- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.