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2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid review: Jetta Hybrid beats even diesel fuel economy

Volkswagen's 2013 Jetta Hybrid uses a small engine coupled with an electric drive system, turning in mid-40s fuel economy.

Wayne Cunningham

Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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7 min read

Toyota set a standard for hybrid drivetrains of hitching a low-displacement engine using Atkinson cycle valve timing to an electric drive motor through a virtual continuously variable transmission. Ford's hybrids use similar technology. However, for its first hybrid sedan, Volkswagen threw that formula out the window.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

The Good

With fuel economy in the mid-40s, the 2013 <b>Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid</b> stands among the top fuel sippers. The available Fender audio system delivers excellent sound quality.

The Bad

The Jetta Hybrid commands a big premium over its non-electrified sibling. The available navigation system does not show traffic data.

The Bottom Line

Volkswagen's new hybrid system in the 2013 Jetta is a winner, delivering good driving characteristics and excellent fuel economy, but the cabin tech lacks features for a car in this price range.

The 2013 Jetta Hybrid goes with Volkswagen's strengths, relying on direct injection, a turbocharger, and a dual-clutch gearbox for the internal combustion part of its hybrid drivetrain. With only 1.4 liters of displacement for its four-cylinder engine, this drivetrain looks like a miniature version of those found in Volkswagen's performance vehicles.

On the electric side, Volkswagen adds in a 20-kilowatt electric motor and 1.1 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, capable of driving the car under electric power. With regenerative braking and idle-stop, the Jetta Hybrid rates at 42 mpg city and 48 mpg highway, or a combined 45 mpg, according to EPA testing.

By itself, the engine's 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque should drive the compact Jetta adequately. But the electric drive system helps considerably with fuel economy, especially in city driving conditions. The combined system output rates at 170 horsepower.

New Jetta Hybrid is tops in fuel economy (pictures)

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Only minor cues distinguish the Jetta Hybrid from its internal combustion-only counterparts. A blue-tinted badge sits on the hood, while hybrid logos adorn the fenders. An aerodynamic treatment modifies the front intake, wheel skirts, and rear spoiler to take the coefficient of drag from 0.3 to 0.28.

The cabin also mirrors that of other Jettas in most respects, such as the heated leather seats, Fender audio system, and basic navigation of CNET's top-trim SEL Premium model. However, Volkswagen trades in the tachometer for a power gauge and adds a button labeled "E-mode." The trunk loses some space to the battery pack, which rides over the rear axle.

Running silent
With the battery reasonably charged, the Jetta Hybrid started quietly, lighting up its gauges and center LCD while leaving the engine alone. The shifter for the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission includes, along with Drive, sport and manual shift positions, neither of which were really much use.

Rolling out, the Jetta Hybrid responded readily to its accelerator, and the electric power steering turned easily, with very little resistance. The engine came on with a noticeable rough-sounding grind whenever I hit the accelerator hard enough to need it. Otherwise I was able to cruise in stealth mode, using up the juice in the battery and replenishing it through judicious braking. The power meter's needle pointed in a green zone to indicate charging or in blue to suggest I might be burning a little gasoline.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen adds an electric drive system to the 1.4-liter engine in the Jetta Hybrid.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

One thing I quickly noticed was the car's willingness to coast. When I took my feet off the pedals, it was happy to roll on for an unexpected distance. Volkswagen designed the Jetta Hybrid to decouple its engine when coasting, what the Germans call sailing, to save fuel. Under these circumstances, the power meter showed it was still recharging the battery, albeit not as much as when I applied some brake pressure.

I missed any direct indication that I was driving under electric power in the Jetta Hybrid's instrumentation. Where the Ford C-Max Hybrid showed a green EV icon when electrically propelled, this car offered nothing equivalent. The only indication was through watching the power flow animation on either the instrument cluster or the main LCD, which takes a little mental interpretation and so wasn't as safe as merely glancing down at an indicator light.

In E-mode, the car allows much greater acceleration under electric power than it does normally, while draining the battery pack much more quickly. I played with this mode in San Francisco, but found the engine had to step in when climbing an urban hill. The power flow animation showed the engine driving the front wheels, although the E-mode indicator remained on.

Most of my driving in this car involved a run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so quite a bit of freeway driving at speeds of 70 mph. In Los Angeles traffic, the Jetta Hybrid showed its worth, seamlessly turning the engine on and off, and shifting through the transmission's seven gears very smoothly. In the stop-and-go, I noticed the trip meter averaging close to 45 mpg.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen includes the typical power flow animation found in many hybrids.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The freeway ride proved very comfortable, the Jetta Hybrid soaking up the bumps easily. Volkswagen replaced the torsion beam rear suspension of the standard Jetta with a multilink configuration for the hybrid version, making it better able to handle the load shifts associated with the extra weight of the battery pack. However, the suspension felt tuned mostly for comfort, as it leaned readily in turns.

