German engineering for the rest of us.

by Mitch McCullough

On the road of life, says Volkswagen, there are passengers, and there are drivers. VW has good reason to espouse this philosophy. Its cars, particularly the Jetta and Golf, are appealing to people who view driving as something other than mere transportation. They respond quickly, precisely and smoothly to commands. They become an extension of the driver. Not all cars are like that.

That's because this oneness between driver and machine is not easy to achieve. It requires precision engineering and years of research and development. It's something the Germans, who must design to Autobahn standards, have perfected, and in the case of the Jetta and Golf, it's affordable.

Walkaround

The design of the Jetta and Golf has matured over the years. They are more attractive now -- more sophisticated and more aerodynamically efficient. The soft-top VW Cabrio, in particular, really looks slick compared with its ancestor.

Although the bodies and interiors differ, they share chassis and engines. Deciding among them comes down to choosing between a sedan, a hatchback or a convertible.

The Jetta four-door sedan is available in three models -- the base GL, the loaded GLS and the more powerful GLX. The hatchback lineup is composed of the practical four-door Golf, two sporty GTI models and the Cabrio, all two-doors.

Interior space is virtually the same between the Jetta and Golf models, roomy up front, adequate in the rear. The Golfs offer slightly more cargo space, the Jetta offers the security of a trunk. The wheelbase of all these cars is the same, but the Jetta's body is 13 inches longer.

The standard powerplant, found in the Jetta GL and GLS, Golf GL, GTI and Cabrio, is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder that produces 115 hp. It's a responsive, durable engine that revs smoothly but gives something away to cars like the peppy new Chrysler Neons.

The Jetta GLX and Golf GTI VR6, however, are powered by a unique six-cylinder engine. VW's 2.8-liter VR6 is technically a V-6, but the angle of the vee is so narrow that the two cylinder banks share a common head, allowing the engineers to pack six cylinders into an engine bay only big enough for four. The VR6 generates 172 hp and produces 0-to-60 times in the low seven-second range, which is quicker than a BMW 318ti.

The third engine choice, a $940 option, is VW's new TDI (Turbo Direct Injection) diesel.

Regardless of the model or engine ordered, all Jettas and Golfs come standard with a nice array of safety equipment, including dual airbags and daytime running lights. They feature a safety cage construction and meet 1997 side impact standards. Anti-lock brakes are optional.

The Jetta GLX and Golf GTI VR6 share many traits. To go along with their VR6 engine, they employ a suspension designed to provide a sportier feel and improved handling. The $16,000 four-cylinder GTI also benefits from this sports suspension, a good choice for someone who wants sporty handling, but doesn't want to pay $3700 more for the VR6.

The Jetta GLX and GTI VR6 come standard with equipment designed to enhance their sporty nature and the performance of the VR6 engine. That includes: electronic traction control, bigger brakes, wider 15-inch wheels with high-performance tires, a rear spoiler, and color-keyed mirror housings.

The $20,000 Cabrio is roomier than a BMW 318 Convertible and comes with the features found on a loaded Jetta GLS, including an eight-speaker AM/FM CD-capable cassette stereo. The high-quality six-layer top is hand-fitted for good insulation from extreme heat and cold with an outer layer of PVC-coated vinyl that resists abrasion, while the glass rear window with electric defroster won't get scratched or fogged up over time.

The Cabrio is also the only convertible that features a fixed, integrated roll bar that meets federal rollover standards.

The Inside Story

Both the Jetta and the Golf models are blessed with a surprising amount of interior room for their size, including nearly an inch more front headroom than the Toyota Camry. There is plenty of cargo space in the trunk of the Jetta and even more in the Golf hatchback. The front doors open wide, making it easy to get in and out, and the trunk lid on the Jetta lifts beyond vertical for loading groceries, baggage and other cargo.

The sporty bucket seats feature a height adjustment, a nice touch for shorter drivers.

The interior is all business. Everything seemed to be where it was supposed to be without frills. The instruments were highly legible and the switches had a quality feel. The rear window wiper, standard equipment on the Golf, is turned on by pushing the right-hand stalk forward, then turned off by pushing it forward again. This is fine, but pushing it forward also squirts the rear window, so turning the wiper off becomes a race with the washer motor.

Attention to detail abounds. There are storage pockets in the front and rear doors and at the sides of the front seats. These pockets, along with the center console, are lined with rubber at the bottom to keep things from sliding and/or rattling while underway.

We were surprised at the absence of a glovebox, but that feature will be added later this year.

The $18,515 Jetta GLS we drove was equipped with power windows, dual power mirrors with a defog feature and the optional all-weather package consisting of heated front seats and a heated windshield washer nozzle.

We also drove a $16,285 Golf GL, equipped with the standard hand cranks, which required quite a few turns to roll the windows up and down.

A well-designed 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.

When the doors are locked a small flashing red light next to the door lock tells the driver -- and would-be thieves -- that the security system is activated. Turn the key once and it unlocks the driver's door; quickly turn it again 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, a nice feature that works on either front door. The process also works in reverse.

Other standard niceties include dual vanity mirrors, a folding rear seatback, folding armrest, two cupholders up front and one for rear-seat passengers and heating ducts for rear passengers. A small set of tools in the trunk is useful for emergency roadside work. The radio has an anti-theft feature that renders the stereo inoperable if disconnected from the power source.

Ride & Drive

We drove a Golf GL and a Jetta GLS. The Jetta GLS sported metallic paint, heated front seats and power windows and mirrors, but they were otherwise similarly equipped. Each car was a willing companion, with crisp, responsive performance. They soaked up potholes and bumps admirably, yet provided superb driver feedback and excellent high-speed stability.

This great balance of handling, road feel and ride quality are the result of a rigid body structure and a finely tuned suspension. The high-speed stability is partly the result of Volkswagen's track-correcting rear suspension that minimizes unwanted rear-wheel steering effects.

Both our test cars were equipped with the standard five-speed gearbox. We recommend it for its precision and smoothness. Those who prefer an automatic transmission will benefit from Volkwagen's four-speed automatic that adjusts the shift patterns according to how the car is being driven. Still, the automatic will take some of the joy out of driving these cars.

Final Word

The Volkswagen Jetta and Golf models are priced competitively with their rivals from Japan. These cars are a little like Kellogg's Corn Flakes -- many people have forgotten about their basic goodness. Unlike corn flakes, however, they have matured and are better equipped to hold their own against other compact cars.

A Jetta GL or GLS or a Golf GL is a good buy that delivers comfort and confidence-inspiring performance balanced with economy, plus a sense of no-nonsense German engineering.

The Jetta GLX and the Golf GTI remain great cars for the driving enthusiast with their taut suspension, while the more powerful VR6 engine is available for those who need rapid acceleration and agile handling. After all, some of us are drivers.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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