SANTA FE, NM – It took more than a decade, but an auto maker finally has delivered an affordable hybrid-electric compact car, the ’13 Volkswagen Jetta hybrid, that is both fuel-efficient and fun to drive.

Leave it to the Germans to crack the code that has seemingly baffled many a manufacturer.

True, VW dawdled its way to the compact hybrid segment, but it clearly used the extra time wisely: This is the first hybrid that incorporates a sporty, fuel-efficient turbocharged direct-injection engine, as well as a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The all-new 1.4L DI turbo, designated EA 211, is one of three all-new fuel-sippers VW will bring to market in the coming years.

The engine makes the Jetta hybrid arguably the most compelling parallel hybrid yet because it delivers great fuel economy at a competitive price and reinforces the European joy of driving. It’s truly sporty.

The same was said of the V-6 Honda Accord hybrid that arrived in 2005 (but quickly fizzled in the market) and the Infiniti M35h hybrid, but never about the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight or Ford Fusion hybrids. The old V-6 Accord gave us a moderate fuel-economy gain, and the Infiniti comes with a big pricetag. The Jetta Hybrid requires no such compromises.

During extensive driving in New Mexico at an altitude reaching 8,500 ft. (2,591 m), the car delivers impressive fuel economy along three routes that totaled about 200 miles (322 km).

The mileage gets better as the day wears on and the altitude rises (which forces the engine to breathe harder and should hinder mileage): 39.5 mpg (5.9 L/100 km), then 44.2 mpg (5.3 L/100 km), then 45.6 mpg (5.1 L/100 km) for the rest of the day. Several other journalists achieved similar numbers during the test drives.

The Jetta hybrid also came to Detroit for the WardsAuto staff to evaluate as part of the 2013 Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition.

The staff was unimpressed by its observed fuel economy (a middling 33 mpg [7.1 L/100 km]) and found its stop/start system clunky. The disappointing mileage and the stop/start performance hurt its chances of making it on the 10 Best Engines list.

Still, in a segment dominated by dour documentaries, this car is an action thriller, thanks to the potent, pintsized 1.4L DI turbo 4-cyl. boosted by a compact, single-scroll compressor. No other engine used in an affordable hybrid makes 107 hp/L, by itself.

Here are the numbers: ’13 Toyota Prius c: 49 hp/L; ’13 Toyota Prius PHEV: 54 hp/L; ’14 Honda Accord PHEV: 69 hp/L: and ’13 Ford Fusion Hybrid: 71 hp/L.

VW even handily beats the new BMW ActiveHybrid3, which is powered by the spectacular award-winning N55 3.0L turbo I-6. In the BMW hybrid, that engine makes “only” 100 hp/L.

Unlike the Bavarian entry, the Jetta Hybrid is not overly expensive.

Yes, our loaded tester tops $30k, but in base trim the car can be had for $25,000, competitive with the Prius, Fusion hybrid, new Accord hybrid and others.

Paired with the new 1.4L I-4 is a 27-hp water-cooled electric motor that draws juice from a 222V lithium-ion battery pack placed above the rear axle. Together, the 60 battery cells, rated at 1.1 kWh, weigh about 80 lbs. (36 kg). Overall, the Jetta hybrid is 229 lbs. (104 kg) heavier than a base gasoline Jetta.

Unless the battery level is low, the Jetta Hybrid will start in electric mode and stay there until speeds of up to 37 mph (60 km/h), unless the driver requires aggressive acceleration or is on hilly terrain.

In this mode, the gasoline engine is stopped and entirely disconnected from the drivetrain, but cabin heating and cooling and other electrical systems continue functioning normally.

After about a mile of EV driving, or if the driver stomps on the gas, a clutch integrated within the electric motor closes and the gasoline engine kicks on to charge the battery as well as turn the front wheels.

At speeds up to 84 mph (135 km/h), the engine also shuts off when the driver releases the gas pedal, encounters a downward slope or coasts to a stop. The Jetta Hybrid can drive 1.2 miles (1.9 km) on all-electric power.

