The Volkswagen Jetta drives much like a high-dollar German car costing twice the price. The Jetta is officially a compact car, but compares well to smaller mid-size sedans. It comes in sedan and wagon body styles with a choice of engines.
For 2009, the Jetta SportWagen is available, having joined the line of sedans in late summer 2008 as a 2009 model. The SportWagen adds flexibility without a larger footprint or any compromise efficiency.
The 2009 Jetta lineup also includes TDI versions of the sedan or wagon, featuring a clean-diesel engine and superior mileage. Electronic stability control and a cold weather package with heated front seats and steering wheel are standard on all 2009 models. All models come with a full array of safety features.
The 2009 Volkswagen Jetta lineup features a choice of three engines: a 170-hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder, a turbocharged 2-liter, 200-hp four-cylinder (also found in pricier Audi and VW models) and the 2-liter, 140-hp turbocharged diesel, called the TDI. EPA figures run from 21 mpg city on the gas engines to 41 mpg highway for the TDI.
We found the Jetta responsive around town and comfortable on long trips. It carves through curves precisely, but rides comfortably.
Inside, the Jetta is roomy and nicely finished, benefitting from Volkswagen's attention to detail. The driver enjoys excellent visibility and ease of operation, with logical controls and instruments. Finish quality is good, inside and out. The trunk is larger than in many sedans costing much more. The basic warranty has been shortened by a year but now includes all scheduled maintenance; the longer roadside assistance and powertrain warranty periods remain.
The Jetta was redesigned and re-engineered from the ground up midway through 2005. It still seems fresh to us, and the wagon model adds an element of flexibility. We find its styling more pleasant than exciting. If you like the idea of a solid four-door and are ready to try some European flavor, the Jetta is the best deal in town.
The Volkswagen Jetta is a mid-size sedan. It was completely redesigned for the 2005 model year. The SportWagen joined the lineup for 2009.
This current generation is the biggest Jetta ever, labeled a compact but often slots between compact and mid-size offerings from other brands. It's also the heaviest, tipping the scales at 3,200 pounds, but that mass is put to good use with very good structural rigidity, a large trunk, usable rear seat, and safety equipment.
When looking at the Jetta, the eye is immediately drawn to its big, chrome-framed front grille. Chrome is also used in the eyebrows atop the air inlets in the front bumper and, on the SE and SEL, for the side-window surrounds.
The next most striking design element is the aggressive thrust and slope of the hood and snout. Compared to other recent nose-forward designs, the Jetta's composite headlights and various inlets and grilles are well integrated into the raked rearward flow of its form. A striking vee, created by the slant of the headlamps and sloping hood lines, is carried strongly toward the rear by the steeply raked windshield and character lines running along the flanks.
The tail is a major departure from previous Jetta styling. Larger tail light clusters, now divided between the trunk and rear fender, help widen the proportion of the car's hindquarters in relation to its height, giving it a more substantial, less boxy-looking stern. The round tail lights and brake lights have been singled out as the new Jetta's most derivative design statement. Critics claim they give this Jetta a blander, more Japanese look than previous models.
SportWagen hatches don't have the round-light issue and carry a small spoiler at the top of the roof and a rear wash/wipe system that clears every part of the glass you might look through. Tail lamps wrap well into the rear side panels but no lights are in the hatch so rear visibility is not compromised loading in the dark.
Volkswagen and Audi interiors are often the benchmark for other manufacturers because their designers accomplish more with less, combining expensive-looking materials with simple, attractive styling and excellent ergonomics. The result tends to be inviting cabins that are pleasant places to spend time.
The seat contours provide a high degree of support. The seats are easy to adjust with manual controls, and the adjustable steering column and height-adjustable safety belt help drivers of all sizes get comfortable. The thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel frames a gauge cluster dominated by separate, large dials for the tachometer and speedometer, well shaded from ambient light by a curved cowl. In daylight the graphics read white on black, at night changing to white on soothing swimming-pool blue with lighted red pointers. In either case, the data are easy to comprehend at a glance. Within the tachometer and speedometer are warning lights and advisories about secondary functions, including one thoughtful warning that the fuel filler door was left opened after refueling.
