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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2012 Volkswagen Jetta

New Car Test Drive
© 2012

The Volkswagen Jetta is a compact car offered in a variety of models and body styles. The sedan received a controversial redesign for 2011 that included cheaper interior materials, less sophisticated technologies, and a lower starting price. It adds a sportier turbocharged GLI model for 2012 that reclaims some of that lost content. The wagon soldiers on with the previous design, though ironically that offers some advantages.

The base price is a mere $16,495 MSRP for the 2012 Jetta S, using a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 115 horsepower, with a 5-speed manual transmission standard and an optional 6-speed automatic. That engine is somewhat archaic, however.

A better value is the 2012 Jetta SE for $18,495, which brings the five-cylinder 2.5-liter engine making 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, while getting almost the same fuel economy.

The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine is a Volkswagen stalwart, providing good power for the Jetta's needs. It accelerates from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic, and powers the Jetta to a top speed of 127 mph, so there's plenty in reserve. It's EPA rated at a Combined 26 mpg, and we got between 23 and 28 mpg during our two-day test drive of nearly 500 miles in two Jetta SEL models, one with each transmission. We prefer the automatic, because the transmission is so good.

The sport mode for the optional 6-speed automatic transmission is sharp and effective. We used it in city driving, where it responded crisply on San Francisco's hills, and in slow-and-go freeway traffic, where it kept the transmission in third gear rather than upshifting and downshifting all the time. Manual mode can be used for spirited driving times, when you want to do the shifting yourself. It can only be shifted through the gearshift; paddle shifters are neither available nor necessary. In manual mode, the transmission is programmed well, responsive and obedient.

The 2012 Jetta TDI sedan, $22,595, and SportWagen, $25,260, use the latest turbodiesel direct-injected engine, making 140 horsepower with a useful 236 pound-feet of torque, while getting an impressive 30/42 mpg.

To get the price down, Volkswagen reverted to some less expensive engineering, such as a rear torsion beam suspension and drum brakes in Jetta S and SE models. The vast majority of drivers will never miss the multi-link suspension and rear discs. Other cost-cutting measures involve interior materials, and these are more evident. The Jetta has always been known for high interior quality, and that's no longer the case. On the other hand, the styling is still quite attractive and interior room is improved.

The sedan's interior is clean, stylish and comfortable, while being smart, accommodating, and functional. The trim is tasteful, and the standard cloth seats fit well, while the optional V-Tex leatherette upholstery passes easily for real leather. Headroom and rear legroom are outstanding, nearly as roomy as a BMW 7 Series, and VW makes smart use of cupholders and little storage cubbies. The instruments are handsome, with clean white-on-black numbering.

Buyers may have some complaints about the quality of the materials, which are mostly hard plastics that can creak and rattle later in life. Still, build quality is impressive. The Jetta is quiet at speed and feels solid.

The new GLI model reclaims some of the Jetta sedan's lost interior quality. The dashboard is made of a soft-touch material, and VW adds accent stitching to the shifter, seats and steering wheel.

The Jetta GLI features a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo engine, accelerating from zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds using the magical DSG twin-clutch automated manual transmission. It offers a relaxed, refined sportiness that makes it the most satisfying Jetta to drive.

As a previous-generation model, the SportWagen has the features the current Jetta has lost, including a nicer interior, an independent rear suspension, and a higher price. It also rides a shorter wheelbase, so it has less rear seat room. With the cargo room of an SUV and the popular TDI option, the Jetta SportWagen can be a great alternative to a crossover or SUV while offering outstanding fuel economy.

Model Lineup

Volkswagen Jetta S sedan ($16,495), S SportWagen ($19,995), SE sedan ($18,495), SE SportWagen ($24,010), SE sedan with Convenience package ($19,845), SEL sedan ($23,195), TDI sedan ($22,525), TDI sedan with Premium package ($23,695), TDI sedan with Premium and Navigation ($25,065), TDI SportWagen ($25,260), TDI SportWagen with Sunroof ($27,010), TDI SportWagen with Sunroof and Navigation ($27,840), GLI ($23,495), GLI Autobahn ($25,545), GLI Autobahn with Navigation ($26,445)

Walk Around

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta competes with compact cars such as the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze, but it is really a small midsize car. The sedan, redesigned for 2011, is three inches longer than the previous-generation models, with a wider track.

The Jetta sedan is more shapely than before with curves that are subtle and sweet. The door handles are body color and there is very little chrome trim. That goes against today's grain, sticking to the traditional notion that clean is beautiful. Even the new grille is anti-chrome, with black horizontal bars, as well as a tray-shaped front spoiler under the front bumper that suggests the splitter on a race car. It's an upscale improvement over the previous Jetta's bigger mouth.

