It’s happening again. Gas prices are spiking, this year earlier than normal.
What’s a driver to do? If the past is any indication more of us will at least consider ditching our gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models, such as the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid.
New for 2013, the Jetta Hybrid is the latest high-volume sedan nameplate to quietly expand its powertrain options with a hybrid. The Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu are also available with gas and electric motors that share the task of powering the vehicle and, as a result, increase fuel efficiency, often dramatically.
A comparable gas-powered Jetta gets 27 mpg combined, according to the EPA. The hybrid version: 45 mpg, at least in theory. In the weekend I drove the car, I averaged a still-impressive 39.
What’s different about the Jetta is that it’s the only compact sedan hybrid to pair a turbocharged engine with an electric motor. It is also, unfortunately, the only compact hybrid to require more expensive premium fuel, though 87 octane is probably sufficient for drivers who refrain from treating the freeway like a racetrack.
Volkswagen’s goal with its Hybrid was to retain the Jetta’s DNA of a fun driving experience, a mission at which it largely succeeds. Powered with a direct-injected, turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and 20-kilowatt electric motor, the Hybrid is sprite and smooth off the line.
The Hybrid starts in its most torquey, electric mode and can operate as a pure electric vehicle up to 37 mph for as far as 1.2 miles, depending on terrain, acceleration and the state of the battery’s charge. Putting the Hybrid in E mode allows it to remain an EV up to a speed of 44 mph.
At higher speeds, the Hybrid seamlessly transitions to turbocharged gas power, generating even more juice than necessary to drive the car so it can replenish the battery that powers the car at lower speeds. The battery is also recharged for “free" through regenerative braking.
I was testing one of the higher-end versions of the Jetta Hybrid — the SEL — equipped with a center-console touch screen that does triple duty as a navigation system, audio controller and graphic display that shows drivers exactly when the car is operating with gas, electricity or a combination of the two.
The center screen is so alluring, with its real-time graphics of driving inputs and their effects, that it’s distracting. At least it can be turned off. The dashboard display presents the same information in a slightly different format. In place of the tach is a power meter that shows drivers when they are operating efficiently or simply mainlining gas.
From the outside, the Hybrid is distinguished from the rest of the Jetta lineup with a different grille and badging that outlines its VW and hybrid logos in a shade of blue that looks like a sliver of sky and is about as subliminal as a sledgehammer. Its aerodynamic enhancements include a trunk lid spoiler, front air dam and extended side skirts, all of which up the mpgs and its range. OC drivers could get all the way to Chico on a single tank.
Befitting a vehicle with eco cred, the seats are trimmed in non-cow leatherette, which, in the version I tested, could be heated in front. The interior is otherwise simple and streamlined in a palette of black, gray and muted chrome.
The five-door, five-seater offers a good amount of leg and head room, even in the rear seat and even if the front seats are slid back enough to accommodate an NBA player. The rear seats fold 6 0/40 to open up cargo room, but there’s a hump to contend with. The batteries are located under the trunk floor, making its space stepped instead of flat.
The biggest downside to the Jetta Hybrid is the same bugaboo that affects most hybrids: the price premium and the amount of time it will take for drivers to recoup the investment. The gas-powered 27-mpg Jetta starts at about $16,000; the hybrid, $24,995. At current gas prices, it would take about 18 years for the price premium to pay itself off.