed out that the Hybrid model is a bit more fuel efficient, especially if you spend a lot of time in heavy traffic.

So how about a diesel-hybrid combination? It’s not totally out of consideration, though the Volkswagen folks say that would be several years away. In the meantime, the Jetta Hybrid’s gasoline and electric systems are combining to make a pretty nice and fuel efficient car as it is.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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