Nowhere is the Jetta sedan overstyled or oversculpted; VW has it over BMW in that area. The lines are crisp and precise, with strong wheel arches, a smooth roofline and attractive C pillars. The nose and shoulders, viewed from the side of the car looking forward, give the front end an attractive Infiniti-like roundness.

At the rear, there's a neat aerodynamic lip at the trailing edge of the remote-opening trunk, and powerful taillights.

The GLI gets a crosshatch treatment for the front grille and lower air intake, sportier front and rear fascias and side sills, a unique design for the fog lights, and larger wheels. The total effect is a stronger, sportier stance.

Introduced for the 2009 model year, the SportWagen's styling was a precursor to the brand new sedan. It features the same front end treatment, but has a notable crease along the beltline that the sedan lacks and comes standard with roof rails. It's about three inches shorter in both length and wheelbase, so some of the proportions are different. Of course the roof line is longer, but it seems to slant down toward the rear. Still, with a heavy tail, the SportWagon has a bulbous rear that isn't the sleekest design.


The Jetta has historically held a reputation for high-end interiors with soft-touch surfaces. Yet journalists have complained about its high pricing compared to the competition. For 2011, Volkswagen decontented the sedan's interior (as well as some of the engineering) to reduce costs, and now VW is still hearing it from the automotive press for the perceived lack of quality.

New Car Test Drive reviewers have a mixed opinion on the new interior. Some feel the content that was dropped won't be greatly missed, and the new materials are still of high quality. Others say it's a shame to reduce interior quality with hard plastics while the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra have brought theirs up. Whichever side you land on, the look and feel of the Jetta cabin is still better than that of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. It's clean, stylish and comfortable, while being accommodating and functional. The instruments, with clean white-on-black numbering, are handsome, too.

Volkswagen has incorporated the small creature comforts. Comfortable driver armrests, convenient cupholders, good door pockets and grab handles: check, check, check, check. Between the center seats there's an emergency brake handle, two cupholders, and a smallish console with an armrest.

There's good headroom front and rear. Rear-seat legroom is first in class at 38.1 inches; compare that to the 38.4 inches in a BMW 7 Series and you can see that the Jetta makes great use of space. The wheelbase is stretched 2.6 inches compared to the last generation, and that translates to more legroom with no sacrifices; it's win, win, win: ride, safety, room. When the optional rear seat pass-through is chosen, it has a pair of cupholders in a fold-down armrest, and it makes the large 15.5-cubic-foot trunk even more useful.

While we like the look of the navigation system with its 5-inch touchscreen, the nameless icons had us stumped, at first. The voice directions don't name the upcoming street on which to turn, instead saying things like turn right at the second street ahead, which leaves wide room for confusion especially as the distance varies. This is inferior to most systems, which reliably name the desired street. Twice we used navigation to get us out of downtown San Francisco onto the Golden Gate Bridge north from our hotel, and it gave us two different routes, neither the quickest or most direct. We also had issues with the cadence of the navigation programming. It takes a second or two for touch commands to register, and that can make programming an address a tiresome waiting game.

We like the ability to tune the radio with a knob, however, and the new Fender audio system is crystal clear and manages high volume well. The driver information display is located neatly between the tachometer and speedometer, and is easy to scan: clock, fuel mileage, range, odo, thermometer. The climate controls are also clean and easy to use.

The SportWagen features the last-generation Jetta interior. It's a higher quality environment, but with less space. Impressive, solid, soft-touch materials abound, worthy of cars costing thousands more. SportWagen owners or those coming out of a last-generation Jetta will find the current sedan's hard plastic dashboard a disappointment.

The SportWagen's rear seat is tighter than the sedan's by 2.6 inches in legroom and an inch in headroom. It's still fairly useful, but the sedan is much more passenger friendly. The SportWagen, on the other hand, is far more cargo friendly. It has 32.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and an SUV-like 66.9 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded down.

Driving Impressions

We have not driven the latest Jetta S model with the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine, but we remember it from several years ago and it's not an impressive piece of engineering. It's been around since 1993, and it accelerates from zero to 60 in 10 seconds with manual gearbox. That's slow. It performs the same feat in an anemic 11 seconds with 6-speed automatic. Worse yet, fuel economy is no better than the next option.

We recommend stepping up to the Jetta SE or SEL, which are equipped with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. For another $2,200 you not only get the good 2.5-liter engine, but features like cruise control and the V-Tex leatherette that looks like leather. For about $20,000 you've got a roomy, elegant, and beautifully engineered compact car that gets 26 mpg with a 6-speed automatic.

The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine that comes on is a Volkswagen stalwart, and it provides good power for the needs of the car. The Jetta SE and SEL can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic, and powers the Jetta to a top speed of 127 mph. It feels even stronger than the 8.5 second number would indicate and is enough for most any need.

