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2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid SE and SEL Premium First Drive

The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid provides a fun ride without sacrificing fuel economy.

What It Is
A hybrid vehicle that combines a fun ride without sacrificing fuel economy.
Best Thing
The lively ride doesn't need to chug fuel to be fun.
Worst Thing
While the regenerative braking works just fine, the brakes as a whole don't instill much confidence.
Snap Judgment
The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid feels and drives like no other in the segment. Unfortunately, unless you're a fan of Volkswagen, you probably will never know about it.


Even though they're still a niche vehicle, it's hard to ignore the importance of hybrids. Certain parts of the country are seeing gas prices cruise right by $5 a gallon without showing any sign of slowing down; those same places rejoice when gas is under $3.80. Yet despite their undeniable thrift when it comes to fuel sipping, hybrids are still looked down on by many buyers for one simple reason: They're dull. Heavyweights like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight quietly command the hybrid segment, but both lack anything even resembling fun behind the wheel. Granted, that's not always the most important feature for hybrid drivers, since most are either trying save gas, or demonstrate just how much they love a green Earth. Still, who doesn't want a fun car that gets good fuel figures.

Then there's the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid. Volkswagen has long been the green-driving alternative to hybrids, and its numerous diesel-powered cars have shown that you can save gas and still have a good time behind the wheel. The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid not only beats its diesel stablemate's fuel economy figures, but it hopes to add a little driving excitement to the world of hybrid cars. It actually drives like a gasoline-powered vehicle, and it looks identical to its non-hybrid sibling. At $24,995 for a base Jetta hybrid; $26,990 for the mid-level SE; $29,325 for the up-level SEL; and a somewhat eye-popping $31,180 for the top-line SEL Premium, the Jetta Hybrid's pricing is surprisingly close to the Prius. But is "fun to drive" enough of an argument to take a bite out of Toyota's hybrid dominance? We took a drive with the hybrid SE and SEL Premium to find out first hand.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Walkaround

Walking up to the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid, you'd be hard pressed to tell it's more fuel efficient than any other Jetta, unless you cheated and looked at the badges on the trunk or grille. Volkswagen kept the Jetta hybrid's styling in line with the other models, but the wheels are carved out in a way to be more aerodynamic than other wheel packages offered on the Jetta. The lower part of the front bumper stretches a little lower than the regular Jetta, but not enough to tell with the naked eye. There's also a custom trunk lid spoiler and extended side skirts added on to boost aerodynamics as well.

Like the other mid-size hybrid offerings from Ford, Honda, and Hyundai, the Jetta shares exterior styling traits with its non-hybrid sibling. Just like other competitors in its segment, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid has emblems outlined in a blue hue. Inside, all of the normal amenities offered in a Jetta are available, but none hinder fuel economy figures. Each feature interacts and works with the engine and hybrid system to deliver a seamless driving experience without any annoying propensities that come along with owning a hybrid vehicle. The base SE model differs from the SEL trim as the latter has LED taillights and 16-inch aluminum wheels. If you opt for the top level SEL Premium trim, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels take you wherever you want to go. According to Volkswagen's engineers, the bigger wheel size only reduces fuel economy by a half mile per gallon.

Sitting Down

Upon taking a seat inside, you would never be able to tell this is the most fuel-efficient Volkswagen Jetta ever offered. With the hybrid variant, certain standard features have been repurposed. For example, dual-zone air conditioning, a standard feature on every model, works with or without the car's gasoline engine on. Not only does the cool air bring the temperature down in the cabin, but it's also syphoned into the hybrid battery pack to cool it as well. Other standard features include Bluetooth, and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. On the SEL trim, there's a six-way power driver's seat but no matter how much we fiddled with it, it was tough to get comfortable.

Nothing is uncomfortably out of reach when sitting in the driver's seat of the Jetta hybrid. You can adjust the audio volume, side-view mirrors, and even your seat without breaking a sweat. The steering wheel also telescopes and is adjustable making it easier for people with longer legs to stuff them in. Rear seating was also surprisingly comfortable with 38.1 cubic feet of space for your legs. In other words, we were able to get the driver's seat to where we liked it (fitting a 6-foot 4-inch frame) and then sit behind the seat without feeling too cramped. For comparison purposes, the 2012 Honda Civic hybrid has 36.2 inches of rear legroom. Usually with a hybrid vehicle, you have to stash the battery somewhere and it normally cuts into cabin space. Volkswagen placed the Jetta hybrid's battery in the trunk but did so in a way that there's still enough space for a stroller (standing upright) or a few bags or groceries.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

Hybrid vehicles aren't known to have much of a soul outside of its sipping fuel abilities, and sometimes that can't even save it from a reputation of being boring. Not the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid though. The Jetta hybrid is anxious to show off the 170 horsepower produced from its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Combine that with some sporty handling, and you have one fun hybrid. We took the Jetta hybrid through an array of driving conditions that forced an altitude change of 4,000 feet of the course of our route. Despite the drastic change in altitude, the Jetta hybrid was never searching for power, and the sporty handling enabled us to weave around the big rigs and family road trip vehicles that clogged up the highway in front of us with ease. Road noise was present, but suppressed to a very manageable level while the Jetta hybrid cruised down the open highway with ease and comfort.

The seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission also had little trouble rowing through the gears as we climbed and descended through our mountainous route. However, as fun as the ride was, the braking brought us back down to earth. The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid is equipped with regenerative braking which converts the kinetic energy of the vehicle's motion into electricity for the lithium-ion battery. Regeneration isn't always used though, as the engine decouples itself from the drivetrain which in turn, eliminates drag created by engine braking. When traveling at highway speeds, the engine also decouples from the drivetrain when the driver lets off the throttle in order to eliminate drag created by the engine's torque output. Nevertheless, the brakes still felt soft and you can feel the regenerative braking process working before the brakes actually bite down and do their most important job of stopping. We had trouble applying the right amount of pressure to the brakes without lurching to a stop.

Summary

The 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid is a necessary shot in the arm to a segment that holds a lot of promise. Hybrid vehicles, while they have only been mass produced since 1999 for the United States market, have come a long way. Unfortunately, most vehicles that inhabit the hybrid segment have funky feeling brakes, poor acceleration, and a numb steering wheel. This is where the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid separates itself from the rest of the field. Fine, it still has the funky brake feel, but its turbocharged drivetrain performance is very similar to that of the gasoline powered Jetta. The estimated combined fuel economy of 45 mpg is also tough to beat for the price of a lower end trim level.

Overall, after spending some time behind the wheel of the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid, we came away impressed, but simultaneously scratching our heads. The Jetta hybrid delivers a fun and sporty ride, something that's been absent from the segment since its introduction into the U.S. market over a decade ago. The Jetta hybrid is far and away the most fun to drive hybrid we've tested in recent memory, but most people, unless they already have an allegiance to Volkswagen, will never even know it exists.

But don't let that stop you. If you're in the market for a hybrid but don't want to sacrifice a spirited drive and any form of acceleration, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid should be on your short list.

Basic Specs

1.4-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder, seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission, 170-hp (including 27 hp from an electric motor), $24,995 (base), $26,990 (SE), $29,325 (SEL), and $31,180 (SEL Premium), waiting on official fuel economy figures, estimated 45 mpg combined

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