Volkswagen's Jetta has been one of its best-selling models, despite pricing on par with larger midsize sedans. In an attempt to gain greater market share, the redesigned Jetta is larger than the previous generation car, and starts at an affordable $16,495. The popular Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla offer base models just under $16K, while the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus are both priced under $17,000, placing the Jetta's pricing in the midst of this crowded market segment.
VW offers four sedan trim levels: Jetta S, followed by the SE, SEL, TDI, and the GLI. The Jetta continues with a carryover powertrain lineup consisting of a 115-bhp 2.0L, 170-bhp 2.5L, 200-bhp 2.0L TSI and the 140-bhp 2.0L TDI turbodiesel. Depending on the model, VW offers a choice of a 5-speed or 6-speed manual gearbox as standard. A conventional 6-speed (torque converter) automatic is optional on the Jetta S, SE and SEL. A DSG (dual clutch) automatic transmission is available on the TDI and GLI models. We drove a 2011 TDI with Navigation model, priced at $25,965 including a $770 destination charge. Our test vehicle was equipped with the standard 6-speed manual and no other factory options.
The Jetta's interior is a nearly monochrome blend of dark gray textures, relieved by brushed silver and chrome accents on the dashboard and upper door panels. Firmly padded perforated leatherette front seats offer minimal thigh bolsters, but are more comfortable than they appear. The driver's seat provides manually adjustable fore/aft and recline, plus lumbar support, while the front passenger foregoes lumbar support adjustments. Headroom is adequate for occupants up to 6 ft. Rear seat passengers also benefit from plentiful headroom and legroom.
The Jetta adopts the popular pushbutton start method to fire up the engine, but the button is inconveniently located on the console, instead of higher up on the dash. The ignition keyhole is simply blocked off, almost as an afterthought. On the leather-wrapped steering wheel are audio and Bluetooth phone buttons. Within the gauge cluster are a tachometer, speedometer, and a digital fuel gauge integrated within the trip computer display. Surprisingly, a coolant temperature gauge is not present. Volkswagen's optional navigation system suffers from dated graphics and minimal map detail, especially since current portable GPS receivers are a fraction of the cost and offer superior maps. Unlike the convenient volume knob, bass and treble adjustments for the AM/FM/Satellite audio system are inconveniently buried within the touchscreen menus. In contrast, the simple rotary knobs and buttons for the air conditioning system and front seat heaters are easy to understand and operate.
Catering to American preferences, dual cupholders are conveniently situated within the front console. Storage pockets are inside the front and rear doors. Additional stowage is available under the center armrest. Bulky cargo can extend into the passenger compartment by folding the split rear seats. Power door lock buttons on the rear of the center console allow back seat passengers to exit at their convenience. Dual 12V outlets in the center console can charge mobile phones and other electronics.
Volkswagen's 2.0L TDI cranks out an impressive 236 lb.-ft of torque between 1,750 and 2,500 RPM, and a more than adequate 140-bhp @ 4,000 RPM. The rugged cast iron block is topped with a dual overhead cam aluminum head. Typical for modern diesels, the TDI uses direct injection and turbocharging to boost horsepower. Off idle acceleration is adequate, but the TDI rapidly gains steam as the tachometer approaches the torque peak. We rarely needed to exceed 3,000 RPM in city driving, but the turbodiesel revs willingly to its 5,000 RPM redline. Despite modest peak horsepower, the turbodiesel's ample torque reserves provide excellent midrange throttle response. According to VW, the Jetta TDI runs the 0-60 MPH sprint in 8.7 seconds, comparable to other sedans in its class.
The standard 6-speed manual slips into each gear with minimal effort. Shift throws are positive, and we never missed a gear. Moderate clutch effort and progressive engagement make launching from a standstill easy, but we discovered that torque output below 1,500 RPM often insufficient to prevent stalling the engine. The EPA rates the Jetta TDI at 30/42 MPG (city/hwy.), but we easily averaged 31-32 MPG in urban driving, and an impressive 41 to 45 MPG on the highway.
All Jetta models except the sporty 2012 GLI adopt a twist beam semi-independent rear suspension with coil springs and dampers. At the front is the familiar MacPherson layout with coil springs, dampers, and stabilizer bar. The TDI is equipped with 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 205/55R16 Hankook Optimo tires. The cost-conscious Jetta S and SE get rear drum brakes, but the SEL and TDI are equipped with 4-wheel discs. ABS, ASR (Anti-Slip Regulation), EDL (Electronic Differential Lock), and ESP (Electronic Stabilization Program) are standard on all models.
Current owners will appreciate that VW maintained the Jetta's balance of compliant ride and taut damping. Although the TDI doesn't aspire to be a sport sedan, its competent handling inspires confidence. The hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering system provides excellent feedback. Steering effort around town strikes the right balance, but feels slightly overboosted at highway speeds where the new Jetta did not track as solidly as its predecessor. We suspect that the heavily siped tires contributed to the Jetta's squirmy steering. Replacing the mediocre Hankooks with a higher performance tire should restore the Jetta's traditionally autobahn-grade stability.
Volkswagen aimed its redesigned Jetta to appeal specifically to American customers. The Jetta's spacious interior and a lower price are sure to attract buyers searching for an alternative to Asian or domestic compact sedans. Within the Jetta lineup, the TDI occupies a niche with no competition, offering superb highway fuel economy exceeded only by more complex gasoline-electric hybrids. Although the Jetta TDI doesn't possess the cachet of the Toyota Prius or match its fuel efficiency in urban driving, this VW offers the rare combination of efficiency, practicality and driving enjoyment matched by few other cars.