A premium-class European sedan.
by Ron Moorhead
Base Price $16,700
As Tested $22,995
Excellent handling, quality craftsmanship and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Volkswagen Jetta. Slip the VR6 six-cylinder engine into the mix and the Jetta becomes a quick and agile sports sedan. Completely redesigned and re-engineered last year, the Jetta is thoroughly up to date.
Three trim levels are available, GL, GLS and GLX. Retail prices: GL ($16,700); GL TDI ($17,995); GLS ($17,650); GLS TDI ($18,700); GLS VR6 ($19,950); GLX ($24,170).
GL and GLS are available with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine or Volkswagen's excellent 1.9-liter TDI diesel. The GLX comes with Volkswagen's remarkable VR6 narrow-angle V6, which is also available for the GLS.
Five-speed manual and 4-speed automatic transmissions are available. The optional 4-speed automatic transmission is $875 ($1,185 on TDI diesel models).
The GLS offers an optional Partial Leather Package that adds leather seating surfaces, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and hand-brake lever, heated windshield nozzles and heated seats for $850.
The Jetta retains the Volkswagen family profile, looking quite similar to the larger Passat. The sloping hood and rounded fenders culminate in a distinctive lighting system; a clear rectangular lens incorporates all lighting elements, including the headlights, turn signals and sidelights.
Slide behind the steering wheel of the new Volkswagen Jetta and the German penchant for attention to detail is immediately evident. The Jetta is a perfect example of why this world-renowned reputation is well deserved and is sought after by potential buyers. Closing the doors generates a solid "ca-chunk" that exudes quality construction.
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 optional power glass sunroof. 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. The rear seat features 60/40 fold-down capability as well as a pass-through feature for skis, fly rods and other longer objects. Three shoulder harnesses and three headrests are installed in the rear for safety.
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 GLS 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 $295 Monsoon sound system 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.
Driving is where the Jetta shines brightest. Whether on the Interstate or a favorite country road, the Jetta will please. Its ability to take curves at speed make driving it shear pleasure. We've driven this newest generation Jetta along California's Pacific Coast. From San Diego to the small village of Mendocino and around Monterey Bay, the Jetta kept us entertained and it felt crisp on the rural roads of Maryland. It handles long interstate cruises very well with stability that made us feel like we were driving a larger vehicle.
Jetta's stiff body structure made it possible for VW engineers to design a suspension that gives the Jetta a smooth ride while providing excellent handling ability. (MacPherson struts are used in front, while a multi-link arrangement is used for the rear suspension.) The chassis and rear suspension were also designed to provide more trunk space. Energy-absorbing crumple zones are designed to protect passengers.
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 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 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 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.
This new Jetta showed its handling prowess on each twist and turn along California's coast. It sometimes takes us a little time to adjust to Volkswagens, but after a short period of adjustment we find ourselves driving much harder into the corners. At the absolute limit of adhesion, there's a slight bit of understeer making the Jetta easy to drive quickly. But you have to drive very hard to find that limit. On heavy-footed acceleration the Jetta tracked true with no detectable torque steer. In high-speed sweeping corners it feels like it's on rails.
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 major world automotive marketing 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.