Volkswagen Jetta comes in a myriad of models and body styles. The current-generation Jetta sedan was introduced as a 2011 model to compete with the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Mazda 3 and Honda Civic. The turbocharged Jetta GLI brought more content and power. Jetta TDI SportWagen, with its turbo-diesel direct-injection engine and available DSG twin-clutch auto-manual transmission, has been earning five-star reviews for its performance and fuel mileage. The Hybrid model joined the Jetta model line for 2013.
For 2014, there's a new engine to replace the stalwart five-cylinder (which lingers on in the SportWagen SE). The SE and SEL models come with a new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes the same 170 horsepower as the old five-cylinder, with more torque (at a lower range), and getting 5 more miles per gallon. It's EPA rated at 26/36 mpg City/Highway.
Another significant change for 2014 is the scrapping of the torsion-beam rear suspension, which VW used in the 2011 redesign on S models, to keep the base price low. All Jettas now have a multi-link rear, which delivers a more compliant ride and precise handling.
The base Jetta S is very affordable but not the best value. It uses a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 115 horsepower, with a 5-speed manual transmission standard and 6-speed automatic available. The engine is proven but it's slow and inefficient, rated 24/29 mpg with the automatic.
Our time in Jetta seats included 640 miles in the sporty GLI, with its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine boosted to 210 horsepower now, with premium fuel. It accelerates from 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds, with the DSG twin-clutch automated manual transmission. The GLI offers a relaxed, refined sportiness.
We also did 340 miles in the 1.4-liter Hybrid, which comes standard with a 7-speed DSG transmission, different from the 6-speed DSG in the sedan, in that it's dry clutch rather than wet clutch. We got 35.0 miles per gallon combined city/highway driving, well below its rating of 42/48. It requires premium fuel, and has a smaller trunk to make room for the battery pack.
The Jetta TDI Sedan and SportWagen use the latest turbo-diesel direct-injection technology in their engine, a 2.0-liter making 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, while getting 30/42 EPA-rated mpg. We hear frequent reports of drivers getting over 40. Emissions are low. The TDI is so good we don't see a reason for the Hybrid. Volkswagen boasts that it has the best acceleration, sportiest handling, most rear legroom and biggest trunk in the compact sedan hybrid class, so maybe that's their reason.
The Jetta looks plain to some people because it's clean and simple, with subtle curves and no sculpting; strong wheel arches, a smooth roofline and attractive C pillars. It's about the same wheelbase as the Ford Focus and Honda Civic, but a few inches longer. It feels bigger all around, more like a midsize car to us, because it's so solid.
The interior is practical and well thought-out, although hard plastics are used in some models to keep the price competitive with Ford, Chevy, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda et al. However the trim is tasteful and the standard cloth seats fit well, while the optional V-Tex leatherette upholstery passes easily for real leather. The trim in the SEL is upgraded, and in the GLI Autobahn with Navigation that we drove for one week, the ambiance is perforated leather.
The utility comforts are designed well: comfortable driver armrests, user-friendly cupholders, good door pockets and grab handles. Good headroom, and class-leading rear legroom, 38.1 inches, nearly as much as a BMW 7 Series.
Alas, not so with navigation. In our 2013 review of the Jetta we called it a nightmare; in 2014 we're calling it the Obamacare Website of navigation systems, so many fails we finally gave up. We don't have the space to name them, and you'd get bored hearing them. Other controls and instruments are excellent, including the gauges, climate and radio. The available flat-bottomed steering wheel with perforated leather is terrific.
The SportWagen SE is the only model that continues to use the 5-cylinder engine. SportWagen interior is equal to that in cars costing thousands more. Solid, soft-touch materials abound. Because of its shorter wheelbase, the wagon has less space than the sedan for passengers, with 2.6 fewer inches of rear legroom and 1 inch less headroom. Naturally there's more space for cargo, with 32.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and an SUV-like 66.9 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded flat. It can be a great alternative to a crossover or SUV while offering outstanding fuel economy.
The Volkswagen Jetta looks plain to some people because its curves are subtle, But it's not plain, it's clean. There's almost no bling, although chrome has been creeping back since its 2011 redesign. The entry-level S model has the least chrome (like almost all cars), and it's cleanest, with a black honeycomb grille and air intake under the front bumper.
The lines are crisp, no sculpting, with a distinguished face, lean shoulders, strong wheel arches, a smooth roofline and attractive C pillars. There's a neat aerodynamic lip at the trunk's trailing edge, and powerful taillights. It's 5 inches longer than the Honda Civic.
The GLI has a stronger, sportier stance. There's a crosshatch treatment for the grille and lower air intake, sportier front and rear fascias and side sills, a unique design for the fog lights, and larger wheels.
Wagons are usually longer than sedans, but the Jetta SportWagen is three inches shorter than the sedan. The same face, with a definition crease along the sides. It's given movement by a roofline that seems to slant down toward the rear, under the standard roof rails. The SportWagen is stylish.
The Jetta interior is clean, stylish, comfortable, accommodating, and functional. Even with hard plastics, it feels better than the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, although not as rich as the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze or Hyundai Elantra. The white-on-black gauges are easy to look at. You don't always pay attention to trim, but you have to look at the gauges all the time.
The standard cloth seats are comfortable. Our GLI Autobahn with Navigation had perforated leatherette, indistinguishable from real leather. After five hours in the saddle on a sometimes choppy freeway, our butt was over it and our back felt it. We do that run a lot. Butt-and-back wise, the GLI didn't do as well as a Hyundai Elantra five-door.
There are small and appreciated utility/creature comforts, including comfortable driver armrests, convenient cupholders, good door pockets and grab handles: check, check, check, check. Between the seats there's an emergency brake handle, two cupholders, and a small console with an armrest.