Drop the DSG dual-clutch transmission into “S” sport mode – or mash the accelerator pedal – and the electric motor will begin “boosting” the gasoline engine en route to total system output of 170 hp.

Occasionally at steady-state driving, the Jetta Hybrid drifts into “passive boosting,” in which the electric unit takes over accessory power and eliminates the parasitic drag created by a conventional car’s alternator.

VW pioneered the rapid-shifting dual-clutch transmission a decade ago as an alternative to the sluggish conventional automatic. The auto maker describes this new DQ200 on the Jetta Hybrid as its most efficient DSG, using a dry clutch instead of the wet unit found in other VWs.

The transmission will function as a pure automatic in “D” mode. For more fun, slide the shift lever to the right and manually row through the gears.

For zero-emissions driving, push the “E-Mode” button to the right of the shift lever and the car cruises up to 44 mph (71 km/h) without burning a drop of petrol as long as the battery is adequately charged. VW’s latest electric power steering helps maximize the time spent in gas-free mode.

Whenever the brakes are applied, the Jetta Hybrid converts the kinetic energy (in the form of heat) into electricity to charge the battery. To maximize this regenerative function, the engine is decoupled from the drivetrain to reduce drag caused by engine braking.

Some drivers may find the brakes too grabby and sensitive to even the slightest pedal inputs, but VW engineers say the tuning is intentional to maximize the regenerative effect and improve fuel efficiency.

Most of the interior carries over from the standard Jetta, the sixth generation of which launched in ’11 and has sold well as the auto maker has slashed retail pricing.

The biggest difference appears on the instrument panel, which replaces the standard tachometer with a “Power Meter” that takes some getting used to.

When the car is turned on and ready to run, the needle rests at zero and will move northward along the power meter, which resembles a tachometer but does not function like one. The most efficient driving occurs with light throttle inputs from 0 to 30 on the gauge, alternating between gas and electric propulsion.

Dip heavier into the accelerator pedal and the needle advances to between 30 and 60 on the meter. Only the gasoline engine turns the wheels but also charges the battery.

Step heavier on the accelerator and the gasoline engine provides full power without charging the battery.

Wide-open throttle pushes the needle to 10, beyond which both the electric motor and internal-combustion engine work in tandem for full power.

In between the power meter and speedometer is the standard multi-function display screen that includes the level of battery charge. This gauge can be set to show the continuous flow of power during operation, whether from the electric motor or gas engine. It coaches those who want to minimize gasoline use.

On the SE model and higher, the radio/navigation system’s color touchscreen over the center console provides even more information about the hybrid’s operation, including arrows to denote power flow.

The Jetta Hybrid is a savvy move by VW to expand the brand’s reach. Wolfsburg already has a corner on the market for compact diesel cars in the U.S., a segment that will see several new competitors this year. The auto maker now wants to tap into the runaway success of the Prius, understanding that diesel and hybrid customers are different.

Consumers appear to be overcoming doubts about offsetting the premium paid for a hybrid: VW forecasts hybrid sales to double in the next 10 years. The auto maker predicts the hybrid will make up about 5% of Jetta volume in the U.S.

The car went on sale in December, about the same time VW began referring to it as the Jetta Turbo Hybrid, playing up its uniquely sporty character.

Call this car what you want, but the Germans got it right.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

'13 VW Jetta Hybrid
Vehicle type Front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, hybrid-electric sedan
Engine 1.4L GDI turbocharged DOHC 4-cyl.; aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 150 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) @ 1,600 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 74.5 x 80
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Electric motor 20 kW (27 hp)
Combined output 170 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch
Wheelbase 104.4 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 182.8 ins. (464 cm)
Overall width 70.0 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 57.2 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 3,312 lbs. (1,502 kg)
Base price $24,995
Fuel economy 42/48 mpg (5.6-4.9 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Ford C-Max, Honda Civic and Insight, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Prius hybrids
Pros Cons
Power whenever you want it Observed mpg could be better
Great way to expand brand VW buyers think diesel first
Spiffy hybrid info displays Where’s the tachometer?