BERKELEY, Calif. — 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 human’s 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 VW’s DNA while introducing technology that shuts off, at least occasionally, its prized internal combustion engines.
True, this new Jetta is not VW’s 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 VW’s identity is fundamentally characterized by the rumble of an efficient internal-combustion engine — often, of the diesel variety — 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 VW’s 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.’s 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 car’s 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. That’s what Volkswagen engineers were apparently seeking, and it is present in the Jetta Hybrid, though it’s 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 Prius’s efficiency strategy is to nullify the gas engine with electricity, to defy its existence almost as if in embarrassment of how it’s fouling the air. Just the opposite for VW, which embraces the engine.
As a longtime hybrid driver, I had to adjust to this Jetta’s 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 Agency’s combined city-highway estimate of 45 m.p.g. (The Jetta Hybrid’s 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 Hybrid’s designers remained content to simply let drivers drive. It’s all very VW.
There are signs that this Jetta is a rookie hybrid effort. The regenerative braking system feels a bit jerky. The transitions between gas and electric power are not as seamless as Ford’s. And the awkward packaging of the hybrid batteries under the hatch reduces cargo space to 11.3 cubic feet, from 15.5.
That loss of space may be enough to sway pragmatic buyers away from the 170-horsepower Hybrid, which has a 1.4-liter gas engine and a base price of $24,995, to the TDI diesel, which starts at $23,055. The diesel, with a 140-horsepower 2-liter engine, has a highway rating of 41 m.p.g.
Volkswagen’s identity issues are about to get more challenging as the company adds plug-in electric vehicles to its portfolio. In January, Rudolf Krebs, VW’s group chief officer for electric traction, told me, “We want to become the leader in electrification.” In this light, hybrids are a steppingstone for the company.
While VW has a global electrification plan that includes seven plug-in hybrids and two pure battery-electric cars by the end of next year, this Jetta is the only conventional no-plug gas-electric hybrid that the company has announced.
The first VW electric car headed to the United States, the e-Golf, goes into production in early 2014. I spent an afternoon driving a prototype version of that car in a loop around San Francisco Bay. Because the e-Golf is powered purely by an electric motor, guided by a single-speed transmission — and governed to a sober top speed of about 80 m.p.h. — VW’s engineers had to be creative on the matter of adhering to brand guidelines.
“It’s obviously an electric vehicle, but it feels like a gas-powered Volkswagen,” said Darryll Harrison, the spokesman who accompanied me on my e-Golf drive. “That was the goal.”
One example of how engineers tried to convey the feel of a gasoline-powered car was to use the paddle shifters to control the regenerative braking rather than the transmission. Tugging one of the paddles makes the car stop faster, feeding more energy to the battery pack. If you flick the other side, the car will coast longer. This is a great feature that will be appreciated by ardent E.V. fans.
But then VW went a step too far. Instead of allowing the e-Golf’s inherently quiet cabin to be a desirable evolution of VW’s brand character in the electric car era, the company embedded a speaker in the e-Golf’s dash that emits an artificial engine sound that gets louder as the car accelerates at low speeds. At about 20 m.p.h., the speaker is silenced and the actual sound of the road takes over.
This auditory contrivance reveals the steps that VW is willing to take to make sure its electric-drive vehicles, starting with the Jetta Hybrid, remain steeped in internal combustion aesthetics, even while the fuel that propels the wheels shifts from dirty hydrocarbons to clean electrons.