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The 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE is high-quality, basic transportation.
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The swoopy Toyota Prius Prime operates on pennies a day.
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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.

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