We drove a silver Jetta SEL with the 6-speed automatic transmission and a black SEL with the 5-speed manual. We think the automatic is an excellent transmission. The Sport mode is sharp and effective. We used it in city driving, where it responded crisply to the San Francisco hills; and in slow-and-go freeway traffic, up-and-down 15 to 30 mph, where it kept the transmission in third gear rather than upshifting/downshifting all the time. In other words, Sport mode actually made a positive difference that could be felt, even or maybe especially in non-sport conditions. Manual mode can be used for those super-sporty opportunities, such as when canyon driving. It lets you do the shifting yourself through the gearshift; paddle shifters are not available and not really necessary in base models. We found it to be obedient, downshifting responsively when needed.

The 5-speed manual gearbox is numb, with long throws, and overly light clutch pedal pressure. Neither of the two gas engines has enough torque to accelerate quickly without downshifting, especially in the tall overdrive fifth gear, so you'll have to be on the ball when driving the manual.

The Jetta TDI comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct injection (TDI) Clean Diesel engine that makes 140 horsepower and a more impressive 236 lb-ft of torque. It feels strong from a stop, yielding the torque of a sports car. The engine only revs to about 4500 rpm, however, and isn't as strong as speed and revs increase, though, which explains the 8.7-second 0-60 mph time despite the willing low-speed torque. We think owners will like the strong torque feel down low, and the fact that the diesel runs as quietly as a gasoline engine. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 42 mpg Highway, making the TDI the next best thing to a hybrid. Diesel fuel can be expensive, however.

The sedan's rear suspension has been changed from the last generation, backtracked from the previous multi-link independent setup to a torsion beam geometry. But again, even if the technology has gone rearward, we didn't notice. In its attempt to make the Jetta affordable, Volkswagen felt the multi-link could be sacrificed. The more expensive multi-link design is considered better for handling and ride quality.

We found the sedan's suspension has just the right amount of firmness, and is pretty responsive when driven in a sporty manner. Buyers in areas with bad roads might notice that the torsion bar transfers the effects of bumps from one side of the car to the other, making the ride busier and bumpier.

There's little if any functional loss with rear drum brakes rather than discs in the S and Jetta SE models. They work just as well on the lightweight Jetta; the front brakes do most of the work, after all. Our Jetta SEL had the disc brakes. They felt good, as we used them hard over the winding roads of highway 101 north of San Francisco.

We never got less than 23 mpg, and we got 28.5 mpg on our final combined run of about 140 miles, including a mad dash to the airport.

The Jetta GLI returns for 2012, and it's the clear choice if you want a sportier model. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine makes 200 hp, accelerating from 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds with the DSG twin-clutch transmission. That's pretty quick and it's quite satisfying. The 6-speed manual transmission is a pleasure to operate in the Jetta GLI. The DSG is quite good, too. It shifts smoothly when used as an automatic. The Sport mode is very sporty, holding gears longer and feeling a little bit high strung. It's the choice for performance driving, but Drive works best for everyday commuting. When equipped with the DSG, the GLI adds steering wheel shift paddles, which are well placed, easy to use and appropriate for a car with the GLI's sporty character.

The GLI features an independent multi-link suspension that the other models have given up, as well as sportier suspension settings. The suspension isn't too firm, and isn't overly sporty. VW refers to the GLI as the GTI of the Jetta lineup. That's true, but the GLI is softer and more reserved than the pleasingly sporty GTI. Serious driving enthusiasts will likely find the GTI more fun. The nicer interior and better suspension geometry make the GLI the most refined Jetta, with the bonus of added power.

Buyers can also get the independent rear suspension in the SportWagen. It adds a bit of ride refinement. The car weighs about 100 pounds more than its sedan counterpart, so it's not sportier. Instead, it's a very pleasant compact wagon with a smooth ride and lots of utility.

The Volkswagen Jetta offers a model for several tastes and price ranges. The inexpensive base sedan with its archaic engine is a disappointment in an era of nicer compacts. The 5-cylinder 2.5-liter engine, which is offered in the sedan or SportWagen, is plenty powerful and it gets 26 mpg. Pricing for the 2.5 sedan is quite reasonable, making it a good choice for most buyers. It's a little more expensive in the wagon, but buyers do get more content and engineering. The GLI is a refined sport sedan that is fun to drive and still within many budgets. The diesel-powered TDI comes in sedan and wagon form, offering good power and great fuel economy. It's a great alternative to today's hybrids.

Sam Moses filed this report after his test drive of the Volkswagen Jetta in San Francisco. Kirk Bell reported after driving the TDI, GLI and SportWagen in Herndon, Virginia.

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