A large electronic message pad sits dead center, just over the water temperature and fuel gauges. In addition to more warning and diagnostic symbols, on upper-trim models this display includes trip computer readouts.
Trip computer data are accessed by one of three levers mounted on the steering column (or with the available multi-function steering wheel buttons). Jutting to the right, this lever also operates the wiper/washer system. To the left are the levers for the turn signals/headlamp flashers and cruise control. Though easy to use, the levers feel flimsy and are one of the few interior elements that have a cheap, plasticky look. The headlight switch sits on the dash to the left of the steering wheel.
Stereo buttons surround the stereo display screen in the center stack and are in full view, a setup we prefer over hidden controls. Unfortunately, the display's graphics are not easily discernible in daylight. At night, though, the display reverts to the trademark VW blue backlighting and is easily read. The steering wheel buttons on high-line models can be used to operate a phone, mute the radio, or toggle between the various modes of the sound system.
Just below the stereo, the manual Climatic heating and air conditioning is operated via a rotary dial on the left for temperature, one in the middle for fan speed, and a third on the right for directing the air in the cabin. Dual-zone climate control is used on SEL models.
The switch for the outside mirrors and the power window switches are on the driver's door armrest, within easy reach and sight. The windows feature anti-pinch protection and one-touch up or down. As a further convenience, they can also be opened or closed, along with the sunroof, with the master key in the driver's door lock.
The center console extends between the front seats and includes a covered storage bin, two cupholders, a power outlet and climate system vents for the rear passengers. A small overhead console, just aft of the rearview mirror, holds a pair of reading lights, sunroof controls, interior light switches, a sunglasses bin and ambient lighting elements that softly illuminate the dash area at night. Other nice touches include sun visors that slide on rods to extend their reach over most of the side window, and well-lighted vanity mirrors.
The GLI interior is a bit dressier than the standard cabin thanks to additional touches of bright metal on the dash and center stack. The sport seat fabric is a plaid-like material that harkens back to previous interior designs from VW, and it may not be to everyone's taste. The durable-feeling leather that's now only available as part of the Autobahn package is really the way to go for a full upmarket experience.
The rear of the cabin provides seats nicely contoured and raked for comfort. A six-foot-tall driver still leaves room behind for a similarly sized passenger, and there's enough headroom to accommodate someone much taller, especially on wagons. Still, there's no way an adult will fit comfortably in the center rear seat if there are adults to each side. A 60/40 split folding rear seat is standard across the line. Rear-seat SportWagen riders prone to claustrophobia will appreciate the panoramic sunroof option which features glass panels all the way back to the rear headrests and an opaque shade to minimize solar intrusion.
The trunk seems larger than is possible in a compact sedan (at 16 cubic feet). When the trunk lid is opened, it rises to a completely vertical position, out of the way of any loading or unloading. Completely carpeted, the trunk also has a storage cubby wall and four tie hooks.
Cargo space in the SportWagen reaches almost 67 cubic feet with seats dropped; even with the rear seat in place there is a 40-inch square load deck level with a folded rear seatback. To each side behind the wheels is a four-inch deep bin for stowing extra washer fluid or loose items, and under the floor is a three-inch deep, almost one foot by full-width well behind the seats, and aft of that a similar depth two-foot long section; the cargo floor/compartment cover folds and can be locked into various notches to make a wall for segmenting heavier items. Two conventional cargo loops at the forward end floor are complemented by two much stouter steel loops at the back corners. At cargo cover level are a pair of pop-up D-clips for cargo that invert to clips for holding grocery bags.
