Review: Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. It’s a name that hits all the Californian pleasure receptors.

First, it’s a Volkswagen, which gives hippy-era baby-boomers bouts of nostalgia for Love Bugs and Microbuses. Second, it’s a Jetta, a car so ubiquitous in the pre-Bubble ’90s that any Silicon Valley entrepreneur with an idea and a pulse got one as standard issue. And finally, it’s a hybrid. Consider that California buys more Toyota Prius hybrids than every state in the nation combined, and the gas-electric Jetta seems a no-brainer for Golden State greenies.

However, from a purely cost-to-savings calculation, it’s a tough sell. At a base price of $24,995, the 2013 Jetta Hybrid commands a $6,000 premium over a comparatively equipped (and traditionally powered) Jetta SE, which still gets a laudable 23 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. The Hybrid pummels that score with 42/48 mpg in the same environments, despite being almost 500 pounds heavier courtesy of the battery pack and electric motor.

There’s one more car in the Jetta lineup that muddies the equation further: the diesel-powered TDI. With its oil-burning drivetrain, it manages 30/42 mpg and costs two grand less than the hybrid.

But in a world where the blue “Hybrid” badge on the boot pays for itself in perception, this gas-electric Jetta has an advantage over the rest of the hybrid stalwarts clogging California highways: It’s a genuinely entertaining steer.

Unlike the mopey Prius and hybrids hacked together from normal production cars, the Jetta is underpinned by solid German genes. Even the base Jetta, with its wheezy four-cylinder and archaic rear suspension, is one of the few fun-to-drive compact sedans on the market. The Hybrid ups that engagement quotient even further with a modern rear-end (pulled from the sports-oriented GLI) and an engine/motor/transmission combo that’s surprisingly refined for VW’s first whack at the segment.

The puny 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine doesn’t look like much on paper, but with a turbocharger slapped on the side and electric boost provided by the 20-kW motor, it manages to churn out 170 horsepower and a useful 184 pound-feet of torque. That delivers an uninspiring 0-60 mph run of nearly nine seconds, but the Jetta Hybrid isn’t about outright speed. Instead, the car delivers a combination of high-mpg efficiency — typified by the ability to run up to 37 mph on electric power alone — matched with engagement and build quality that’s leaps and bounds ahead of other hybrids.

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