That turn behavior convinced me the transmission's sport mode was out of place in the Jetta Hybrid. Its hybrid drivetrain let me quickly hit freeway speeds while barreling down the on-ramps, but the light steering and tendency to lean suggested this car was really meant as a suburban runabout. Volkswagen makes the Jetta GLI if you want to exercise your inner race car driver.

Similarly, the manual shift mode is of little use, mostly due to the lack of a tachometer. On a long descent, manually downshifting would slow the car, but this is a hybrid. Using the brakes for anything short of a full stop engages regeneration, slowing the car without wearing out the brake pads. I also found that cruise control actively slowed the car on descents, also relying on regeneration.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Sport and manual shift modes are not really useful in the Jetta Hybrid.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Most impressive was the fact that, even traveling at freeway speeds, my tank average in the Jetta Hybrid came in at 42.3 mpg. Due to the car's 11.9-gallon gas tank, range is only about 500 miles.

Nav without traffic
The car's navigation system handled the basics of getting around Los Angeles. But in this environment, merely knowing which turns to make is not quite enough; it also helps to know the locations of traffic jams. The Jetta Hybrid's flash-memory-based navigation system does not have traffic, nor does the system show weather or fuel prices.

I liked the system's responsive nature. The map, in either 2D or perspective mode, refreshed instantaneously as I drove. The destination screens reacted quickly to my inputs as well. The points-of-interest interface was limited, only letting me view lists of businesses by category, with no search ability. Having the turn-by-turn directions displayed on the instrument cluster was convenient, but this system gives its turn warnings at only a mile away, which can be problematic in Los Angeles when making that maneuver can involve getting across six lanes of traffic.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

The flash-memory-based navigation system lacks traffic information, a key feature in congested areas.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

CNET's high-trim car also came with the Fender audio system, which I have been very impressed by in previous Volkswagen models, finding it one of the best values in factory sound. Its 400-watt amp is plenty powerful for the nine speakers in the system, and the Fender logos on the tweeters add a stylish touch.

Most of my listening was done through Bluetooth audio streaming from an iPhone 5. I was again impressed by the fidelity of this system, as it reproduced instruments with great clarity. I could clearly hear Mark Lanegan bend his guitar strings on the album "Hawk" and the light percussion underlying Fleetwood Mac's "Over My Head." Bass notes were crisp, but could have had a little more dynamic range, and the overall sound could have had more presence, but those are elements of much more expensive systems.

During Bluetooth streaming, the system showed track information on both the main LCD and instrument cluster display, but the skip-track buttons had no effect. A port in the glove box had a cable for older-generation iPhones and iPods. Volkswagen has not announced a new cable to handle Apple's Lightning connector. An SD card slot makes it possible to leave a music library in the car, and Volkswagen offers an adapter cable for its proprietary port with access for a USB drive.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen puts its iPod connector way over in the glove box, and does not offer a Lightning cable for newer Apple devices.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Tuning in to either terrestrial or satellite radio stations is a little odd, as I had to use the middle dial. Volkswagen turned the far right dial into a back button. On menu screens, that middle dial selects items, although the LCD is also a touch screen. The far left dial handles volume and power, as you would expect.

Voice command let me make calls through my paired phone by saying the name of a contact. On the phone screen, I could also access my phone's contact list, and active phone calls were shown on the instrument cluster display.

Limited competition
Surprisingly, compact sedan hybrids are few and far between. The 2013 Jetta Hybrid only has to contend with the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Acura ILX Hybrid. I like Volkswagen's hybrid system better than Honda's, as the former can actually propel the car under electric power and runs more smoothly. Volkswagen's EPA highway number of 48 mpg is impressive, although I found that sustained freeway speeds of 65 to 70 mph led to a significant reduction.

At the over-30-grand price of the fully loaded Jetta Hybrid SEL Premium, I would have expected a more robust set of cabin electronics. The audio system is a high point, and the hands-free phone system lacks nothing in functionality. But the navigation system is very basic, and in high-traffic areas I would be prone to relying on a smartphone navigation app. Volkwagen throws in a backup camera for this top-trim Jetta Hybrid, useful for parking.

Unlike other automakers that offer hybrid models in only a few trim levels or just a single trim, Volkswagen makes the Jetta Hybrid available in all the same trim levels as the standard Jetta. However, it commands a hefty premium for the hybrid drivetrain of over $5,000, significantly raising the price of the car, albeit with significant improvements, such as the enhanced rear suspension.

Tech specs
Model2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid
TrimSEL Premium
Power trainturbocharged direct-injection 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, 20-kilowatt electric motor, seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission
EPA fuel economyestimated 45 mpg average
Observed fuel economy42.3 mpg
Navigationoptional flash-memory-based system
Bluetooth phone supportstandard
Digital audio sourcesBluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio systemFender 400-watt nine-speaker system
Driver aidsrearview camera
Base price$24,995
Price as tested$31,180
2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 7Performance tech 9Design 6


Available Engine HybridBody style Sedan