Commuter car comparison: Volkswagen Jetta vs. Toyota Prius Prime

Commuter car comparison: Volkswagen Jetta vs. Toyota Prius Prime

May 13th, 2017 by Mark Kennedy in Business Around the Region

The 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE is high-quality, basic transportation.

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

The swoopy Toyota Prius Prime operates on pennies a day.

The swoopy Toyota Prius Prime operates on pennies...

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Fast facts

- Model: 2017 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4t SE

- Exterior color: Silk Blue Metallic

- Interior color: Titan Black

- Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged

- Horsepower: 150

- Transmission: five-speed manual

- Fuel economy: 40 mpg highway, 28 mpg city

- Local Dealer: Village Volkswagen of Chattanooga, International Drive

- Price (as tested): $21,715

This comparison originated on a whim: How could the world's two pre-eminent car companies produce mass-market commuter cars so vastly different?

The idea emerged as I pondered both of those factory press-fleet cars in my driveway.

The VW Jetta 1.4t SE struck me as the most delightfully basic execution of the compact car I have encountered in years — witness the blissful headlight switch with only two settings, "on" and "off."

Meanwhile, the cutting-edge Toyota Prius Prime, a plug-in version of the company's Prius liftback, has an iPad-like 11.6-inch touchscreen and space-age interior design. Compared to the Jetta, it looks like it was engineered for an entirely different species of human.

"How can these two small cars exist, side-by-side in the same model year?" I thought to myself.

More importantly, how can they both succeed in the marketplace, which they demonstrably do. Toyota sells about 100,000 Prius cars a year during this cheap-gas era; and VW sold 121,000 Jettas here last year.

First, let's stipulate that this is a total apples-to-oranges comparison. With gas prices under $2 a gallon, the Prius Prime is almost exclusively aimed at environmentally minded drivers. Meanwhile, the Jetta, which is said to sell especially well in affluent ZIP codes, is an example of a bare-bones German sedan with a world-class powertrain.

In other words, few small-car buyers probably head out to test drive a Prius and a Jetta in the same day. Still, both cars have roughly equivalent sales.

Also, remember those cars are about $9,000 apart in price. The high-tech Prius Prime Premium has an manufacturer's suggested retail price of $30,060 and the Jetta 1.4T SE sells for just $21,715. Factor in the expected $4,000 savings in five-year fuel costs for Prius Prime and the prices converge some.

STYLING

When it comes to styling, the Prius looks like it was put together by a wedding cake designer, and the Jetta appears as if it was sculpted from granite.

Toyota describes the Prius design as a blend of "functionality and playfulness." There's little doubt the "playfulness" department won this tug of war. The Prius Prime is one of those rare cars that has a rear end that's just as expressive as its front fascia. In fact, it's hard to tell if this Prius is coming or going.

It took me a few moments to realize that the rear window is concave instead of convex. In fact, I had to reach out and feel it to believe it. Meanwhile, the black-and-white four-passenger cockpit includes colors and materials that would look at home in a high-end kitchen. The two-passenger rear-seat area, with its padded center armrest, looks modern and gets high marks for comfort.

Meanwhile, the Jetta has crisp, no-nonsense body lines that would never be described as "playful." Depending on your point of view, the Jetta's profile is either boring or timeless. Timelessness is a virtue, since cars that age well tend to hold their value. Similarly, the all-black interior is either dated or refreshingly simple. We give the nod to simple.

Advantage: Jetta

FEATURES

The Prius Prime, which was introduced in 2016, includes a wonderland of technology, starting with its gas-electric powertrain. Technically a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, the Prius Prime can travel up to 25 miles on a pure electric charge, which can be accomplished on household current in about five hours. The plug-in gets the equivalent of 133 mpg in electric-only mode, and 54 mpg in gas-electric hybrid mode. (When its batteries are depleted, the Prius Prime carries on under gas power.)

The Jetta comes equipped with VW's excellent 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 150 horsepower. Our tester came with a five-speed manual transmission that ups the fun factor significantly, as long as you are willing to row through the gears. The Jetta travels from zero-to-60 miles per hour in a brisk 8.4 seconds.

Despite its rather austere appearance, the mid-trim Jetta has its share of niceties, including 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, leatherette seating surfaces and satellite radio.

The Prius Prime, though, is a virtual feature-fest with its luxurious SoftTex leather seats, three driving modes, carbon-fibre reinforced rear hatch, sophisticated climate-control system, two-tone wheels and Tesla-like 11.6-inch display.

Advantage: Prius.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

The Prius line is not known for spirited driving dynamics, but evolutionary improvements are beginning to change that. Acceleration in the Prius Prime is adequate, steering-feel is superb and the suspension (paired with thick, doughnut shaped tires) is compliant and makes for a soft ride.

The Jetta, on the other hand, is a hoot to pilot through our mountain twisties. Although it comes equipped with the least powerful motor in the Jetta line (more potent 170- and 201-horsepower versions are available), it's a torqued-up little beast. Next year, the Jetta is expected to adopt VWs full MQB architecture found in the VW Golf and other models, which will make it even sportier.

Advantage: Jetta

BOTTOM LINE

While both cars have a deep fan base, the Jetta's combination of value and performance make it our favorite. Still, the Prius Prime is tasty little automotive pastry that will be even more desirable to a general audience if gas ever gets back in the $3- to $4-per-gallon range.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfree press.com or 423-645-8937.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com