by Ron Moorhead
Sporty and luxurious around town or cross country.
Base Price $19,950
As Tested $22,325
Slide behind the steering wheel of the new Volkswagen Jetta and the German penchant for attention to detail is immediately evident. The 1999 Jetta is a perfect example of why this world-renowned reputation is well deserved and is sought after by potential buyers.
The simple act of closing the doors can become habit forming. The solid "ca-chunk" of this activity brings a confidence one gets from knowing you made the right decision in buying this car. Volkswagen wanted to update the Jetta without losing the character of the car, and it appears as though this objective was accomplished. The new Jetta provides excellent accommodations for driver and passengers without becoming ostentatious. The Jetta can be equipped just the way you want with plenty of creature comfort features.
Out on the road, whether it is interstate travel or a sporty drive along a favorite country road, the Jetta will please. A new body structure is much stiffer and has made it possible for VW engineers to design a MacPherson strut/multi-link suspension that gives the Jetta a smooth ride while providing excellent handling ability. Slip the VR6 6-cylinder engine into the mix and you have yourself a quick and agile sports sedan.
This, the third generation, Jetta is a stronger, more versatile vehicle than before. Three trim levels are available, GL, GLS and GLX. The GL and GLS are available with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine or a TDI diesel. The GLS and GLX are the only models available with Volkswagen's remarkable VR6 narrow-angle V6. Both 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatics are available.
Volkswagen's reputation was built on capable four-cylinder engines and the latest evolution shows incredible improvement. The 2.0-liter engine produces 115 horsepower. That's a bit low by comparison to the competition, but the engine works well and is solidly built. Our favorite is the 174-horsepower VR6. Besides being an impressive runner, this VR6 is smooth and nearly noise free, except for a wonderful rumble emitting from the exhaust pipe.
The Jetta retains the Volkswagen family profile, but receives a less angular look. The more radical slopping hood and rounded fenders culminate in a new lighting system. The collection of lights, headlight, turn signal and even driving lights are mounted under one bezel where the traditional headlight normally resides. According to VW, the headlight system played an extremely important role in the redesign of the new body style.
The new stiffer body assembly is the result of high-tech laser welding techniques. Increased rigidity allowed the suspension to be designed with more control, translating to a more luxurious ride on the highway, while retaining the ability to be extremely fun on twisting mountain roads. An unrelated advantage of this new design was to allow the rear shock absorber mounting points to be moved creating more room for cargo in the trunk.
The Inside Story
From the front seat there is plenty of room for a driver that is well over six feet tall. There is sufficient headroom even when equipped with the optional sunroof. The front bucket seats are built in the European tradition and therefore may not have as much cushion as some may like. Others will find them supportive and quite comfortable. The knob for adjusting the recline mode of the seat back is difficult to reach. Though this has been a Volkswagen design for years, it is one we would like to see changed.
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. The rear seat features 60/40 fold-down capability as well as a pass-through feature for skis and the like. Three shoulder harness are installed in the rear for maximum safety.
In the Teutonic German fashion, the controls, switches and instruments are easy to see and manipulate. We were a bit skeptical when VW announced they were using blue lighting with red points on their instruments. Though blue is used as lighting in the aircraft industry, it can be difficult to read. However, our skepticism vanished quickly as darkness fell on our drive. 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. In our GLS test vehicle the leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel felt good in our hands. This firm grip goes right along with the sportiness of the Jetta. A new radio adds manual tuning to the scanning feature, making it possible to receive weaker signals.
Ride & Drive
Driving is where the new Jetta shines the brightest. The Jetta's ability to take curves at speed makes driving it a shear pleasure. We tested it along California's Pacific Coast. From San Diego to the small village of Mendocino far above San Francisco, the Jetta kept us entertained. It handles long interstate cruises very well -- its stability made us feel like we were driving a larger vehicle.
The VR6 engine has more than enough torque 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 in nothing flat. 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 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. With its varied road conditions, the Pacific Coast was the perfect place to test the Jetta. The VR6 engine allowed the Jetta GLS to gobble up the miles in a manner reminiscent of larger and more luxurious vehicles.
This new Jetta showed its handling prowess on each twist and turn along California's coast. At the absolute limit of adhesion, there's a slight bit of understeer making the Jetta easy to drive quickly. On heavy-footed acceleration the Jetta tracked true with no detectable torque steer.
Volkswagen has come a long way in just a few years. From a company struggling to keep its presence in the U.S. to a strong force. The performance of the Jetta, the most recent addition to the VW lineup, shows that Volkswagen is much more than a Beetle company.
The Jetta performs like a high-priced luxury sedan, yet it offers economical motoring in a distinctive package. Scheduled maintenance is free for the first 24,000 miles.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.