Introduction

The Volkswagen Jetta is the best-selling European import on the U.S. market. It's available in any guise. There's a low-cost sedan, a frugal diesel, a sports sedan, and a sport wagon.

If you want a sports sedan, there's the Jetta GLS 1.8T and the new Jetta GLI. Power is up for both the 1.8T and the VR6. Volkswagen retuned the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine to produce 180 horsepower. The mid-year return of the Jetta GLI model includes a big power boost for the 2.8-liter VR6 engine, which jumps to 200 horsepower.

Model Lineup

Jetta comes in eight permutations, including four trim levels and four engines: GL 2.0L ($16,850); GL TDI ($18,145); GLS 2.0L ($17,900); GLS TDI ($18,950); GLS 1.8T ($19,550); GLS 2.8L VR6 ($20,200); GLI 2.8L VR6 ($22,950); GLX 2.8L VR6 ($24,700). The Jetta is also offered as a station wagon, including the GL 2.0L ($17,650); GLS 2.0L ($18,700); GLS 1.8T; GLX 2.8L VR6 ($25,500).

GL is the entry level, providing access to VW's build quality at a reasonable price. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces a meager 115 horsepower, but makes up for it with a 24/31 mpg city/highway EPA fuel economy rating. Like all Jettas, it has four doors, and it comes with full body color exterior trim, 15-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers, intermittent wipers, rear window and side mirror defrosters, power locks, AM/FM/cassette, manual remote mirrors, HVAC filter, cloth interior, air conditioning and side curtain and seat airbags, but you'll have to crank your windows manually.

GL TDI is powered by a turbodiesel; it's rated at just 90 horsepower, but that's deceiving because it is not at all sluggish with its 155 foot-pounds of torque. And the 34/49 mpg city/highway EPA rating is not overstated, according to TDI owners. Cruise control is standard.

GLS adds power mirrors, front center armrest, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette/CD, velour interior, power windows.

GLS 1.8T includes the 180-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an electronic differential lock.

GLX not only gets the VR6 six-cylinder engine, but also projector lens foglamps, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated windshield washer nozzles and rain sensor windshield wipers, automatic climate control, trip computer, automatic dimming inside rearview mirror, driver and passenger 8-way power seats, manual rear sunshade, leather seats, steering wheel and so on, and real wood trim.

The GLI, Volkswagen's highest-powered V6 car, comes with a 6-speed manual transmission, spin-controlling ESP technology, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual chome exhaust, special sports seats and leather-covered steering wheel.

Walkaround

There should be no doubt that the Jetta is anything but German, and there is no doubt that it's a Volkswagen. In a form-follows-function sort of way, the lines are simple and clean, looking more machined than carved (i.e., by a designer in clay). But there are features that are distinctively VW, including the compound headlight units that also enclose the bullet-shaped turn signals, and the body-color four-bar grille either side of the VW logo that keys into the leading edge of the hood and is second only to the three-pointed star in the grille of a Mercedes-Benz SL 500. The arch-shaped greenhouse is another VW/Audi trademark. The rear deck is high, short and chiseled.

Our test Jetta was equipped with 17-inch wheels wrapped with 225/45 performance tires, part of the Sport Luxury package. They look great, but drivers will want to be particularly careful during pothole season with ultra low-profile tires. Overall, seams are tight and even. The Jetta looks more expensive than it is.

Interior Features

The Jetta looks just as expensive inside as it does outside. The layout is simple and straightforward. Our silver Jetta had a gray fuzzy fabric headliner over black from the dash and window line down. That's not as claustrophobic as it might seem, as the Jetta has large windows. The instrument panel features a large 7500-rpm tachometer (redlined at 6500 rpm) and an optimistic 160-mph speedometer: at 80 mph the needle is straight up. The lettering is white on black in daylight, but at night with the lights on, it changes to the cool blue introduced on the New Beetle. The needles and controls are illuminated in an intense red. Most love it, a few hate it. It's a must-see-before-buying item.

