Answer: Regenerative braking stops the first Jetta Hybrid just short of great.

As the only European sedan available in America for less than $20,000, the Volkswagen Jetta is almost in a class of one. Yes, it gets compared and cross-shopped with compact sedan stalwarts like Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but nothing else in the category looks, feels and drives like a Jetta. And even though the latest generation was made cheaper and larger for American tastes, Volkswagen’s top-seller remains the compact sedan category’s premium entry.

By the end of the year, Volkswagen is going to make the Jetta available in gas-electric hybrid form for the first time. We recently spent a few hours behind the wheel to see how it stacks up against King Prius and other Jetta models, including the popular diesel-powered Jetta TDI.

Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid vs. Toyota Prius

Similarities: In price, size and fuel economy, the Jetta Hybrid and Toyota Prius are more alike than different. Sure, the Prius’ city/highway combined fuel economy rating of 50 mpg is better than the Jetta Hybrid’s expected 45 mpg rating, but at 15,000 miles per year and $4 per gallon the difference pencils out to less than three gallons and $11 per month.

Jetta Hybrid Key Advantages: It doesn’t just look like a refined European sedan, the Jetta Hybrid even drives like one. It’s more than a second quicker to 60 mph than the Prius, offers manual control of its quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic transmission, and feels and handles just like a Jetta – albeit one with efficiency-enhancing tires and a few hundred extra pounds. The Jetta Hybrid offers the same independent rear suspension previously reserved for the sporty Jetta GLI.

Toyota Prius Key Advantages: Good brake feel is a critical component of drivability and one of the hardest things to deliver in a hybrid. It’s also among the Toyota Prius’ greatest competitive advantages, especially compared with the Jetta Hybrid. Other potential Prius pros include its more flexible hatchback design, superior infotainment array, and higher resale values thanks in part to its longer track record of reliability.

Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid vs. Jetta TDI (diesel) vs. Jetta 2.5 (gas only)

Similarities: When compared on an apples-to-apples equipment basis, the Jetta Hybrid is priced at about $6,000 more than the “regular” Jetta with the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine, and the Jetta TDI is about $2,000 more than the 5-cylinder. Believe it or not, though, at 15,000 miles per year and $4 per gallon the total cost difference between all three can shrink to within a few hundred dollars over a complete buy-drive-sell ownership cycle.

Jetta Hybrid Key Advantages: With a Jetta Hybrid you’ll burn 40 percent less fuel than Jetta 2.5 owners, and 25 percent less fuel than Jetta TDI owners. You’ll also own a hybrid, a fact you can use to make new friends and impress others.

Jetta TDI Key Advantages: The Jetta TDI burns 25 percent less fuel than the Jetta 2.5. Without a regenerative braking system or the added weight of a big battery in the trunk, the Jetta TDI also offers superior brake feel and better handling than the Jetta Hybrid. Being a diesel owner also has social perks, but amongst a smaller, different crowd.

Jetta 2.5 Key Advantages: Unlike the Jetta TDI, the Jetta 2.5 runs on the fuel available at virtually every gas station in the country (diesel is available at not quite half the locations). Unlike the Jetta Hybrid, braking feel in the Jetta 2.5 is linear and familiar. But for its ordinary fuel economy, the Jetta 2.5 is the least compromised of the three.

Final Word

If you like the idea of a European sedan that starts at about $26,000 and returns 45 mpg, you’re going to like the Jetta Hybrid. The gas engine, electric motor and 7-speed dual-clutch transmission work beautifully together in delivering smooth, eager acceleration. And even if the regenerative braking system isn’t Prius-like in refinement, it’s not a deal-breaker for buyers who want both driving fun and world-class fuel economy. With the Jetta Hybrid you get to have your cake and eat it too -- as long as you’re willing to make a small compromise or two.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid Key Details

Starts just under $26,000 and tops out around $32,000 fully loaded
Set to start arriving at dealerships before the end of 2012
1.4-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine w/direct injection (150 hp)
1.1 kWh, 60-cell battery pack
7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission w/manual shift mode
Electric-only operation up to 44 mph via E-Mode button
170 total peak horsepower @ 5,000 rpm
184 total peak lb-ft of torque @ 1,000 rpm
0-60 mph: 8.6 seconds
Top speed: 125 mph (electronically limited)
City/highway combined fuel economy: 45 mpg (preliminary estimate)
Curb weight: 3,312 pounds
Passenger volume: 94.1 cu ft
Cargo volume: 11.3 cu ft


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