Hybrid technology, which requires an electric motor to work seamlessly with a gasoline engine, always had the look of a Rube Goldberg contraption. Recently, Tesla’s straightforward all-electric design, while pricey, shows it’s possible to eradicate the range problems that plague lesser electric cars.
But the designers of hybrid systems continue to plug along, achieving fuel-economy ratings of 50 mpg or more. Most of these cars are boring, some are actually hard to live with, and a few don’t even deliver on the promise of high fuel economy.
An exception is the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, new for 2013. It has the personality of the European sport sedan on which it’s based, it has a roomy interior, and it’s rated at 42 mpg city, 48 highway.
The bottom line with the four-door Jetta Hybrid is you wouldn’t know you were driving a hybrid were it not for the uneven (though strong) performance of the regenerative braking system, and the removal of the tachometer in exchange for a gauge that provides data on the recharging system.
The downside is price. The base Jetta, admittedly a marginally equipped compact sedan, starts at $15,045, less than half the cost of our lavishly equipped Hybrid test car. With a stick shift and 2.0-liter Four, the base model averages 28 mpg, 17 mpg fewer than the Hybrid. But over the course of 100,000 miles, at current prices, the Hybrid would deliver just $5,261 in fuel savings, minus the higher cost of premium fuel the Hybrid requires.
Happily for Jetta aficionados, there’s yet another fuel-stingy version. The diesel Jetta, which is rated at 42 mpg highway, starts at $22,990.
A conventional or diesel Jetta with all the luxury features included in our $31,975 Hybrid SEL Premium edition would cost well north of $15,045. The Hybrid had V-Tex leatherette seats, practically indistinguishable from the real thing; Sirius satellite radio; automatic climate control; cruise control; remote keyless entry; push-button start; heated front seats; power driver’s seat; power sunroof; rear-view camera; and navigation system.
A modestly equipped Jetta Hybrid can be had for about $25,000.
Designers of hybrid vehicles have to put the lithium-ion batteries somewhere, and that usually means behind the rear seat. As a result, the Jetta Hybrid’s trunk swallows just 11 cubic feet of cargo, compared with 15.5 cubes in gasoline-only and diesel Jettas.
Whatever one thinks of VW’s price-cutting tactics after the Jetta’s last redesign, the automaker clearly remains committed to this model. In addition to gasoline-powered, hybrid and diesel models, the Jetta nameplate is affixed to a sport wagon and a sporty sedan called the GLI.
The Jetta line has been rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
So why buy a hybrid, when any bean-counter will discourage you from anticipating fuel savings that won’t kick in until around 200,000 miles? It may come down to a matter of environmental sensitivity and the urge for instant gratification. After all, the savings begin the day the new Jetta Hybrid leaves the dealership.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
Engine: 1.4-liter hybrid inline Four with electric motor, combined output of 170 horsepower, 184 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual
Weight: 3,312 lb.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Wheels: 15×6-inch alloy
Tires: 195/65R15 all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 11.3 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons
Fuel economy: 42 mpg city, 48 mpg highway
Fuel type: Premium unleaded