By Kelsey Mays on October 23, 2009
Beyond the numbers that we so diligently broke down yesterday, driving four different cars for six hours can be telling in many more ways than just fuel economy. Our editors share their thoughts on the cars and pick which car they’d log another six-hour trip in.
“The Volkswagen Jetta TDI felt the sportiest by far. Credit goes in part to its taut, responsive suspension setup, but its fuel-sipping diesel engine also plays a part. The four-cylinder produces lots of low-end torque — 236 pounds-feet at just 1,750 rpm — that gives you plenty of passing power whether driving at city or highway speeds. It's a feeling that the hybrids in this group couldn't match.
“If you put aside the Prius' impressive gas mileage, I'm less wowed by the rest of the car as a whole. It doesn't raise the bar as much as it should for a redesigned model, both in terms of how it drives (it's not that engaging) and its interior quality (the velour-like seat fabric in our Prius didn't appeal to me).
“Of the three hybrids in our test, the Mercury Milan Hybrid performs most like a conventional car in how it accelerates and steers, which may appeal to some buyers coming from a gas-only car.
“While the Insight felt a little sportier than the Prius, it couldn't touch the Jetta. The driver's seat in the Honda also had a pronounced contour in its backrest that provided a lot of lumbar support. I would have preferred less, but it's not adjustable.”
— Mike Hanley, editor
“Like Mike, I appreciate the Prius for its impressive gas mileage, but I still have a beef with the driving experience — even with this new generation. Its unresponsive accelerator pedal and inconsistent braking made driving a constant battle of asking myself if it will accelerate or brake how I want given the driving conditions. Most of the time the answer to that question was ‘maybe.’
“The Jetta TDI, Insight and Milan Hybrid drove more like normal cars with little indication of the alternative-fuel powertrains underneath. I was most impressed by the Jetta with its gutsy diesel engine, quiet highway ride and typical Volkswagen premium interior — all for a reasonable starting price.
“Between the hybrids, the Insight was very sporty, which you normally wouldn’t associate with being a hybrid. It felt very much like the Civic as far as how it handled but with the same detracting qualities of excessive wind and road noise.”
— Joe Bruzek, editor
“If I were going to be purchasing an affordable hybrid as my city car today, it would be the Toyota Prius. While I, too, am not a fan of its unresponsive accelerator, I think the comfort, new technology and efficiency make up for the few shortcomings.
“The other car that came closest to winning my monthly payment was the TDI. With no deficiency in performance, the Jetta TDI was good without being a gas-guzzler. Plus it looks like any regular Jetta.
“From the very unique and high-tech dashboard to the comfort of being in the ‘everyday-car’ category, the Milan Hybrid was a pleasure to drive. On the flip side, even though I don’t have the seat time in as many cars as a full-time reviewer, I have yet to experience anything less comfortable than the Honda Insight’s seats. After 15 minutes of driving, my back was in sheer pain.”
— Matt Raskin, data editor
“I’m with Matt: The Insight’s seats are punishing. The car also wanders too much on the highway, and when it’s in Economy mode, the drivetrain feels anemic. Contrast that with the Jetta and its burly diesel engine that gets you going with barely a squeeze on the accelerator. Steering is crisp, and the car has oodles of ride composure compared to the Honda. My kind of car, the TDI is.
“I disagree with Mike on the Prius. Though never engaging to drive, it’s a step in the right direction for Toyota, a company that’s been foundering on quality and interior issues of late. The Milan Hybrid offers up family-car levels of room and seating comfort to boot.”
— Kelsey Mays, editor
If you had to get behind the wheel for another six hours, which car would you take?
MH: “There's no question, I'd take the Milan Hybrid if I was going on a long drive. It's the quietest on the highway, offers the most comfortable ride of this quartet and is more entertaining to drive than either the Prius or the Insight. It's a hybrid, but it doesn't feel like you're driving an appliance.”
JB: “Despite being impressed by the Jetta, I would absolutely take the Milan Hybrid on another six-hour tour. The Jetta is quiet and comfortable, but the Milan is quieter and more comfortable. The Milan also has Sync, which is a vital addition for multimedia junkies with massive music collections.”
MR: “This is a tricky question. If I were paying for the next tank of gas I would take the Prius in a second. This efficient, comfortable, technologically advanced car is a pleasure to be in. If I had no expenses attached, I would drive the Milan Hybrid. Sorry, Joe, but Sync is not a selling point for me. However, the Milan’s intuitive dashboard is definitely a plus.”
KM: “I really want to pick the Jetta TDI here: For driving fun, it stands head and shoulders above the rest. But the prospect of driving another six hours puts almost all the weight on issues like road noise, seating comfort and ride quality. The Prius measures up well, but so does the Milan Hybrid — and it’s more engaging to drive. Guess Mercury runs the table.”
Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey