The Volkswagen Jetta is a premium small car that drives much like high-dollar German cars costing twice its price. Officially it's a compact car, but it compares well to smaller mid-size sedans. It's offered in sedan and wagon body styles with a choice of three engines.
For 2010, the Jetta line is basically unchanged. A SportWagen joined the sedan in late summer 2008 as a 2009 model, adding flexibility without a larger footprint or any compromise in efficiency. The performance-oriented GLI model has been dropped, and replaced by the TDI Cup Street Edition, a street-legal version of VW's Jetta TDI Cup race series cars.
The 2010 Jetta lineup includes TDI versions of the sedan or wagon, featuring a turbocharged clean-diesel engine and superior mileage. (The diesel was absent from VW's lineup in 2007 and 2008, due to stricter emissions controls, but a redesigned edition reappeared in 2009, with more power and certification for all 50 states.) Electronic stability control and a cold weather package with heated front seats and steering wheel are standard on all 2010 models. The standard stability control system comes two years ahead of a federal mandate requiring all vehicles sold in the U.S. to have some sort of standard stability control feature.
The 2010 Volkswagen Jetta lineup offers three engine choices: a 170-hp 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder (the standard base powerplant); a turbocharged 2-liter, 200-hp four-cylinder (employed in a number of different VW and Audi models); and a 2-liter, 140-hp turbocharged diesel four-cylinder, dubbed the TDI (for Turbo Direct Injection). EPA figures run from 21 mpg city on the gas engines to 41 mpg highway for the thrifty 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, a combination of price and German character that's made it the bestselling European car in the U.S. market.
The Volkswagen Jetta is a small mid-size sedan. It was completely redesigned for the 2005 model year, and has had a number of minor detail changes since. The SportWagen joined the lineup for 2009.
Technically, Jetta belongs among compacts like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, but in the real world it slots between compact and mid-size offerings from other brands. It tips the scales at 3200 pounds and more, but that mass is reflective of excellent structural rigidity, as well comprehensive safety equipment, and the dimensions include a large trunk, plus a usable rear seat.
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. SportWagen models have been freshened for 2010 with a new front end treatment that includes a double-bar grille just above the bumper and wider lower fascia.
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 halogen 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.
Big tail light clusters, 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 make Jetta look bland and too much like Japanese sedans.
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 interiors are noted for their quality and value, combining expensive-looking materials with simple, attractive styling and excellent ergonomics. The result tends to be inviting cabins that are comfortable, pleasant places to be as the miles roll by.
The contours of the bucket front seats provide a high degree of support. The seats are easy to adjust with manual controls, and the steering column, adjustable for both rake and reach, and height-adjustable safety belt help drivers of all sizes get comfortable. The sporty 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 open after refueling.
A large electronic message pad sits dead center, just over the coolant 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 is mounted on the dash to the left of the steering wheel.
Stereo control buttons surround the audio 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 cell 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 adjustment 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 rear seat 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 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 on 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. Aft of that there's a two-foot long section of similar depth; 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 securing 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. Although VW's powertrain engineers have made recent modifications to reduce vibration, it's still a little more audible than many small car engines, 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 mph in about 8.5 seconds (the manual is quicker) and records EPA figures of 21/29 mpg. 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 IRS tax credits offset its extra cost.
As soon as the Jetta pulls away from the curb, there's a feel of solidity, 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. Stand start throttle tip-in is aggressive, especially when the automatic transmission is in Sport mode so you may want to avoid it for commuting. The engine provides little compression 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 can be 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. If speed is the objective, the 2-liter turbo, which powered our Wolfsburg Edition test car, is a much better bet.
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 roll is well controlled. It's more apparent in the base models, but regardless of trim level and suspension tuning the car's responses are precise and wholly predictable.
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 emergency stops. Get everything wrong and stability control will do better than most drivers at returning to normal operation. 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 Golf is perhaps more tossable, particularly the GTI version, but American buyers still seem to prefer a formal sedan to a hatchback. The 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. Sedan or wagon, it's 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 and communicative. 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.
Although the sporty GLI model has been dropped, the Wolfsburg Edition, equipped with the four-cylinder turbo, delivers similar performance. The 2-liter four-cylinder is smaller in displacement than the standard five-cylinder, but it's turbocharged and develops a flat 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. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 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 Wolfsburg Edition. It's a brilliant system, crisp and smooth, and operation is direct and intuitive, as well as quicker in manual operation than a standard transmission.
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 ultra low sulfur 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 Wolfsburg Edition attains Audi-like sports sedan status without the cost and the 2.0T lends real sport to 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-to-the-max 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.