Pros: Roomy back seat; ample cargo space; refined ride; great optional turbo-diesel engine; entertaining GLI performance variant; SportWagen based on the upscale previous Jetta
Cons: Indefensible base engine and bargain-bin interior (sedan); iPod/Bluetooth not offered below $20,000; subpar fuel economy in 2.0L and 2.5L models
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta sedan suggests that the automotive psychologists at Volkswagen have a pretty good idea of what makes Americans tick. They figured out that we love low prices, for example, and that we're firm believers in "bigger is better." They saw that we're willing to sacrifice some quality if it means getting a better deal. And they surmised that we'd be receptive to restrained styling, even though influential automakers like Hyundai have embraced expressive creases and curves.
Based on the healthy sales of the new Jetta sedan, boy, were they right. But success in the marketplace doesn't invalidate all criticisms, and we have a couple. Most glaringly, the budget-price Jetta sedan that everyone talks about, the one starting under $17,000, has an engine that dates to the 1993 Jetta-yes, 1993-with the same 115-horsepower output advertised back then. We're sorry, but that's a little insulting.
Also, we can't help but feel that Americans are getting the short end of the stick with the new Jetta sedan's cheaper interior materials. You can judge for yourself, because the excellent GLI sedan and SportWagen feature higher-quality Euro-spec dashboards. Notably, these models also employ independent rear suspensions, whereas lesser Jettas are stuck with a downgraded torsion-beam setup in back. The SportWagen is a carryover model from the previous Jetta lineup, which featured upscale materials and fully independent suspensions across the board.
But at the end of the day, every 2012 Jetta has solid German driving dynamics, a capacious cabin and refreshingly simple styling. Kudos to VW for figuring out that Americans would be persuaded by this fundamental goodness.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta comes in sedan and SportWagen versions in trim levels defined by engine: sedan-only 2.0L, 2.5L, TDI and sedan-only GLI. Each comes with different option packages.
The entry-level 2.0L S has 15-inch steel wheels, full power accessories, heated exterior mirrors, air conditioning, height-adjustable front seats, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, cloth upholstery and a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input. New for 2012, the 2.0L S with Sunroof adds a sunroof, a front center console with an armrest and cruise control.
The 2.5L SE features all of the above plus 16-inch steel wheels, leatherette upholstery and a rear center armrest. The 2.5L SE with Convenience adds 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity and a six-speaker sound system with iPod integration.
If that's not enough luxury for you, there are two additional 2.5L models. The 2.5L SE with Convenience and Sunroof adds a sunroof and a touchscreen stereo interface with an SD card reader, while the 2.5 SEL tacks on 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, foglamps, an SD-based navigation system, a trip computer, driver's seat lumbar adjustment and a 400-watt Fender-brand audio system with a subwoofer.
The base TDI has mostly the same equipment as the 2.5L SE with Convenience, but it also adds four-wheel disc brakes. The TDI with Premium contributes a sunroof and the Fender audio system with a touchscreen interface. The TDI with Premium and Navigation adds chrome exterior trim, keyless entry with push-button start, driver's seat lumbar adjustment and the SD-based navigation system.
The base GLI comes with different 17-inch alloy wheels, a subtle exterior body kit, red-painted brake calipers, foglamps, darkened taillights, sport pedals, red interior stitching, front sport seats with driver lumbar adjustment, cloth upholstery, iPod/Bluetooth connectivity and the six-speaker touchscreen stereo.
The GLI Autobahn adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, heated washer nozzles, a cooling glove box, dual-zone automatic climate control and the Fender audio system. The GLI Autobahn with Navigation throws in keyless entry with push-button start and the SD-based navigation system.
The SportWagen has a slightly different option structure, starting with a unique 2.5L S model that's basically a hybrid of the sedan's 2.0L S and 2.5L SE trims in equipment. Also available as a TDI, the SportWagen has the same general feature set as the sedan, but it's a little fancier-and a little pricier.
The Jetta's standard front seats offer German-style firm support, especially when the available lumbar adjustment is present. Lateral support is lacking, however, unless you get the sporty GLI, which has special sport seats that feature more prominent side bolsters. The standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel and height-adjustable driver's seat help both short and tall drivers find a comfort zone at the Jetta's helm.
The Jetta sedan's interior materials do not impress, however. Except in the GLI, the dashboard has been downgraded to exclusively hard plastics, and even more disappointingly, so have the door panels (yes, even in the GLI). We can accept some cost cutting in places people likely won't touch, but door panels get touched all the time. To be fair, the Jetta sedan's dashboard continues to feature VW's standard-issue gauges and controls, which exude an upscale German character. But these elements seem almost incongruous given the shortcomings of the surrounding plastics. The SportWagen, on the other hand, retains the previous Jetta's premium interior with high-quality materials all around.
Although the Jetta ostensibly competes against compact cars like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla, its back seat is closer to mid-size. Even six-footers will have no problem fitting into the Jetta's rear quarters, and there's considerably more real-world legroom than in the diminutive Golf. We don't think it would have killed VW to make a rear center armrest standard on the base 2.0L sedan, but now we're picking nits. Overall, the Jetta's back seat is a major plus.
