Volkswagen and convention have never really gotten along. Ever since the people’s car unleashed the original Beetle upon the world, the manufacturer has continued marching to the beat of its own drum. Case in point, over the past decade hybrids have become all the rage, but Volkswagen has resisted this trend and continued to combat these half-breed batteries-included fuel misers with an excellent range of TDI diesel models. In fact, nearly every model in Volkswagen’s line-up features a diesel powered version.
However, like the only person left on shore during a late night skinny dip, Volkswagen has finally succumbed to peer pressure and jumped into the hybrid waters Full Monty. But this is Volkswagen we are talking about and so they couldn’t do things the normal way. No, if a hybrid must be built, then why not build one with a turbocharger and a 7-speed dual clutch automatic transmission? So, now that Volkswagen has thrown its hat into the compact hybrid ring, we thought what better test for the new comer than be put up against the car that started it all, the Toyota Prius?
All-new for 2013, the Jetta Hybrid adds yet another engine to the German automaker’s line-up, bringing the total number of Jetta flavors up to five. The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines produces 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. It is part of a hybrid system that includes an electric motor and clutch connected to the gasoline engine. The electric motor produces 27 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque. Total output reaches 170 hp while total torque remains 184 lb-ft due to transmission limitations.
SEE ALSO: Toyota Prius vs VW Jetta TDI – Video
That transmission is a first for a hybrid being a seven-speed, DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox. It employs a dry-clutch design, instead of the usual wet-clutch set-up seen in other Volkswagen vehicles.
With solid power on tap the car is said to reach 60 mph from a standstill in less than 9 seconds, which is fairly quick for a hybrid. The combination of the hybrid power plant and DSG transmission means there is a momentary hesitation after initial throttle tip-in, which can be a little disconcerting when starting on steep inclines as the car tends to roll back.
The Prius sticks to what has made it a success all these years. That means the tried and true Toyota Atkinson cycle hybrid system continues to power the Prius. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes 98 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque and is paired to an electric motor that creates 80 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque. Total output from the two systems is 134 hp which may be much lower than the Jetta, but the Prius does have a weight advantage tipping the scales at 3,042 lbs. vs. 3,302 lbs. This allows the Prius with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to achieve the 0-60 mph run in 9.8 seconds, which is only a second behind the Jetta Hybrid. However, in regular day-to-day driving, throttle response is far less than the turbocharged Jetta Hybrid.
On the road, the Prius’s CVT does droan a bit, but low rpm vibration is much better than the Jetta Hybrid. Both cars offer a smooth ride, but the Jetta Hybrid shudders a bit when pulling away from a stop, much like Volkswagens TDI models. Although much smoother, the Prius requires quite a bit of throttle input to roll away from a stop with any speed, which can have a negative effect on fuel economy. If more power is called for, the Prius does have a Power button and the Jetta a Sport mode. Both improve responsiveness with a minor hit in fuel economy.
Like any good hybrid, both vehicles can also be used in electric only modes, called E-mode in the Jetta and EV mode in the Prius. Here the Jetta trumps the Prius as it can travel up to 44 mph in E-mode compared to the Prius being limited to 25 mph. Both vehicles can engage battery only modes at highway speeds, but the Jetta allows the driver to be more aggressive with throttle inputs and will sustain speeds longer before reengaging the gasoline engine.
Ok, enough about the specs, how do they fair in the real world? Well, quite differently. With less power and lighter weight, it is no wonder that the Prius has a more efficient fuel economy rating at 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway compared to the Jetta Hybrid’s ratings of 42 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. Driving both cars in an efficient manner, Editor-in-Chief and hypermiler Colum Wood managed to average 48 mpg in the Jetta and an astounding 62 mpg in the Prius. But the real ding against the Jetta Hybrid is that it requires premium fuel.
Being Volkswagen’s first hybrid vehicle, some bugs still needs to be worked. First on that list is the regenerative braking. The Jetta’s brakes are very grabby like most hybrids, but are also very random. They feel different every time you touch the brake pedal and sometimes, it feels like the brakes aren’t there at all.
With no linear progression, what pressure was applied last time may not stop as quickly next time, or vice versa. With over 15 years of experience, the Prius brakes are some of the smoothest regenerative units on the market and are as predictable as an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.
But nearly everything else about these cars favors the Jetta. The hybrid drives like a dulled down Jetta, which isn’t a bad thing. It does not steer, handle or turn as well as a regular Jetta thanks to the extra hybrid weight and low rolling resistance tires, but still does drive like a regular car unlike most other hybrids, Prius included. The Jetta is a rare hybrid that doesn’t constantly remind the driver that they are driving a hybrid; until they get on the brakes.
On the outside, our fully-loaded hybrid looks like nearly every other Jetta too. Compared to the space age looking Prius, the Jetta is downright boring. Those who want the world to know there are driving a hybrid will have to make due with the blue-highlighted VW emblems and four exterior hybrid badges as it does not scream ‘hybrid’ like the Prius does.
Other exterior changes made to the Jetta Hybrid help lower its drag coefficient down from 0.30 to 0.28 like a custom trunk lid spoiler, new front air dam, extended side skirts and a diffuser at the rear. These changes still aren’t enough to rival the Prius as it was designed to be a hybrid from the start and sports a drag coefficient of just 0.25.
The interior of the fully loaded Jetta Hybrid is fairly premium and very similar to a Jetta TDI interior, complete with the Fender audio system. Like most hybrids, it has trick gauges and menu screens to show how the hybrid mechanical bits are working; three gauges/screens in total. Where the RPM gauge should be is a power usage meter that goes from below 0, for charging, to 10, which is full turbo boost. All controls are well laid out and easy to use – though that power meter isn’t the easiest to understand.
The Prius’ interior is much lower grade, though the displays and screens are easy to read and interpret – which benefits the attentive driver, helping them to get the most out of each gallon. The Jetta’s generous rear-seat compartment offers more legroom than the Prius at 38.1 inches compared to 36.0 inches. But since the Prius is a hatchback and the Jetta a conventional sedan, the Prius dominates in cargo carrying ability with 21.6 cu-ft of space compared to the Jetta’s battery-limited 11.3 cu-ft.
Both vehicles start around the same price with a Prius beginning at $24,200 and the Jetta Hybrid at $24,995. Our test vehicles differed greatly with the fully loaded Jetta Hybrid SEL Premium coming in at $31,975 while the base model Prius 2 merely added destination charges that raises the entry price to $24,995.
When it all comes down to it, the Jetta is a really good compact car; much better in many respects than the Prius. But the Volkswagen is only a decent hybrid whereas the Prius is a terrific one. And in this class of vehicle, that is what matters most. If driver engagement and efficiency is desired, buy a Volkswagen, but not this one. Instead we suggest the Jetta TDI, which still offers plenty of fuel economy and delivers more fun. If all out efficiency with a side of comfort and practicality are on the top of the shopping list, the Prius still can’t be beat.