A sport sedan in sensible shoes.

by Mitch McCullough

The Volkswagen Jetta GLX is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a real sports sedan hiding inside a sensible body. It's a trick Volkswagen has played with its cars ever since the first Rabbit GTI back in 1982.

The growl behind this wolf is Volkswagen's innovative VR6 engine, a smooth powerplant that delivers lots of gusto around town and out on the open road. That power is backed up with a sports suspension and big brakes -- stuff that makes for great sports sedans. The Jetta GLX responds quickly, precisely and smoothly, just as the driver expects. It quickly establishes a bond with its driver, a result of precision German engineering and years of research and development.

Yet this wolf is as easy to control as a sheep around town. And it possesses all the comfort, roominess and practicality that make this compact sedan as useful as many mid-size entries. It's a collection of attributes that have helped to make the Jetta the best selling European car in North America.

Walkaround

The Jetta's smooth body and formal contours are distinctive, a descendant of Jettas past combined with the sophistication of the '90s. It's a functional look, albeit somewhat dated.

Jetta sedans are available in four models: the practical GL, the loaded GLS, the more powerful GLX and a new GT model. The four-cylinder Jetta GT provides the visual appeal of the GLX without the more expensive VR6 engine, which adds up to significant savings -- about $5000.

Volkswagen's Golf family shares chassis, engines and much of its character with the Jetta lineup. The Golf line includes the sporty GTI, the more powerful GTI VR6, the unique Cabrio convertible and the four-door Golf GL. With the exception of the Cabrio, the Golfs are hatchbacks, a configuration that provides the cargo-carrying versatility of a small station wagon.

The four-cylinder engines, including a new turbodiesel that will be available later in the year, provide performance that rates as no better than ordinary.

The standard Jetta/Golf engine is a responsive 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder that produces 115 hp. The cylinder head has been redesigned for 1997 for smoother, quieter operation.

Last year Volkswagen introduced the TDI (turbo direct injection) diesel engine, a $940 option on the Jetta and Golf. Small diesels are popular in Europe because they deliver exceptional fuel economy and tireless durability, but their performance is ho-hum.

The 2.8-liter VR6 is another story. It's technically a V-6, but the angle of the vee is so narrow -- just 15 degrees -- that the cylinder banks share a common head. The result is a very compact powerplant that allows VW engineers to pack six cylinders in a four-cylinder engine bay. The VR6 generates 172 hp and a lot of low-rpm pulling power.

Regardless of the model or engine ordered, all Jettas and Golfs come standard with dual airbags, daytime running lights and child safety locks. Anti-lock brakes are optional.

In addition to the VR6 engine, the Jetta GLX and Golf GTI VR6 share a sports suspension and a high level of standard equipment, which includes electronic traction control, bigger brakes, wider 15-inch wheels with high-performance tires and a rear spoiler.

The Inside Story

The compact Jetta body belies its roomy interior. The Jetta is roomier than a Honda Civic or Nissan Sentra sedan, and provides more headroom than a Toyota Camry. Shorter drivers will appreciate the height-adjustable front seats.

Getting in and out is easy with front doors that open wide. The interior serves up logically laid out controls that have a high-quality feel and the instruments are attractive and highly legible. Rubber-lined pockets in the front and rear doors and at the sides of the front seats provide a quiet place for odds and ends to ride. There's more trunk space than a BMW 7-Series luxury sedan and the trunk lid lifts beyond vertical for easy loading.

The $22,655 Jetta GLX we drove was loaded with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and sunroof, plus the optional all-weather package consisting of heated leather front seats and a heated windshield washer nozzle. Our car also included an eight-speaker sound system, but a 10-speaker Bose system will be standard equipment in the GLX later this year.

A nifty central locking system comes standard on all Jettas and Golfs. The central locking button on the dash locks and unlocks the doors, the trunk and the fuel filler door. Turn the key once and it unlocks the driver's door; turn it twice and it unlocks all the doors. Hold the key in the unlock position and all windows and the sunroof open to quickly ventilate the car on a hot day.

All Jettas are appointed with dual vanity mirrors, a lockable split-folding rear seat back, folding armrest, three cup holders, rear heating ducts, and an emergency repair toolkit.

Ride & Drive

The Jetta GLX is a lot of fun to drive and the source of much of that fun resides under the hood. The VR6 engine revs well and propels the Jetta quickly down winding roads, but strong mid-range response and a wide powerband is what really sets the GLX apart from the other cars in its class.

The VR6 engine generates 85 percent of its pulling power at only 2000 rpm -- much lower than most engines -- and continues pulling right up to 6000 rpm.

Punch the gas pedal at any time and the Jetta GLX is an instant getaway car. For example, the GLX can get away from an Acura Integra GS-R, a Nissan 200SX SE-R and a BMW 318ti. VW's VR6 is also one of the smoothest engines in its class, and ongoing development has largely elminated the noise that plagued earlier versions.

All Jettas offer a great balance of handling, driver feedback and ride quality, the result of a rigid structure and finely tuned suspension. At higher speeds, the Jetta is exceptionally stable, thanks to VW's track-correcting rear suspension bushings that minimize unwanted steering effects from the rear wheels during cornering.

The standard Jetta five-speed manual transmission is smooth and reasonably precise. The GLX has a close-ratio five-speed gearbox that helps keep the engine in the sweet spot of its broad powerband, to enhance acceleration.

If you prefer an automatic transmission, VW's four-speed self-shifter adjusts shift patterns according to how the car is being driven. The ample torque supplied by the VR6 works well with this smart automatic.

Final Word

All of the Jetta and Golf models deliver confidence-inspiring handling, roomy interiors and German engineering.

The powerful VR6 engine turns the Jetta GLX into a real sport sedan. It handles well and it's fun to drive. The interior is comfortable, elegant and functional.

Although its exterior design is a little boxy by contemporary standards, the Jetta GLX combines comfort, utility and composed road manners, with sinewy performance.

The result is a sport sedan that backs up Volkswagen's "Drivers Wanted" advertising theme. Jettas have tended to be a trifle expensive in the past, but Volkswagen has held the line on pricing while competing cars have soared.

Predictably, this policy has helped VW regain lost ground in the U.S. market, and it's a key factor in the Jetta's rising popularity. If you covet European performance but a BMW is out of reach, you might just find the Jetta GLX a more-than-acceptable substitute.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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