The Volkswagen Jetta compact sedan, built in Mexico, is Volkswagen’s best seller. For a good price, it offers German quality, the most interior space in the compact class, refinement, responsive performance, safety, and fuel economy. But now in its sixth year of this generation, its lines are beginning to look dated, despite a freshening of the fascia for 2015.
So for 2016, Jetta gets a new engine to keep it at the top of the game, a 1.4-liter turbo, plus infotainment and safety upgrades.
(The popular TDI diesel engine has been discontinued, on account of the emissions cheating scandal. There also used to be a Jetta Sportwagen, but it was redesigned for 2015 as a Golf.)
Jetta’s style is solid, with the focus on engineering rather than flair. Competitors with more flair include the Mazda 3, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, or Hyundai Elantra. The interior is clean, simple, refreshing, and Jetta kills the competition in room inside.
The new engine joins the four-cylinder turbo family. The 1.4T makes 150 horsepower, has low-rpm torque so it’s responsive, and the latest design technology. The 1.8T (in the Sport) makes 20 more horsepower, and the 2.0T (in the GLI) offers a 6-speed twin clutch transmission. It’s the hot rod and the thirsty one.
There’s also a Jetta Hybrid, using the new engine, so it’s a turbo hybrid, with a high-voltage battery pack, more fun to drive than a Prius, while bringing an EPA-rated 44 mpg Combined, or 42/48/44 City/Highway/Combined.
Jetta 1.4T gets 28/40/33 City/Highway/Combined miles per gallon with the standard 5-speed manual, or 32 mpg Combined with the 6-speed automatic. The 2.0T only gets 23/33/27 mpg. All three engines take Regular gas and do not require pricier Premium.
In crash tests, the Jetta can’t do any better. Five stars across the board with NHTSA, and Top Safety Pick+ from IIHS.
A rearview camera is standard on all but the rock-bottom-priced Jetta S.
Jetta S, SE, SEL and Hybrid use the new 1.4-liter turbocharged engine. Jetta 1.8T Sport uses the 1.8-liter. Jetta 2.0T GLI uses the 2.0-liter. Jetta GLI SE and SEL come with a mixed choice of transmissions: 5-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual, or 6-speed twin clutch.
There are many active safety features available, along with bi-xenon headlamps.
Volkswagen Jetta is no copycat. And it’s plainer than a Toyota Corolla. It lacks the visual style of a Focus, Cruze, or Elantra.
Its grille is just three horizontal bars. LED running lights are optional, and needed to jazz up the Jetta. The small spoiler on edge of the trunk is reminiscent of Jetta’s sibling the Audi 4. LED taillamps are available on the GLI and Hybrid, and add some upscale to the tail.
The GLI actually has its own style and design, lower, with bolder front fascia and honeycomb grille; at the rear there’s a diffuser and twin chrome tailpipes. It steps into the sports sedan world with available black 18-inch wheels and red brake calipers. The GLI also gets a flatbottom steering wheel and sports seats with red stitching.
The Volkswagen Jetta cabin exudes calmness, not challenging drivers with excessive instrumentation. The controls are generally intuitive. VW engineers and designers put a lot of thought into things like icons, since the car’s interior has one global design. German brains, Asian brains, and Anglo brains work differently. Not to mention young brains, mature brains, and aged brains. All those brain needs must be met, to have globally intuitive instrumentation.
Classic round gauges. Start button on the console. Excellent available leatherette upholstery with comfortably firm German seats (we haven’t driven a model with the standard cloth); available sport seats with more bolstering are firmer yet, maybe too firm. Great driving position with steering wheel controls. Space in the rear seats is more midsize than compact, a third adult might actually be able to go for a ride back there. Wide rear doors. Folding rear seats with small pass-through to the trunk, where there’s as much room as a midsize sedan, with an opening that’s wide and low.
There’s a USB port near the bin in front of the shift lever, which is too small for a smartphone, so it goes in one of the two cupholders. There are also water bottle holders in the doors.
The quality of the plastic trim depends on the model. In our 1.4T SE, all the plastic was hard except for the armrests. And the dashboard rattled and buzzed. It’s something you almost never see nowadays.
There are a total of seven powertrains available with the Jetta, with three turbocharged engines and four transmissions, and that’s not counting the Hybrid.
The 1.4-liter engine makes 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, and is mated to either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission. The new engine comes out looking awfully good, when compared to the 1.8T in the Sport model, that uses the same transmissions. The 1.4T makes the same torque, and only 20 less horsepower. Like the 1.8T it’s smooth and quiet. The 1.8T revs especially sweetly, and drives the Jetta from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 7.0 seconds, but the 1.4T is not far behind.
The Jetta GLI 2.0T brings the horsepower, at 210, as well as torque from turbo boost at low rpm. It delivers exciting acceleration to 6000 rpm, with growls and whistles coming from under the hood in the curves, leaving silly grins on the driver’s face. We’ll take the quick twin-clutch six-speed transmission over the six-speed manual, with its notchy shifts and long pedal.
The 44-mpg Hybrid takes the 1.4T engine and adds a 20-kilowatt (27 hp) electric motor with a clutch on each end, for a total of 170 horsepower. It uses a seven-speed twin-clutch transmission. The electric motor can power the Hybrid to 44 mph, and it takes over in what VW calls sailing mode, to solely power the car when it can, when the car is just cruising.
You hardly know it’s a hybrid until you step on the brakes. They feel lifeless under your foot, and then the pedal pushes back, as it goes from regenerative (battery-charging) to mechanical stopping.
With its four-wheel independent suspension, the Jetta’s handling matches that of the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus, and that’s saying something. It provides the best combination of ride control and precise feel. There’s virtually none of the bounding and hopping that you might feel in a Kia Forte, for example. There’s good feedback from the electric power steering. The brakes are strong, confident and deep.
The Honda Civic handles better than it ever has, and the Ford Focus handles European crisp, but they still don’t corner with the confidence of the Jetta, while bringing its supportive ride.
Now bring the Jetta GLI. Firmer suspension, lower ride height, optional 18-inch wheels, rear discs, and electronically simulated front differential lock to tighten the line in corners. It doesn’t go as far as it could, into hardcore sports sedan territory, but it’s great at seven tenths, with its superior suspension tuning.
The Volkswagen Jetta offers a lot of real car, for the money. Midsize interior in a compact car, best handling and ride in its class. The new 1.4-liter turbocharged engine feels as good as it sounds, in power-per-mpg.
Driving impressions by The Car Connection. Sam Moses contributed to this report.