A tale of two VWs: Jetta Hybrid versus Beetle TDI

Comparing the visceral, brooding diesel engine of the Volkswagen Beetle TDI to the coolly efficient hybrid drivetrain of the VW Jetta Hybrid, the old dualities come into play: yin and yang, vice and versa, id and superego and, perhaps most appropriately, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Just as there was the hot-headed, sensualist earthling who sparred with the agnostic, rational Vulcan – while ostensibly playing for the same team – here we have the brash, shirt-ripping diesel in a chess match with the relentlessly logical hybrid – the latter a car that conserves every erg of energy with its regenerative braking. Which will prevail?

In the tradition of Star Trek, the outcome will be revealed only in the closing minutes.

The tested Beetle serves as the representative of the diesel powertrain, but the Jetta is available in both diesel and hybrid-electric forms, so if you prefer its sedan styling or need its far more useable back seat, notes here on dynamism apply to the Jetta TDI as readily as to the Beetle TDI.

The Beetle starts quickly in cold weather, with none of the delay that diesels used to suffer as their glow plugs warmed the combustion chamber in preparation for starting.  The engine is instantly responsive to the accelerator pedal, presenting the sort of rumpled, slightly unrefined character that endeared Captain James T. Kirk to green-skinned alien women across the galaxy.

This is not to suggest it is rough or poorly developed, only that it has enough texture to remind drivers that there is internal combustion occurring, and proudly so

The TDI engine will rev past 5,000rpm, but with all the torque at the low end of the tachometer, there is little incentive to push past 3,000rpm. The upshift-reminder light on the dashboard of most manual-transmission VWs, typically a blinking nuisance, serves in the TDI as a worthwhile reminder that you can drive in a higher gear than you might in a gas-powered car. When a gas car might chug along, struggling to pull fourth gear at neighbourhood speeds, the diesel has no such problems.

Power comes on hard, but in a linear, predictable fashion. There is no more of the turbo lag that used to cause diesel Volkswagens to actually accelerate harder as a foot lifted off of the gas – a curious phenomenon brought about when the turbocharger finally produced its maximum boost pressure.

Meanwhile, over on planet hybrid, the gasoline-electric Jetta presents the chance for maximum fuel savings with minimal effort. That would typically make it the logical choice for all rational would-be Spocks. But as Kermit the Frog famously observed, it is not easy being green. It is, in fact, about $3,000 harder.

The bottom line on the tested Jetta Hybrid SE was $27,820, inclusive of $795 destination charge, compared to the Beetle TDI’s $24,360. A Jetta TDI is a couple hundred dollars cheaper still in base trim, and coincidentally, a fully optioned Jetta TDI with Premium and Navigation packages, bringing moonroof, Fender sound system, 17-inch aluminium wheels, power driver’s seat, navigation and keyless entry, lists for exactly the same price as the Jetta Hybrid SE, with none of those features.

Also, the Jetta Hybrid is prone to that alien discomfort around people, never knowing how to comport itself. Press on the brake pedal at highway speed and it will brake harder than intended. Lift off and it will continue recovering kinetic energy, slowing the driver down even if the driver merely wanted to coast.

At walking speeds, the Jetta Hybrid commits the cardinal sin of EV calibrations, mistaking constant light brake pressure to mean the driver wants to maintain the same crawl speed. (If you need to ram your garage door when you intend to stop in the driveway, this is the best way to do it.)

On the gas it is more of the same. Much like the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, it seems like fellow hybrid newcomer Volkswagen has not quite ironed out all the calibration quirks endemic to advanced powertrains. Judging from the smoothness achieved by experienced hybrid vendors like Toyota and Ford, it may take more time and experience to perfect VW’s system.

As for fuel economy – a primary purchasing motivation for buyers of these vehicles – the EPA rates the hybrid a good bit more efficient than the diesel, at 45mpg in combined city/highway driving. The diesel Jetta is rated at 34mpg combined, and the tested Beetle TDI at 32mpg. The Beetle returned 33mpg in mixed suburban driving, though it is not uncommon to observe figures in the upper 30s from VW’s more seasoned TDI models.

True to its EPA rating, the Jetta Hybrid fared much better than the Beetle TDI returning 42mpg.

The EPA predicts a $550 annual savings in fuel cost for the hybrid model over the Beetle TDI which, presuming the observed $3,000 gap, would pay off the difference in purchase price in about five years.

If you plan to drive the car for five years, then the calculation is a wash, freeing the customer to go with personal preference: intuitive poker or logical chess?

Call us Captain Kirk groupies, but we pick the TDI for its human touch.