A quality European sports sedan, comfortably priced.

by Ron Moorhead

A quality European sports sedan, comfortably priced.

Base Price (MSRP) $16,850
As Tested (MSRP) $24,450

Nothing about this car is cheap except for the price. Volkswagen Jetta offers a sophisticated exterior design that bucks the melted jellybean trend in favor of crisp lines and an aggressive stance. Inside, quality craftsmanship and attention to detail make owners feel they should have paid thousands more for their car.

Slip the VR6 six-cylinder engine or the new 1.8-liter turbo into the mix and the Jetta becomes a quick and capable sports sedan. Also, for 2001, a Wolfsburg Edition enthusiast's model is back.

Model Lineup

Three trim levels are available, GL, GLS and GLX, along with four engines, a 2.0-liter four cylinder, a 1.8-liter turbo, 1.9-liter TDI turbodiesel, and a VR6 narrow-angle V6. Five-speed manual and 4-speed automatic transmissions ($875) are available.

Retail prices: GL ($16,850); GL TDI ($18,145); GLS ($17,800); GLS TDI ($18,850); GLS 1.8T ($19,350), GLS VR6 ($20,100); GLX VR6 ($24,450).

The base GL is available with either the 115-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine or Volkswagen's excellent 1.9-liter TDI diesel. The mid-level GLS offers a choice of the 2.0-liter, the 1.9-liter TDI, the new 1.8-liter turbo or the VR6. The top-of-line GLX is only offered with the VR6.

The big news for 2001 is the introduction of the 1.8 T engine. It uses a turbocharger, intercooler and five-valves per cylinder for improved high-rpm breathing to develop 150 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque. Volkswagen's remarkable VR6 narrow-angle V6 produces 174 horsepower and 181 pounds-feet of torque.

For the first time in years, Volkswagen is offering a Wolfsburg Edition ($19,600). New for 2001, the Wolfsburg Edition is based on the GLS 1.8T, and adds a special package of features and colors meant to appeal to Volkswagen's most demanding enthusiasts. It comes with a sports suspension, 16-inch BBS wheels, bolstered sports seats, and a special leather steering wheel, shift knob, boot and brake handle.

GLS offers an optional Partial Leather Package ($850) that adds leather seating surfaces, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and hand-brake lever, heated windshield nozzles and heated seats.

Walkaround

Jetta was redesigned for the 2000 model year.

Jetta retains the Volkswagen family's penchant for panache. Yet while the Golf hatchback still retains some of the frumpiness of earlier generation VWs, and the Beetle is well, the Beetle, the Jetta stands out as the sharpest car in the VW lineup.

It is considerably more angular in appearance than the larger Passat sedan, and on a road crowded with ever more rounded cars, this is refreshing. The look is especially apparent around the neatly cut rectangular headlight cluster.

Interior Features

Slide behind the steering wheel of the Volkswagen Jetta and the German reputation for quality and attention to detail is immediately evident. With the current-generation VWs, the brand has taken a quantum leap forward in interior quality. Materials are first rate, switchgear functions with satisfying heft, and doors close with a solid "ca-chunk." Especially in the leather-trimmed GLX, you are forgiven if you feel like you are sitting in a $30,000 car, not one that costs under $25,000.

The Jetta provides excellent accommodations for driver and passengers without becoming ostentatious. There is plenty of room in front for a driver that is well over six feet tall, even when equipped with the power glass sunroof that comes standard on the GLX. The front bucket seats are built firm in the European tradition. Some people may prefer more cushion, while others (like us) find them supportive and quite comfortable. In the Volkswagen tradition, the knob for reclining the seat back is awkward to reach and difficult to operate. Another handle operates like a jack to raise or lower the driver.

Rear seat room is at a premium if driver and passenger position their seats to the rearmost location. We moved the seats slightly forward to accommodate a full load of passengers while retaining a relatively comfortable position for a tall driver. Three shoulder harnesses and three headrests are installed in the rear for safety. Also, the rear seat features 60/40 fold-down capability as well as a pass-through feature for skis, fly rods and other longer objects. The chassis and rear suspension were also designed to provide more trunk space.

In Teutonic fashion, the controls, switches and instruments are easy to see and operate. Indigo (dark blue) and red lighting is used for the instruments to maximize night vision. The shade of blue that illuminates the instrument panel makes the numerals easy to read and the stark contrast of the red pointers make them stand out as if floating in thin air.

The leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel on our GLX feels good and is in keeping with the sporty intent of the Jetta. A new radio adds manual tuning to the scanning feature, making it possible to receive weaker signals.

The Monsoon sound system (standard on the GLX) features a 200-watt amplifier and custom equalization that directs low, mid and high frequencies to the appropriate speakers. Volkswagen offers both an in-dash CD player as well as a six-disc CD changer mounted in the trunk as options, and the Jetta can be equipped with both. An eight-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo comes standard.

Two big interior improvements for 2001 are the standard Side Guard airbag system, which discharges curtains to cover the window area and A-pillar in a side-impact, and an optional multifunction steering wheel that incorporates controls for the radio and cruise control.

Driving Impressions

Whether on the Interstate or a favorite country road, the Jetta's ability to take curves at speed make driving it a pleasure. Jetta's stiff body structure made it possible for VW engineers to design a suspension that gives the Jetta a smooth ride while providing capable handling. (MacPherson struts are used in front, while a multi-link arrangement is used for the rear suspension.) It exhibits a fair amount of body roll, but at the limit of adhesion it's easy to drive quickly. On heavy-footed acceleration the Jetta tracked true with no detectable torque steer. We've hustled this newest generation Jetta along California's Pacific Coast. From San Diego to the small village of Mendocino and around Monterey Bay, the Jetta felt crisp and kept us entertained.

Volkswagen's reputation was built on capable four-cylinder engines and the latest evolution shows incredible improvement. The 2.0-liter engine that comes in the GL and GLS produces 115 horsepower. That sounds a bit low by comparison to the competition, but the engine works well and is solidly built. It delivers good off-the-line performance with a wide power band for mid- and high-end performance.

The TDI (turbocharged direct-injection) diesel engine is popular in Europe where it earned industry awards and customer acclaim for its efficiency. With the 5-speed gearbox, EPA rates it for 49 mpg on the highway. (We have not tested it.)

Our favorite is the VR6, Volkswagen's innovative narrow-angle V6 engine. Besides being an impressive runner, this VR6 is smooth and nearly noise free, except for a wonderful rumble emitting from the exhaust pipe.

The VR6 engine generates 174 horsepower. But more impressive is its 181 pounds-feet of torque. This low-rpm torque offers the driver plenty of power at all engine speeds. Step on the gas in any gear and it goes. On the highway, there's enough power to pass a slower vehicle without downshifting from fifth gear. Numerous times we found ourselves caught behind a large truck and the Jetta had plenty of torque to get us to the front of the line quickly.

We haven't driven the Jetta with the 1.8 T engine, but we love it in the Golf. It delivers enough torque to spin the front wheels (though traction control stands ready to minimize this).

The close-ratio manual transmission makes it a joy to move through the gears. The shifter has a more solid feel than in years past, making it easier to make quick shifts. The steering is very precise with excellent on-center feel -- there's absolutely no play in the steering. This is a real driver's car.

The new Jetta is a breeze to drive day in and day out. It is a vehicle that we could just as easily jump into for a long commute or a quick run to the corner market. The VR6 engine allows Jetta GLS and GLX models to gobble up the miles in a manner reminiscent of larger and more luxurious vehicles.

Final Word

Volkswagen's Jetta performs like a high-priced luxury sedan, yet it offers economical motoring in a distinctive package.

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