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In one corner, the ultimate modern symbol of environmental responsibility, the Toyota Prius. In the other, the best current example of automotive thrift and efficiency as defined in Europe, where space and resources are traditionally scarce and expensive, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

Now in its third generation and second decade on the U.S. market, the Toyota Prius has successfully pioneered hybrid-electric powertrain technology and etched it into the American psyche as the most valid tool currently available to reduce one's fuel consumption and carbon footprint. The "Clean Diesel"-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI offers exceptional fuel economy and remarkably clean running with the latest in direct-injected and turbocharged diesel engine technology. Both cars have die-hard fans, great strengths and a few drawbacks.

So which one is the best for you?

Prius: From Second Wind to Mainstream
When Toyota launched the first Prius here as a 2001 model, the frumpy-looking small sedan didn't look like much and certainly wasn't impressive to drive. It had tepid acceleration, feel-deprived steering, and an exceptionally jerky brake pedal. Even so, the little car was a true fuel sipper, spewing fewer pollutants out its tailpipe than any other car on the road.

More importantly, however, the Prius stayed almost perfectly reliable — for several hundred thousand miles in some cases — and its battery pack did not self-immolate or explode as naysayers had originally predicted. It also prevailed over Honda's Insight, the futuristic-looking two-seater coupe that had beat it to market on this continent as the first commercially available hybrid-powered car.

It nevertheless took the significantly improved second-generation Prius to put the original hybrid into the public's eye and finally make it a market success, albeit a modest one. That second Prius had more modern exterior styling and an instrument panel that brightly showcased the complex interaction of its hybrid powertrain's components. It also gained a half-foot in length and wheelbase, which made it notably roomier. With a modest hike in total output from 70 to 76 horsepower, its fuel economy numbers went from EPA ratings of 42 mpg city/41 mpg highway to 48/45 mpg thanks to various upgrades, including stronger new batteries.

Better still, the smaller, slimmer, lighter nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack was now laid flat under the rear seat with fold-down seatbacks that made the Prius much more practical. Sales in North America doubled for the 2004 model year to 55,942 cars and again the following year, for a total of 109,853 sales in the 2005 model year.

The third-generation Prius, launched as a 2010 model, is another step. It boasts an almost entirely new hybrid system built around a larger and more powerful 1.8-liter 98-horsepower thermal engine. With a stronger electric motor, its total calculated output is 134 horsepower, up by two dozen over the outgoing model. Built on the same wheelbase, the newest Prius is slightly more aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of 0.25 versus its forebear's 0.26. It also promises better fuel economy with EPA ratings of 51/48 mpg in spite of the improved power and performance.

Jetta TDI: Newfound Sense and Civility
The Jetta has been Volkswagen's best-selling nameplate in North America since the mid-1980s. The fifth-generation Jetta is currently sold as a sedan or the semi-eponymously named SportWagen. In both cases the most fuel-efficient model gets a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel engine with direct injection that develops 140 horsepower.

The introduction of this clean and stingy new turbocharged direct-injected (TDI) diesel engine was made possible for 2009 by the nationwide availability of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. These 50-state Jetta TDI models are rated at 30/41 mpg when equipped with the standard 6-speed manual and a touch better with the optional 6-speed dual-automated clutch gearbox, at 30/42 mpg.

Most interior dimensions are surprisingly close to those of the Prius, in spite of the Japanese hybrid's longer wheelbase and shorter overall length. Unsurprisingly, the Jetta SportWagen has the most space for luggage with a volume of 32.8 cu. ft., while the official count is 21.6 cu. ft. for the Prius and 16 for the Jetta sedan. In all three, the split rear seatbacks can be flipped forward to expand cargo capacity.

A fully redesigned sixth-generation Jetta sedan will be launched in October. This new series will be more than 3.5 inches longer than the previous one and offer more space inside. There will again be a choice of three engines, including the current 2.0-liter TDI turbodiesel.

Behind that signature badge, Volkswagen's Jetta SportWagen has a more rounded shape than its predecessors, and the rear section can swallow a great deal of luggage.

Two Highly Different Creatures
Everything seems to separate the Jetta and Prius, from their exterior styling and interior design to their mechanical architecture, preferred driving environment and general behavior.

The intentionally ovoid shape of the Prius is recognized instantly and the high-tech theme is carried inside with the center-mounted digital data panel, button-rich steering wheel and console, dash-mounted touch screen, and joystick-like gear selector. We found the new monochromatic data display dull and its menus confusing when compared with the second-generation Prius and more so with the colorful and engaging instrument panel in the rival Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Bing: Toyota Prius Accessories

Retrieving small objects from the storage bin under the bridgelike center console in the Prius is a hassle and so is trying to get to the heated seat switches that are buried there. Being "original" can be good but this setup defies basic common sense. The front seats also felt instantly uncomfortable and remained so during a long highway drive. Different bottoms might feel differently. We also found the hybrid's straight-line stability questionable and it was quite sensitive to side winds. The Prius basically isn't very happy on the open road.

In stark contrast, the Jetta is thoroughly Cartesian inside with a pair of classic round gauges, a standard three-spoke wheel, three rotary knobs for the climate control system, big buttons for the radio, a good pair of stalks on either side of the wheel and plenty of easily accessible storage bins. The seats are nicely sculpted with just the right measure of German firmness to correctly balance support and comfort. A solid and flat dead pedal completes the package but, in all fairness, we have to mention that the center console is wide and easily crowds the driver's right leg and knee, a typical VW trait.

Torque Tells the Tale
In the Jetta TDI sedan, we recorded zero to 60 mph acceleration times of 8.8 seconds with the manual and 8.9 seconds with the optional dual-clutch gearbox. The slightly heftier Jetta TDI wagon produced a more sedate zero to 60 mph sprint of 9.5 seconds with the manual. By comparison, even lighter by about 200 pounds, the third-generation Prius accelerates to 60 mph in 10.1 seconds, showing that torque speaks louder indeed. The difference between the two power units is only 4 horses, but while the hybrid powertrain's torque peak is 105 lb-ft, the TDI engine belts out 236 lb-ft.

Still, the new Prius gets to 60 mph much more quickly than the second-generation car that made it in 11.4 seconds and was itself much swifter than the original car and its mediocre 12.6-second clocking. By contrast, while both Jetta body types took 138 feet to stop from 60 mph in our emergency braking tests, the new Prius needed only 129 feet.

The Jetta TDI cannot match the fuel efficiency of the Prius in the city. Neither can any other car, for that matter. That said, it does come close on the highway, thanks to exceptional torque at low revs. In separate long drives, mostly at a constant 70 mph, we averaged 43.7 mpg in the Prius and 40.1 mpg in the Jetta SportWagen.

The Prius is at its best in big city traffic where its hybrid powertrain comes to the fore and ultimate control is not critical. You will need to renounce some of this exceptional thrift on fossil fuels to keep up in normal traffic sprints and stay out of the 'Eco' mode that trades much of the car's zip for ultimate efficiency. The electric-only EV mode is cool but limited to crawling speeds, when batteries are well charged.

Bottom Line
The Jetta TDI is a better-rounded car, unquestionably. The SportWagen is pricier than the sedan but exceptionally roomy and practical. With the TDI engine, both are compelling packages for the money-minded, environmentally conscious, one-car family that likes to move around a lot, do plenty and carry lots of stuff. And what family doesn't?
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