The Jetta makes excellent use of space. There's good headroom front and rear, and rear-seat legroom is first in class at 38.1 inches, as much as the BMW 7 Series. With the rear armrest down, there's a pair of cupholders for the rear passengers, to relax with a drink as they stretch their legs out.
The trunk is a fat 15.5 cubic feet, and the optional rear seat pass-through works for skis and things. The Hybrid trunk is way smaller with only 11.9 cubic feet, because the 32kW battery pack rides over the rear axle.
In our 2013 review of the Jetta we called the navigation system a nightmare. In this review of the 2014 we're calling it the Obamacare Website of navigation systems: so messed up we gave up. We'll spare you the details. We have the fails documented for anyone who's interested. We do have one nice thing to say, which is that the speed limit is posted on the navigation screen, a big contribution to stress-free driving one long night, down I-5 from Seattle to Portland, on that dark freeway with speed limits that continually change between 55 and 70 mph, with scarce signposts.
The touch-screen tuning of the upscale Fender audio system wasn't as bad as the nav system, but it too was difficult and distracting.
The standard driver information display is big and easy to read, located neatly between the tachometer and speedometer. Fuel mileage, range, odometer and thermometer. There's more information on the touch screen. The climate controls are clean and easy to use. The radio tunes with a dial, best ever, so simple. If only we could have shut the navigation lady up, she kept interrupting the radio.
The steering wheel on our GLI was terrific, with its perforated leather(ette), thumb grips and flat bottom. Controls include the phone button that is too easy to bump, calling a voice from above (she seemed to inhabit the roof) telling us we couldn't do what we were trying to do, and wouldn't accept our explanation that we didn't know what she was talking about. Then we tried to shut her up, and couldn't do that either.
The SportWagen's interior could be in a car costing thousands more. Solid, soft-touch materials abound. There is less space for passengers, with 2.6 fewer inches of rear legroom and 1 inch less headroom. But if the sedan is more passenger friendly, the wagon is more cargo friendly. There are 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 down.
When the entry-level Jetta S was introduced as a 2011 model, the technology in its reliable SOHC four-cylinder 2.0-liter engine was already dated. Now with the new 1.8-liter direct-injection turbo in the 2014 Jetta SE and SEL models, the S seems like a tractor. The S offers 115 horsepower with 125 foot-pounds of torque and 23/29 mpg with automatic; while the SE makes 170 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque, and delivers 25/36 miles per gallon. It costs $2275 more but has more features too.
With the 5-speed manual transmission, the S gets 24/34 miles per gallon, only 2 mpg less than the new engine; however, that transmission has long throws and feels numb, and the lack of torque in the 2.0-liter engine means you have to downshift a lot.
The sport mode for the 6-speed automatic transmission is sharp and effective. It shifted with crispness on San Francisco's hills, and stayed smoothly in third gear in slow-and-go freeway traffic, a situation where many transmissions will constantly shift up and down. Manual mode can be used for spirited driving, shifting at the lever. It's programmed well, and doesn't keep over-ruling the driver.
The GLI is powered by a 2.0-liter DOHC turbo four making 210 hp at 5300 rpm (an increase of 10 hp in 2014), and 201 foot-pounds of torque at a low and convenient 1700 rpm. It does 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds with the satisfying DSG 6-speed auto-manual transmission, and there's plenty of smooth power at high speeds.
The 6-speed manual transmission is a pleasure, but the DSG (built by the House of Audi) is the best of its kind, with sharp shifts in auto or manual mode, although in the GLI we found that it surged a bit around town. Well-placed steering-wheel paddles come with the DSG. They're very tidy and effective, more like tabs than paddles. Volkswagen is good on ergonomics.
There's road noise on rough asphalt, even in the GLI. It's rated at 32 mpg highway, which (unlike with the Hybrid) is what we got. On a 540-mile road trip, often running 75-80 mph, we got 30.6 mpg headed north and 31.7 mpg headed south, on recommended premium fuel. One thing that bugged us was the gas cap cover, which didn't pop open as designed. It took fingernails.
We also got a lot of seat time in the Hybrid, with a 1.4-liter turbocharged inter-cooled engine with 27-horsepower electric motor. It's not very quick, although VW claims it's the quickest compact sedan hybrid which might be true. It's nice that the DSG transmission is standard, with 7 speeds in the Hybrid. It's rated at 42/48 mpg, but we only got 35.0 mpg over 340 miles, half casual city and half freeway at 72 mph. And it takes premium fuel, while the others run on regular or diesel.
The Hybrid uses regenerative braking, converting heat to electrical energy. You can feel it in the brake pedal. At very slow speeds the brakes are too sensitive, but at 30 mph the sensitivity goes away; that inconsistency is a problem because your foot and brain can't keep adjusting back and forth. You're either bouncing your forehead off the steering wheel in parking lots, or nearly crashing into the car in front of you when slowing for red lights. At freeway speeds the pedal feels normal.
Our favorite powertrain is the Jetta TDI with DSG transmission. The 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection diesel engine makes 140 horsepower and an impressive 236 lb-ft of torque. Its 0-60 time is an unimpressive 8.7 seconds, but we can live with that because fuel economy is in the 40-mpg range. Put our favorite powertrain in our favorite body style, the SportWagen, and we're happy.
The Volkswagen Jetta has models for different needs and budgets. The S with its low price is not the best bargain, as the SE offers more value. The new Hybrid offers less than the diesel TDI, for more money. The TDI SportWagen remains a winner in everybody's book except those who need size and horsepower or all-wheel drive. And if you want a midsize VW sport sedan, the GLI is there for you.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drives of the GLI and Hybrid in the Northwest, and S models in San Francisco. Kirk Bell reported after driving the TDI and SportWagen in Herndon, Virginia.