Turn the key in the Volkswagen Jetta S, SE, or SEL sedan and you're greeted by the raspy growl of a five-cylinder engine. It's definitely an in-your-ear sound that will find favor with those who appreciate mechanical sounds. We like it, but it might be annoying to drivers who'd rather talk on the phone.
The 2.5-liter reaches 0-60 in about 8.5 seconds (the manual is quicker) and records EPA figures of 21/29. Jettas with the gasoline two-liter turbo cut 1-1.5 seconds off acceleration time and the DSG automatic is the quicker of the two; EPA ratings are virtually identical to the 2.5 liter. The new 2-liter turbodiesel will take longer to reach 60, in the nine second range, about what you'd expect from a car this size with these EPA figures: 29-30 city/40-41 highway.
There has been some controversy about the diesel's EPA ratings. In third-party testing AMCI produced results of 38/44 mpg and in a December 2006 study the EPA concluded their miles-per-gallon labels underestimated diesel mileage by double digits and overestimated gasoline and hybrid-electric figures. From early drives we anticipate the Jetta TDI capable of mid-30 to mid-40 mileage. It should also be noted that the Jetta TDI does not need fuel additives at refueling or maintenance intervals that some diesels require, and it qualifies for IRS tax credits.
As soon as the Jetta pulls away from the curb, there's a feel of solidness and a sense of high quality. Volkswagen invested in structural rigidity, and it paid off in ride quality and handling.
The five-cylinder engine is tuned for instant gratification, and we like it. It is all about usable midrange power here, with a relatively low 5800 rpm redline and no need to explore it. Throttle tip-in is aggressive, especially when the automatic transmission is in Sport mode so you'll want to avoid it for commuting. The engine provides little braking while driving downhill, however, and we'd prefer that it did for the control it provides.
Regardless of gearbox, the 2.5-liter never felt underpowered in a week of testing on freeways, over mountain passes and around town. Its rasp turns a bit strident when the accelerator is fully applied, but it's more a syncopated growl of power than a whine of discontent. We can attest that the Jetta will cruise all day long at 90 mph and, given an autobahn or race track to explore, will reach almost 130 mph at its top end. The 2.5 is a very flexible engine, and it delivers power when needed, no matter the gear. Raw speed is not what this five-cylinder does best, however.
The six-speed automatic with Tiptronic does just about everything an automatic transmission should do. In full automatic mode, the transitions between gears are quick and slip-free. Slam the gas pedal down and downshifts are crisp, and the transmission holds the chosen gear until redline before swiftly shifting up to the next gear. Switch to the manual mode by moving the shift lever into a gate to the right. Pushing the lever forward in the manual mode chooses a higher gear, while pulling back selects a lower one.
Handling is rewarding, inspiring confidence on curving mountain roads. The Jetta carves through a corner with precision, and body lean is almost non-existent. Entering a corner too quickly is easily corrected with the excellent four-wheel disc brakes. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control while braking, while Brake Assist ensures maximum brake force during panic stops. Get everything wrong and stability control will do better than you at returning to normality. The Jetta's high-tech traction aids provide a greater envelope of safety yet do little to diminish the driving experience.
We think this is one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars Volkswagen has produced; the lighter Rabbit/Golf is perhaps more tossable. Jetta benefits from its multi-link rear suspension, instead of VW/Audi's traditional twist beam, along with a carefully designed MacPherson strut front suspension. The Jetta is a well-balanced car, with little or no sense that the front end is doing the work of both pulling and steering the car.
The steering is sharp. It not only adjusts to speed, providing more assist at low speeds and higher effort on the open road, but through electronic control of the steering column it automatically corrects the car's direction when such external forces as crosswinds threaten to move it off track. It's a bit disconcerting at first for the car to do something a driver expects he or she will have to do, but in short order the self-correction becomes a welcome improvement.
For slippery conditions, Jetta's anti-slip regulation (ASR) and electronic differential control (EDL) team up to make the best of available traction; with a good set of winter tires all-wheel drive is not needed.
