2013 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Hybrid: The First Athletic Hybrid?

I learned two things about altitude on my recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico to test VW’s new Jetta Turbo Hybrid.

  1. Being so high above sea level (7,000 feet) makes me wheezy, easily winded, and a cheap drunk.
  2. The Jetta Hybrid absolutely shrugs off altitude thanks to its impressive hybrid powertrain, the first in the world to incorporate a turbocharged engine in a hybrid system. It rubbed its athleticism in my face the entire trip, while I chugged water and kept my eyes on the horizon to stave off nausea.

Wait, what? Did I use the word “athletic” in conjunction with the word “hybrid?” Why yes, I did. Welcome to the 2013 Jetta Turbo Hybrid.

On the outside

You might call the Jetta Turbo Hybrid a “hidden hybrid” in the same way people use the term “stealth wealth.” Most people won’t even notice that the Jetta Turbo Hybrid is a hybrid at all and that’s exactly what VW is banking on.

From the outside the 2013 Jetta Turbo Hybrid looks like a slightly tweaked version of the Jetta GLI, the sportiest member of the Jetta family. Indeed there have been some subtle changes to the exterior here and there, with more aerodynamic front and rear fascias, available turbine-look, hybrid-only wheels, and a few blue-trimmed “hybrid” badges. Our tester, the top-of-the-hybrid-range SEL Premium, included LED taillights and LED accented headlights — welcome details that add visual flair to the sober, non-nonsense design of the standard Jetta. Still, nothing here shouts “I have a hybrid!” like the almost triangular Toyota Prius. Some might even call the Jetta Hybrid — gasp! — sporty looking.

On the inside

There are only a couple of changes made to the interior of the Jetta Hybrid when compared to the standard Jetta line. The largest is the hybrid drive gauge that attempts to give you an impression of which engines are propelling the vehicle and how much of the system’s power you’re using. I found its function a bit confusing, no thanks to the fact that this gauge looks like a tachometer but isn’t actually a tachometer at all.

You’ll also find, on all Jetta Hybrid trims except the very base model, a color display in the middle of the dash that displays information about the powertrain’s happenings in real time, much like a Prius. Beyond that, there’s a small hybrid badge by the glovebox. That’s about it.

Overall it’s the same stoic, no-nonsense cabin design we’ve seen since the somewhat controversial redesign of 2010. It’s not a flashy interior like the Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra. It’s mature and tailored-looking. Your mom will be able to use it without much concern, and in turn you’ll never feel like you’re driving something cheap, because there’s simply not much in there to look dated a few years down the line.

On the tactile front, the Jetta hybrid is blessed with the upgraded soft-touch dash found in the GLI (and the 2.5L for 2013). A surprising thing to note about that coveted soft-touch dash in the Jetta, though: it’s ONLY the upper half of the dash. If you find your grubby little hands wandering to the southernmost part of the dashboard or the door panels, you’ll still find some of the hard, mean plastic that so plagued the Jetta on its relaunch. In this class that’s the norm, it just no longer packs the same class-leading materials as Jettas of yore.

How it drives

What separates the Jetta Turbo Hybrid from the competition is the fact that it uses VW’s new 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, combined with an electric engine. The total output for the Jetta’s hybrid system is 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. That’s a lot of power for a hybrid. Heck, that’s a lot of power for a compact sedan, period. All of this helps the Jetta Hybrid achieve a 0 – 60 time of 8.6 seconds. Just about anything else with the word “hybrid” on it will be eating your dust.

Jetta Hybrids also come with VW’s wonderful seven-speed DSG gearbox that further enhances the “I’m driving a real car” feeling of the Jetta Hybrid when compared to competitors. This transmission works seamlessly with the two motors at the Jetta Hybrid’s disposal, offering some of the most unobtrusive engine cut-in I’ve ever experienced in a hybrid. I could hardly tell when the engine was kicking in. Impressive.

A sticking point with many hybrids are their brakes. That’s because of the regenerative systems connected to them, which recuperate energy expended from the action of braking. This leads many hybrid brake pedals to feel like they’re connected to a bucket of mashed potatoes: the brakes are hard to modulate because the pedal feedback feels artificial.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the Jetta Turbo Hybrid completely avoids that artificial feeling. Braking feel in the Jetta Hybrid is still a bit of a hit or miss experience. Thankfully, the pedal travel is quite long so you can more easily adapt the pressure of your foot on the brake to achieve a smooth stop if necessary. It’s something you have to monitor to keep from delivering jerky stops to your passengers, but it does feel better than the almost existential brake feel of the Toyota Prius. Faint praise, I suppose.

In other news, the Jetta Hybrid is a mercifully quiet vehicle. Noise, vibration, and harshness is all controlled and concealed in that deliciously German way. The Jetta feels solid and planted, much more so than the rest of the hybrid competition.

Of course the real question here is fuel economy. VW estimates around 45 mpg combined for the Jetta Hybrid, which puts it behind the Toyota Prius, but above the Civic Hybrid. Our test car averaged right around 44 mpg for the duration of our first drive, and that was with climate control running the entire time. Not bad. Unfortunately that all has to be done on premium fuel. You can thank the turbo for that.

Wrap Up

Probably the best thing I can say about the Jetta Turbo Hybrid is how quickly I forgot the car was a hybrid at all.

It’s a new proposition for the hybrid market: get in, have fun driving, and reap the benefits of great gas mileage without feeling like you’re giving anything up. That’s my kind of hybrid.

VW hopes it’s your kind of hybrid too. The Jetta is not the absolute master of efficiency — that title still belongs to the Prius clan, and for buyers seeking fuel economy at all costs, the Jetta Turbo Hybrid might not be the best fit.

What the VW counters with in the Jetta Turbo Hybrid is a car that doesn’t feel like you’re driving a washing machine with wheels. That alone may make it worth the few mpgs lost to the Prius. I’d call the 2013 Jetta Turbo Hybrid a compelling study in balance.