The interior is arranged well for the enthusiast driver. The steering wheel has a thick rim shaped well for the hand, and a grippy leather covering. It tilts and telescopes, and the driver's seat ratchets up and down as well as slides fore and aft and reclines with the turn of a knob on the base of seatback. Another twist-knob controls lumbar support. There's a driving position for everyone, without an electric motor in (or out of) sight. The twist-knob recline function allows more precise seat back angle than the more common release lever adjuster, even if it is slower and more difficult to use. Front buckets are well bolstered and deserve to be called sport seats. Cushy they're not, but they work exceedingly well for sporty-type driving and don't numb, well, anything even after several hours behind the wheel. The HVAC controls are simple and easy to use, while the buttons on the excellent Monsoon audio are small and somewhat blocked by the cup holder when it's in use. The cupholder, which exerts an ironman grip on Styrofoam cups, completely blocks the 6-CD changer, but with that much listening time, CDs can be changed at rest stops.

The Jetta doesn't have the legroom of, say, a Passat, which makes sense if you think about it, but a pair of average-sized adults can be happy in the Jetta for extended jaunts. Full LATCH anchorage systems are provided for two child safety seats as well. The rear seats fold 60/40 for extended luggage capacity, and although they don't lie completely flat, we were able to carry a complete mountain bike (with front wheel dismounted) when the kid decided she wanted it at college after all. The trunk's short lid does open wide, limiting access somewhat, but the trunk is big for this size of car and, with its articulated hinges, it's all usable space.

All-around vision is good, with small pillars and well-placed mirrors.

Driving Impressions

There ought to be a rule that Jetta GLS 1.8T drivers have an accessible winding road, or else they'll be wasting some of the Jetta's finer aspects. The Jetta, especially with the 17-inch wheels, 45-series performance tires and sport suspension, gobbles up the twisties like a seven-year old goes after Fruit Loops. The Jetta has lots of lateral grip and the stability to utilize it. Shock absorber damping is compliant but firm, allowing the suspension to react to a bump in mid-corner and be done with it. Transients, left to right and back again, are equally well handled. While the front-drive Jetta does not have the precise handling of, say, a BMW, it does not have near the price, either.

The turbocharged engine slings the front-wheel-drive Jetta forward with authority. Despite a claim from VW that sound deadening was added to the turbocharger, a faint whistle can be heard as the turbo spools up. Turbo addicts will enjoy it, others won't notice. The engine has minimal turbo lag, that small time lapse some turbocharged engines have between the moment you slam down the gas and when you begin to feel the car rocket forward. Instead, the Jetta has a broad torque spread. It offers good pulling power almost from idle. A quick launch, as you might need to jump from a standstill into a gap in fast moving traffic, requires some revs and a little slip of the clutch, however. Otherwise the engine bogs for what seems like an eternity as that truck looms in the rear view mirror. The engine, once up on the turbo, is hoot for enthusiast driving, willing to rev smoothly to redline with a clean mechanical sound. It'll blast out of a toll plaza.

There is an optional 5-speed automatic that has the Porsche-developed Tiptronic manual-shifting system, the only car in the class so equipped. We did not care for the automatic with the 1.8T engine, however. The transmission seemed at times confused by the turbocharger's behavior and torque curve. Around town, the transmission would upshift, then the engine would bog.

It works great with the manual gearbox, however. The shifter's throw is on the long side, front to back, but close side to side. It's precise and has little slop, and is enjoyable to use, with even clutch take-up with a well-weighted pedal.

The 1.8T delivers sufficient torque (power) across the rev range to eliminate the need to downshift for most hills, and it integrates well with the cruise control, always maintaining a steady speed. The turbo can be caught out in some situations, however: lifting and repressing the throttle can make the engine feel momentarily like it swallowed an egg. It's smooth at idle and quiet on the highway, overall a very civilized engine with more than a bit of a wild streak. Premium unleaded is the recommended fuel.

