Turbocharging VW's upmarket aspirations.

by Jill Amadio

If you think the 2000 Jetta GLS is the same old 1999 compact sedan, you haven't looked under the hood. Here lurks Volkswagen's secret weapon in the car wars, a brand new turbo engine, first seen on the New Beetle, that'll knock your socks off. Don't be misled by the fact that there are only four pistons jumping up and down in their cylinders, either. In fact, matched up against most larger six-cylinder jobs, the Jetta's four-cylinder will catch the flag first.

Okay, maybe with the manual transmission that's not such a stretch. Well I've got news for you. The automatic transmission is just as powerfully and quickly responsive as the manual, if not better, thanks to mating its adaptive "fuzzy logic" with that turbocharger, though the 1.8T gulps up gas a bit faster than the manual transmission.

What gives the Jetta its race pace? The engine's five-valve technology uses a turbocharger and an intercooler for cool, high-density intake air, a basic ingredient of power. The five valves per cylinder supply the engine with excellent top-end "breathing" and the double overhead camshafts provide for optimal valve control.

The result is 150 horsepower at 5700 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque all the way from 1750 rom, when you need it to accelerate real fast, to 4600 rpm. This all makes for an extraordinarily flat torque curve that gives you lots of pulling power all the way through to the top. With this kind of power and a grip that paints itself to the pavement, you're going to enjoy taking this car to the edge.

A more upscale proposition

While the Jetta has lots of features you'd pay extra for with other cars in this category, and the GLS with the turbo engine is a very fine car, this isn't a luxury model, although its price is slightly higher than you'd expect to pay for a compact. However, the Jetta is a best-seller and leads the compact sedan market. Over the past two years this car has helped to take Volkswagens out of the utilitarian category and into a much more upscale segment.

There's a lot of heft to the styling of the 2000 Jetta giving an impression of a much heavier car, perhaps due to its chunky high back end. But while the sedan's styling hasn't changed because last year's model was a complete and classy fourth-generation redesign, the new powerplant in the GLS model is all you need to know that you're in a totally different car.

Seatbacks are adjustable via side seat-mounted hand-cranked wheels, the scourge of women with small hands or weak muscles. Prevalent on most foreign cars that lack powered seatbacks, these stiff and difficult-to-turn giant wheels have got to go. I hear more complaints about them than any other feature, no matter the make of car. Please, engineers, design a better system or provide power-adjustable seats as standard equipment in every model level, not just high-end.

Fortunately, the well-designed seats' thigh-hugging side bolsters are firm enough to hold you upright sliding through zigzags at speed. The dash is plain and functional with no frills, holding the controls and switches you need without any superfluous decor. Asymmetrical side-view mirrors appear on many vehicles this year, and although they're a little odd to look at, Volkswagen says that the design offers aerodynamic advantages.

Car companies confident of their vehicles' performances usually send test drivers over routes that include a variety of terrain. Volkswagen sent us off headed south on a 250-mile journey out of Carlsbad, Southern California at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and onto some fierce freeway driving near the Mexican border where we could test speed, lane changing, braking and performance.

Then we exited and headed east towards Anza Borrego, a desert state park. Next, up and down isolated mountain ranges with hairpin turns and finally winding up at Julian, an old mining town in the high desert. After it was all over, I decided I liked the Jetta very much.

German-bred, American borne

Typically German-bred, the Jetta is solid, trustworthy, and a great deal of fun from the get-go. Wide C-pillars, which Volkswagen calls "emphatic," tend to cut your vision a bit out back but this is a common complaint with many vehicles that have extra-fat structural posts that hold up the rear section of the roof. The upside of this feature is today's wider pillars are considered structurally safer, so learn to look around them.

I found the brakes sensitive enough to begin a search for an eject hatch. Extremely responsive at just a tap of the toe, they take some adjusting to. Once you've accepted their reaction the brakes actually give you more confidence in the Jetta's stopping ability.

Although the Jetta has four doors and room for five, it's really most comfortable driven as a coupe occupied by two people. It has the crisp handling characteristics of a European two-door you can throw around corners rather than the plushness in many U.S.-built compacts that have softer suspensions but tend to wallow. In fact after my time in the Jetta, I drove back home in a Buick Park Avenue Ultra, which was like switching from a horsehair mattress to a goosedown pillow. Soft, but not as much fun.

The manual transmission 1.8T Jetta shifts like a scalpel through hot oil -- frictionless, and with a relatively short throw and instant response from the turbo. When I switched over to test drive the automatic transmission model it was almost astounding to discover virtually no difference except for an occasional split-second lag between first and second gear. (But then, I've got a real lead foot that stomps on the gas pedal.)

The Jetta model lineup starts with the GL model whose standard equipment is pretty impressive: side airbags, eight-speaker stereo, ABS brakes, adjustable steering wheel, heated remote mirrors, central remote locking, and two power outlets. The next step up, the GLS, adds power windows and mirrors, cruise control and a center armrest. If you're still convinced that six cylinders are better than four, you can buy the top-of-the-line model, the GLX, with a 174-horsepower VR6 engine that has all the goodies above plus all-speed traction control, climate control, a trip computer, rain-sensing wipers, wood and leather decor and seats, power sunroof and fog lamps.

Another engine option on the Jetta GL and GLS is a TDI four-cylinder diesel engine that gets 49 miles to the gallon highway, and 42 city. All Jettas have daytime running lights.

Since Volkswagen lightened up with the New Beetle and then gave its other cars and wagons a much-needed classier image, along with concrete improvements to quality and performance, the company has earned greater respect for its vehicles. The new Jetta 1.8T adds to that well-deserved and hard-earned reputation.

2000 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA GLS

Base Price: $20,750
Engine: 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbo, 150 hp; 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 115 hp; 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel, 115 hp; and 2.0-liter V-6, 174 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 98.9 in
Length: 172.0 in
Width: 68.3 in
Height: 56.9 in
Weight: 2922 lb
Fuel economy: 24 city/31 highway

Major standard equipment:
Air conditioning
Cruise control
Eight-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD prep
Adjustable steering wheel
Anti-lock brakes
Traction control
Remote locking

© 2000 The Car Connection

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