By Andrew Ganz
Sunday, Nov 4th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Just how many engine combinations does the compact car segment need? Volkswagen is aiming to find out with the latest variation on its increasingly popular Jetta sedan, the Turbo Hybrid.

With the new hybrid powertrain, the people's car builder now has a dizzying array of engine and transmission combinations that already ran from mundane to frugal long before the new guy arrived on the scene.

Is the new 45 mpg Jetta Turbo Hybrid one model too many, or does its presence complete the lineup? We sought the answer to this question in a most appropriate place: New Mexico, the land of enchantment, where metaphysical queries are often pondered.

Ingredient mix

Essentially identical to the new-in-2010 Jetta aside from what's underneath, the Turbo Hybrid slots in at the top of a range that starts around $17,000 for a rather dull 2.0-liter model before climbing through high-volume 2.5-liter five-cylinders, eventually diverging in two different, turbocharged directions. Sport-minded buyers are offered the 200-horsepower, gas-powered GLI, while those who want to use fewer liquified dinosaurs have long made a bee-line for the $22,990 40 mpg-plus turbodiesel TDI.

So why offer a far more expensive ($24,995-$31,180) hybrid when there's already a diesel? Three reasons. For one, VW rightly concedes that not all buyers are interested in a diesel - after all, in certain circles, hybrid has serious cachet. In addition, VW is going after a slightly more upmarket, mature buyer with the hybrid, a demographic that snaps up Toyota Priuses with a quickness. Finally, for number crunchers, the hybrid's estimated 45 mpg combined figure is way mo'betta than the TDI's 36 mpg, although we've often found the TDI's 42 mpg highway number to be very conservative.

To that end, the automaker raided its parts bin for a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which it mated to a 27 horsepower electric motor and a 1.1 kWh lithium-ion battery reasonably well integrated into the trunk.

Combined, the gas and electric units produce 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque, figures not far off of the 2.5-liter. The Jetta Sport Hybrid hasn't been through EPA testing as of press time, but VW is targeting a 45 mpg combined figure (and perhaps 43 mpg in the city and 47 mpg on the highway). The company's impressive seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is standard, as is the more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension formerly exclusive to the GLI.

On our high-altitude test drives, we found adequate power that befits VW's mid-8 second 0-60 mph quote. Thanks to the electric motor, there's ample torque available at immediate tip-in, but we found mid-range acceleration to be lacking, especially in the 40-60 mph range. We'll have to do more testing below 7,000 feet before issuing a final judgement, but our initial impression was that this four-cylinder feels more like a smooth, low displacement V6 without a lot of passing torque.

Even though this is VW's first hybrid sedan offered to buyers here (the Touareg Hybrid arrived a few years ago), it seems the company spent sufficient time combatting noise, vibration and harshness - none of which made themselves known on our test vehicles. With the switch of an E-Mode button, the electric motor can power a delicately-accelerated Jetta Turbo Hybrid to about 44 mph before the gas engine silently - and we mean, silently - kicks in. Aside from a glance at either the instrument-cluster or infotainment system status screens, it's essentially impossible to tell which mill is doing the work under the Jetta's hood.

That does bring up one easily-addressed negative, though: The multi-information gauge where the tachometer would normally be. Graded 1 through 10, it gives drivers a vague indication of what percent of the vehicle's available power is being used. But the digits don't correspond to any measurable, so their presence is a bit head-scratching. If VW wants to promote the Jetta Turbo Hybrid as a somewhat sporty model - and it does, since the Turbo nomenclature was added after it was initially introduced as the Jetta Hybrid - a tachometer and a smaller gauge showing efficiency and EV status would make more sense.

Otherwise, the Jetta's interior remains unchanged with the addition of the electric motor, aside from a single Hybrid badge on the dashboard. We're very slowly warming up to this interior, which is about class average for the segment despite a bucks-up price tag. Like the GLI and some higher-spec models, the Turbo Hybrid nets a soft-touch dashboard and comfortable leatherette seats, but plenty of recycled milk bottle-looking material remains on the dashboard and door panels. Clean and well organized, yes, but not particularly upmarket.

The lineup advances from the $24,995 base model to $26,990 SE, $29,325 SEL and $31,180 SEL Premium (pictured) models, each adding items like a power driver's seat, moonroof, Fender audio system, navigation and an increase from 15 to 16 and eventually 17-inch alloy wheels. Leather seats are unavailable, a gaffe we find unacceptable at over $31,000 for our tester.

At least the Jetta is commendably spacious inside, although the battery robs trunk space, leaving just over 11 cubic feet. A big suitcase should fit awkwardly over the battery, but potential buyers should pack carefully for highway trips.

But even if you can't bring everything with you on the way to grandma's house for Thanksgiving, at least you'll have a decent time getting there. Direct and nicely-weighted if light on feel steering combines with just-right suspension tuning to deliver a dynamically-capable compact sedan. The independent rear axle aids roadholding while improving bump absorption, which further adds to Turbo Hybrid's classy road manners.

A true sporting car it is not, but there's something to be said for this sedan's all-out competence - especially up against dedicated hybrid rivals like the Toyota Prius.

Leftlane's bottom line

On one hand, the comfortable, decently frugal and nicely packaged Jetta Sport Hybrid is a nice evolution of VW's compact car lineup. On the other, it's awfully expensive for not bringing all that much more to the table than the Jetta TDI.

In the end, it's both a hard car to love and a hard car to hate, which leaves our initial quandary unsolved.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Turbo Hybrid base price range, $24,990 to $31,130.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.