Payback for the Jetta's aggressive handling abilities comes on the highway. Either the performance tires generate more noise than others, or the firm suspension transmits more, but a noticeable amount of road noise comes up through the chassis. The ride is firm, but not objectionable, and will provide the driving enthusiast with a desirable feel of control.

The four-wheel disc brakes are remarkable in their casual effectiveness, very linear in result and with just the right amount of required pressure. The pedals are spaced well for the enthusiast, and a dead pedal to the left gives the driver place to brace the left foot. Electronic brake proportioning distributes braking power as needed for hard braking with any passenger or cargo load, reducing the application of ABS and shortening braking distances. In other words, you can stop more quickly no matter what the situation.

1.8T and VR6 Jettas come with an electronic front differential lock, which improves grip on pavement and in slippery conditions under acceleration, reducing the amount of traction control application. That means quicker, more stable acceleration performance.

Summary

The Jetta offers classy, functional accommodations, sharp handling, and excellent brakes. There's a choice of engines, all good choices depending on your lifestyle, budget, and view of the world.

The 2.0-liter keeps monthly payments down. The TDI diesel offers amazing fuel economy. The 1.8T delivers spirited performance for the enthusiast willing to shift manually. And the VR6 provides smooth, linear performance that makes the Jetta feel like an expensive German sports sedan.


Model Line Overview

Model lineup: GL 2.0L ($16,850); GL TDI ($18,145); GLS 2.0L ($17,900); GLS TDI ($18,950); GLS 1.8T ($19,550); GLS 2.8L VR6 ($20,200); GLI 2.8L VR6 ($22,950); GLX 2.8L VR6 ($24,700).
Engines: 115-hp 2.0-liter sohc 8v inline-4; 1.9-liter turbocharged direct-injection inline-4 diesel; 180-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged 20v dohc inline-4; 200-hp 2.8-liter dohc 24v V6
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 5-speed automatic w/Tiptronic
Safety equipment (standard): side-curtain protection, front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags, seat-belt tensioning, 3-point rear seatbelts, LATCH child safety seat mounting, ABS, electronic brake distribution, traction control
Safety equipment (optional): N/A
Basic warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in: Puebla, Mexico (Jetta Wagons built in Wolfsburg, Germany)

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Jetta GLS 1.8T ($19,550)
Standard equipment: power steering, height adjustable front seats, rear reading lights, cruise control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, heated side mirrors, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, 60/40 split folding rear seat, power locks, power windows with one-touch up-down front windows, front and rear floor mats, anti-theft, AM/FM cassette audio w/8 speakers, rear defogger
Options as tested (MSRP): Sport Luxury Package ($2,025) includes power glass sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, and sport suspension; Leather Package ($1,050) includes multifunction steering wheel, leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift boot and knob; cold weather package ($150) includes heated windshield washer nozzles and heated seats; Monsoon�?�® Sound System ($325); California & Northeast emissions ($100); reflex metallic paint (no charge)
Destination charge: ($550)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $ 23,750
Layout: front-wheel drive
Engine: 1.8-liter turbocharged intercooled dohc 20-valve inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 180 @ 5500
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 174 @ 1950-5000
Transmission: 5-speed manual
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 22/29 mpg
Wheelbase: 98.9 in.
Length/width/height: 172.3/68.3/56.7 in.
Track, f/r: 59.6/58.8 in.
Turning circle: 35.8 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.6/NA/41.5 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 36.9/NA/33.5 in.
Cargo volume: 13.0 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: N/A
Suspension, f: Independent
Suspension, r: Independent
Ground clearance: 4.1 in.
Curb weight: 3037 lbs.
Tires: P225/45R17
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS and EBD
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of August 01, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges.

N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-444-8987 - www.vw.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
New Car Test Drive

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

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