The sedan's 15.5-cubic-foot trunk is also huge relative to what the competition offers; the typical compact sedan's trunk checks in at about 13.0 cubic feet. As for the SportWagen, it has 32.8 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 66.9 cubic feet with those seatbacks folded down. That's crossover-SUV territory.
It's not surprising that the stripped-down 2.0L doesn't offer iPod or Bluetooth connectivity, but we're disappointed that the cheapest Jetta to offer these features is the 2.5L SE with Convenience, which lists at more than $20,000. Moreover, if you want to use portable media in your Jetta, you'll have to step up to the pricier 2.5L SE with Convenience and Sunroof (or just the 2.5L SE if it's a SportWagen), and even then, you only get an SD card reader, not a USB port.
In short, you can get more technology elsewhere for the money. The Jetta does have some appealing technology offerings, including an intuitive touchscreen audio system and an SD-based navigation system, not to mention a crisp-sounding Fender stereo (sedan only). Just be prepared to pay a little more than you might expect.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Jetta 2.0L is powered by a 2.0-liter inline-4 rated at 115 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is the standard transmission (it's what keeps the price under $17,000), with a six-speed automatic available as an option. We're having a hard time thinking of a less appealing engine in any car, even at the 2.0L model's rock-bottom price. It's dramatically underpowered by current standards. Fuel economy is passable with the manual at 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway but a dreadful 23/29 mpg with the automatic (although the EPA states mileage does improve with the use of Premium fuel).
Fortunately, the Jetta 2.5L is much more pleasant thanks to its 2.5-liter inline-5, which makes 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque with the same transmission choices. People love to criticize this engine, but honestly, we can't get enough of its distinctive five-cylinder growl. It has strong midrange torque, too. Fuel economy is again unimpressive, however, at 23/33 mpg with the manual and 24/31 mpg with the automatic.
The Jetta TDI swaps out the inline-5 for a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel inline-4 rated at 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual. Although the Jetta TDI is hardly fast, the turbo-diesel's strong low-end torque makes quick bursts a breeze-it's ideal for passing and merging in urban areas. Fuel economy is outstanding at 30/42 mpg with either transmission in the sedan, although the SportWagen drops to 29/39 mpg with the dual-clutch automatic and 30/42 with the manual.
Finally, the Jetta GLI features the same 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 as the GTI hot hatch. Rated at 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, the GLI's engine is notable for its consistently assertive torque across the rev range, as well as pretty respectable speed when you're pushing it. Fuel economy is a plus as well, checking in at 22/33 mpg with the six-speed manual and 24/32 mpg with the six-speed dual-clutch automated manual.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta comes with standard stability control and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain). ABS is standard as well, but it's worth noting that the sedan's default rear brakes are of the inferior drum variety, and only the 2.5 SEL and above (including the TDI and GLI range) get four-wheel disc brakes. The SportWagen has four-wheel discs across the lineup.
In government crash testing, the Jetta sedan received four stars out five overall, including four starts for frontal impacts and five stars for side impacts. The government hasn't crash tested the SportWagen using its latest methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave both the Jetta sedan and the SportWagen its highest rating of Good in every crash-test category.
Much initial attention was given to the new Jetta sedan's rear suspension, which has been demoted to a torsion-beam setup except in the GLI. But to our surprise, the Jetta still delivers that classic German blend of suppleness and athleticism. There's a fair amount of body roll in corners, but the Jetta ultimately takes a set and holds its line with precision, especially with the 17-inch wheels. In normal driving, the Jetta's ride may strike some as a bit firm, but impact harshness is rarely an issue. It's a pretty refined car overall. The SportWagen's independent rear suspension doesn't make a very noticeable difference; we'd find it psychologically comforting that our Jetta had the fancy suspension, but real-world benefits are questionable.
As for the GLI, well, we expected a four-door GTI, but in truth, the GLI is closer to a Jetta 2.5 SEL with a better engine. Handling is competent, but not especially sporty. No shame in that; the GLI still offers a compelling combination of virtues, and the price is right.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Focus - Although the Focus's dual-clutch automatic has had some hiccups, we still love the way this Ford drives. Raised on European roads, the Focus actually out-Euros the Jetta with its sophisticated dynamics, and it has a nicer interior, too.
Hyundai Elantra - The lightweight Elantra lacks the Jetta's Germanic solidity, but we like its compact, nimble feel, and you just can't beat its mix of style, feature content and fuel economy for the price.
Mazda3 - Provided you find the 3's grinning face endearing, try one out with the new SkyActiv four-cylinder engine. It gets great fuel economy while retaining Mazda's fun-to-drive edge. There's also a peppier 2.5-liter engine if you're looking for GLI alternatives.
The SportWagen TDI is the pick of the litter, but that's a niche-market car, so let's focus on sedans. Since we can't recommend any Jetta sedan with rear drum brakes, that leaves us with the 2.5 SEL, the TDI or the GLI. Tough choice, but our favorite is the GLI. It has a nicer interior, a satisfying engine and a great ride/handling balance, all at a fairly reasonable starting price.