The GLI is the high-performance Jetta sedan. Its four-cylinder engine is smaller in displacement than the standard five-cylinder, but it's turbocharged and develops a fat curve of usable torque, with 207 pound-feet available from 1800 to 5000 rpm. This means good response on the highway and around town. Step on the pedal and it goes not matter what. Yet this engine will gleefully rev to 6000 rpm in pursuit of its 200 peak horsepower. Volkswagen says the GLI can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. We easily reached the electronically limited top speed of 130 mph on some deserted roads in New Mexico, where the roar of the wind clawing its way past the car was the sole intrusion on the peace inside the cabin. The same engine powers the SEL SportWagen.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and VW's terrific dual-clutch DSG auto-manual transmission make a sweet combination. It really makes two cars in one: smooth cruiser and performance bruiser. On a long trip, the DSG six-speed automatic exploits the economies of its fifth and sixth gears. Yet a dash across town perks it up, and it stays in lower gears longer for better acceleration. It downshifts directly from fifth or sixth gear to third if passing power is needed right now, skipping the gears in between. The driver can shift manually by sliding the gear lever into the DSG slot, which initiates touch-shifts through the gear lever itself; or via steering-wheel-mounted paddles on the GLI. It's a brilliant system, crisp and smooth, and operation is direct and intuitive; it is the automatic enthusiasts turn to with a broken left ankle.
When the roads started to bend, the GLI's sport-tuned suspension reduced driver effort to searching for music on the satellite radio. The GLI's springs are stiffer (a sizable 24 percent in front and 29 percent in the rear), and its anti-roll bars slightly thicker than on other Jetta models. The brakes are also larger, by 24 millimeters in front and 26 mm at the rear.
The GLI suspension's feel is a blend of good and bad, however, particularly in cars fitted with the optional 18-inch wheels and performance tires, as was our test car. On choppy pavement, or over the expansion joints of concrete freeways, the GLI hip-hops along like a hyperactive bunny, reducing the enjoyable ride quality found on smooth roads into a tooth-chattering irritation. The performance enthusiast in us applauds Volkswagen for getting rid of its marshmallow-soft suspensions of recent years and giving the GLI truly sporty underpinnings; but unless high-G cornering forces are important or you use solely good infrastructure, the 17-inch wheels are the better choice for daily driving.
TDI marks the return of Volkswagen diesels to the U.S. and this 2-liter four-cylinder is a derivative of the best-selling diesel in Volkswagens and Audis sold in Germany where they demand performance and fuel economy. It delivers 140 hp but the horsepower lost to the 2.5 and 2.0T (30 and 60, respectively) is made up for by the diesel's superior torque of 236 lb-ft from just 1,750 rpm. That grunt makes itself know in the form of a well of elastic urge, so relaxed you often find yourself cruising along at speeds more appropriate for Germany than the Interstate. Beyond diesel fuel (stations are plentiful and you'll get 400-500 miles from a tank) the TDI makes no special requests—it starts quickly even if cold, is frequently quieter than the 2.5, disappears into the background at speed and most of your passengers will never know if you don't tell them.
The Volkswagen Jetta blends German-bred engineering and technology, good materials and build quality, and solid performance in a value-priced package. The Jetta S model comes well equipped, with a decent CD player and a host of safety features. Its 2.5-liter five-cylinder was bred for American tastes, with lots of low-rev torque, and makes for both a snappy runabout and a comfortable long-distance cruiser. The turbocharged GLI attains Audi-like sports sedan status without the cost and the 2.0T is indeed the SportWagen. Diesel models deliver the driving precision of the Jetta with fuel economy near that of hybrids, and only one hybrid SUV comes close to the price, mileage and practicality of a TDI SportWagen. At the high end, a loaded Jetta can push through $30,000.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles, with Greg Brown reporting from Santa Fe, New Mexico.