|Every major car company has its own DNA, a set of qualities that make it clear to drivers that they are behind the wheel of a Chevy, a Toyota or a BMW. And just like a healthy humanís genetic code, automotive DNA should be an immutable thing, regardless of the technology powering the wheels.
That posed a challenge for Volkswagen as it belatedly developed its first gas-electric hybrid passenger car, the 2013 Jetta Hybrid: how to preserve VWís DNA while introducing technology that shuts off, at least occasionally, its prized internal combustion engines.
True, this new Jetta is not VWís first hybrid vehicle; the Touareg Hybrid has been on sale since 2010. But given that the minuscule production of that S.U.V. in hybrid form, it was more of a pilot project than a mainstream product.
The Jetta Hybrid, on the other hand, is the real deal: an affordable, fuel-efficient Volkswagen aimed at the large market of family-car buyers.
At its fuel-efficient best, hybrid technology allows the gas engine to be taken over by a silent electric motor. Yet one could argue that VWís identity is fundamentally characterized by the rumble of an efficient internal-combustion engine ó often, of the diesel variety ó springing to life when the accelerator is pressed. The engine flipping on and off could cause angst for VW and for drivers accustomed to its ways.
But VWís engineers are clever, and based on my week with the Jetta Hybrid, it seems they managed to turn the tables, redefining hybrid-ness in a Volkswagen context. The car represents a mix of efficiency, precise handling and high-speed confidence not previously offered in a hybrid.
First, the engineers made the Jetta Hybrid feel more like a VW in how its gears shift. VW avoids the continuously variable transmissions found in hybrids from Toyota, Ford and Honda. Because variable transmissions usually operate at optimal gear ratios, they allow for efficient switching between gas and electric power sources. But with their delayed response to the accelerator, hybrids with C.V.T.ís provide about as much excitement as watching an entire golf tournament on television.
Instead, VW employs its automated 7-speed direct-shift gearbox, in which you feel the gears lock, unlock, pause and re-engage at tighter ratios as the carís speed increases. The manual paddle shifters behind the steering wheel give you the option of controlling those gears. Think of the vroom sound children make when they play with toy cars. Thatís what Volkswagen engineers were apparently seeking, and it is present in the Jetta Hybrid, though itís missing in many hybrids (notably in the Toyota Prius with its eerie quiet at low speeds and strained high-pitched whine with rapid acceleration).
The Priusís efficiency strategy is to nullify the gas engine with electricity, to defy its existence almost as if in embarrassment of how itís fouling the air. Just the opposite for VW, which embraces the engine.
As a longtime hybrid driver, I had to adjust to this Jettaís idiosyncrasies. In my first days with the car, I tried to drive it like other hybrids, with a very light touch on the accelerator to keep the car in electric mode, preventing the gas engine from waking up. But the Jetta balked at such gentle treatment. From start-up, the engine came on and stayed on, asking to be used. Lifting my foot off the brakes at a stoplight, the car surged forward disconcertingly.
But when I confidently stepped on the accelerator, the Jetta Hybrid came to life, handling switchbacks with dexterity and passing confidently on the highway.
Unfortunately, when the Jetta was driven as it wants to be driven, its mileage suffered. Over 122 miles of mixed city-highway driving, I averaged fuel economy of 35 m.p.g., well below the Environmental Protection Agencyís combined city-highway estimate of 45 m.p.g. (The Jetta Hybridís city rating is 42 m.p.g., and the highway estimate is 48.)
Yet, I easily managed 44 and 45 m.p.g., respectively, on two 60-mile highway jaunts. But such thrift required restraint, certainly not an autobahn driving style.
Volkswagen says the car can be driven up to 44 m.p.h. in pure electric mode, though this is not easily achieved.
The styling of the Jetta, inside and out, is clean, solid and functional, even if some of the flourishes, like the points on the front fascia, seem unresolved. The seating is generous and comfortable. Other hybrids dazzle drivers with large dashboard energy-flow diagrams and eco-motifs like leaves or butterflies, but the Jetta Hybridís designers remained content to simply let drivers drive. Itís all very VW.