Sophisticated and grown up.

by Bengt Halvorson

Not too long ago, driving a small car in America meant sacrificing something: performance, luxury, features, quality, or the prestige that comes from a bigger nameplate. But over the years, European brands have hammered the point home to U.S. buyers -- bigger isn't always better. After all, wouldn't you really rather have a 3-Series or a C-Class?

Americans get the point. We're rediscovering small cars with a voracious appetite, if sales are any clue. Buyers are realizing all over again that they can have the same level of refinement and luxury as large cars without the parking-lot problems and fuel-sucking issues.

The Volkswagen Jetta is one of those cars that's drilled small-car goodness into our heads. It's a paradigm of this new breed of small cars, one that handles and performs and leaves some change in your wallet to boot.

Turbo recommended

Unless you're absolutely itching for the VR6 badge, we recommend the 1.8T. The Jetta 1.8T's 150-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is ideally suited to the Jetta, and it works well with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. In contrast to the 1.8T, the economical 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine just doesn't give the Jetta enough thrust (especially with automatic), and the 174-hp, 2.8-liter VR6 engine remains a smooth and powerful, though more expensive and thirsty, option. The VR6 doesn't have a lot of low-rpm torque anyway, so the robust 1.8T feels nearly as strong in normal driving.

The 1.8T's torque curve says it all. While the peak power of 150 hp is made at a high 5700 rpm, the peak torque of 155 lb-ft is achieved at a low 1950 rpm and maintained up to 4500 rpm, giving the 1.8T an uncommon robustness. The powerplant feels especially responsive in the midrange revs: It's a heavy breather with the help of a low-boost turbocharger and five valves per cylinder. The 1.8T's power is always accessible with a stomp of the right foot. There's a very slight lag at lower revs, but it's barely noticeable and unlike the harsh on/off boost of high-boost turbos.

The 1.8T is quite miserly at the pump, but VW recommends pricier premium unleaded. Our Jetta 1.8T with the four-speed automatic, rated at 22 city and 28 highway, returned 25 mpg in a mix of driving.

One criticism: The 1.8T's engine is coarse-sounding, and engine noise and vibration intrude into the cabin at idle more than other cars in its class. At higher revs and higher speeds, though, the engine feels smoother and adequately isolated.

Shifting through flaws

You can't go wrong with either transmission option, but neither is flawless. The standard manual transmission rows through the gears well, but the linkage feels indirect and it balks at quick shifts. The automatic transmission on our test car made good use of the 1.8T's power, with none of the usual sacrifice in power and drivability as in other small cars. Sometimes when in need of quick passing power, though, the engine's power would come on a split-second before the downshift occurred, causing the downshift to be particularly rough. There's also a bit of gear whine that comes from the auto box at the low end of top gear.

The interior is very comfortable for front-seat passengers, but the back seats are too cramped for adults. The rear doors open wide, allowing easy entry and exit, but the swooping roofline limits rear-seat headroom, and legroom is also very tight in the back. The heated leather seats in our Jetta GLS were comfortable and firm. Many will find the rotary seat-recliner adjustment knob to be annoying, but the Germans insist on doing it this way because it prevents drivers from accidentally reclining the seatback fully while driving. I agree, and tend to like the precision the rotary gives, rather than just a handful of notches to choose from.

Materials and switchgear are top-notch inside, with most of the surfaces and controls having a nice matte finish that's pleasant to touch. Chrome trim on the shift knob bezel and door handle adds a flashy element. By popular request, the Jetta gets a redesigned front cupholder for 2001 that won't sag when you super-size your drink at the drive-thru.

New for 2001 on GLS and top-level GLX models, steering-wheel mounted buttons now access cruise control and sound system functions. All other switchgear is easy to find and a joy to use, except for the climate-control knobs, which remain too far down below the driver's line of sight.

The Jetta's standard eight-speaker sound system has logical controls and it sounds great, but as of now an in-dash CD player is only available as a dealer-installed accessory. A factory unit with in-dash CD player will finally be available as a low-cost option for 2002. A dealer-installed six-disc trunk-mounted changer can also be added.

Details, meet God

The more you look at the Jetta's details, the more impressive it becomes. Ultrasolid, clunky door detents keep the door from slamming on your shins with a gust of wind or when you park uphill, and slamming one of the doors doesn't vibrate that whole side of the car -- as with another popular small car that we'll leave unnamed. Everything that's hinged has a firm feel, including the hood and trunk, which have strong struts to hold them open. In fact, one minor complaint was that the trunk takes too much effort to push down and close. Many might find it difficult with a purse or grocery bag in one hand.

In other details, just about every control you might need is also lighted at night, most in red, even including the individual on/off controls for each dash vent. The blue-lit gauges with red needles look cool at night.

The quality of the Jetta's interior, the attention to detail, and the tactile feel of the controls are still unsurpassed in the industry, even by some cars that cost twice as much. It makes us wonder how VW manages to do it, as other automakers put out the same plebeian switchgear and cheap-looking plastics year after year.

The optional sport suspension in our GLS was tuned about as far on the firm side as possible without being too rock hard. For anyone who enjoys twisty roads while still valuing decent highway comfort, it should be about perfect. The 17-inch alloy wheels, a new option this year, look huge on the Jetta. A friend thought they lend a muscular, almost cartoonish look compared to the standard fifteen-inchers standard on the GL and GLS models. The base Jetta suspension is tuned considerably softer, and 16-inch wheels might be a better choice for those who traverse pothole-ridden urban streets.

For 2001, there's also the latest incarnation of the Wolfsburg edition, a special package that offers the 1.8T engine, sport suspension, sport seats, 16-inch wheels, leather trim, and other goodies for $19,600 (only $250 more than the 1.8T GLS).

In addition to standard front and side airbags, beginning this year, all Jettas have side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers. The curtain bags help reduce the chances of severe head injuries in side impacts. An advanced ABS system with electronic braking distribution is also standard on all models.

The bottom line: The Jetta has a level of refinement and solidity unsurpassed among small sedans, plus it's a comfortable, grown-up small car with a sporty image to boot. The secret to Jetta's success -- and to the success of VW's current products -- seems to be a universal appeal of quality to young people and older folks at the same time. No doubt, it's the sophisticated choice among small sedans.

2001 Volkswagen Jetta GLS 1.8T

Price: $19,200 base, $23,800 as tested
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged four, 150 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 98.9 in
Length: 172.3 in
Width: 68.3 in
Height: 56.9 in
Curb Weight: 2952 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, side curtain airbags, traction control, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry and alarm, power windows, locks, and mirrors, leather seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, eight-speaker sound system
Warranty: Two years/24,000 miles

© 2001 The Car Connection

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