The current-generation VW Jetta has received its share of criticism, much of it directed at perceived cost-cutting measures. Some have even had the nerve to suggest that the previous Jetta was the better car.

But the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta looks set to turn over a new leaf, because it's got something special under the hood. Gone is the inefficient 5-cylinder engine that held the Jetta back, supplanted by a spunky turbo four that promises to be better in every way.

I attended a press event in California's idyllic Napa Valley to find out if the new 1.8T delivers.

Addition by Subtraction

I'll admit it: I'm one of the few automotive journalists who actually liked the old 2.5-liter five. It made fun growly noises, and it also had a lot more punch than your typical economy-sedan engine. But in an era of 35-miles-per-gallon midsize family sedans, the not-quite-midsize Jetta 2.5 returned just 31 mpg on the highway with the automatic transmission. That wasn't going to cut it for much longer. Accordingly, it came as no surprise when VW announced a replacement 4-cylinder turbo for 2014.

Turbocharging's all the rage these days, and with this new 1.8-liter turbo, it's easy to see why. Whereas the nonturbocharged 2.5-liter five made 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, the smaller 1.8T generates the same 170 horses and a slightly more robust 184 lb-ft. Fuel economy? Try 36 mpg hwy with either the 6-speed automatic transmission or the 6-speed manual. That's a serious improvement, especially given that output has increased, as well.

Just like that, it seems the Jetta's back in the conversation about the best all-around sedan for $20,000.

Real-World Reactions

But does the 1.8T back up those numbers on the road? As far as fuel economy's concerned, I'll have to take the Environmental Protection Agency's word for it, since there wasn't enough time to do a proper test at the event. In terms of drivability, though, I can confirm that the 1.8T is the real deal. Not only does it pump out more torque than the 5-cylinder, it also delivers that torque at lower rpm, making the car feel appreciably quicker around town.

I was also impressed by the turbo motor's smoothness all the way to redline. Although the abundant torque renders high-rpm operation largely unnecessary, it's nice to know you can pleasurably wind it out when the mood strikes.

Overall, this is a classy, refined engine with a near-ideal balance of fun and frugality.

One tip, however: You should definitely try the manual transmission if you're open to shifting your own gears. I found the manual notably more responsive and entertaining. Indeed, Volkswagen quotes a 0-to-60 sprint of 7.3 seconds versus 7.9 for the automatic. Both times, incidentally, are significantly better than those of equivalent 5-cylinder Jettas, so the turbo doesn't just feel faster; it genuinely is.

Still a Jetta

Engine aside, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T is pretty familiar from behind the wheel, and that's mostly a good thing. Happily, VW has spruced up the interior a bit as of late, including the provision of an upscale soft-touch dashboard (albeit with clashing hard-plastic door panels) in the models I drove. One thing that hasn't changed is the Jetta's rock-solid composure at speed. This car loves the open road, and I don't find myself saying that very often about budget-priced sedans.

If there's one thing that gives me pause, it's the fact that the sharp new 2015 VW Golf hatchback will also be available with the 1.8T motor. Having driven a stick-shift 2015 Golf 1.8T at the same event, I can report that it drives like 90 percent of a GTI for about 70 percent of the price -- and it's got that handy hatch to boot. If you're more of a sedan fan, though, there's a lot of fundamental goodness in the Jetta's genes.

The Bottom Line

The Jetta has long occupied an intriguing niche between compact sedans and hefty family haulers, and now it has an intriguing mainstream motor, too. If I wanted a sedan in this price range, there's no doubt the 2014 Jetta 1.8T would be high on my list.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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