The Volkswagen Jetta offers precise handling, good fuel economy and a roomy interior for the compact class.
Volkswagen has dropped two previous powertrains and modified the lineup of its compact sedan for the 2017 model year. Diesel power is gone, due to the company’s scandalous use of an illicit device that allowed Jettas to pass U.S. emissions testing. In addition, the Hybrid Jetta has departed because of sluggish sales. That still leaves three engines available for 2017 Jettas.
The 2017 Jetta S was upgraded to include a rearview camera, two-tone cloth upholstery, and 16-inch wheels. The 2017 Jetta GLI comes in one trim level. Jetta SEL Premium, the top trim, is available only on special order.
Last redesigned for the 2011 model year, the sixth-generation Jetta is dated. It has been Volkswagen’s top-selling car, despite its conservative, old-fashioned appearance. All Jettas are four-door sedans. The hatchback version is the Golf.
Jetta S and Jetta SE trim levels use a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, with 6-speed automatic optional.
In the Jetta SEL, a 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder produces 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet, and all come with the 6-speed automatic.
The performance-focused Jetta GLI uses a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, generating 210 horsepower and 207 pound-feet. Either a 6-speed manual or Volkswagen’s dual-clutch automatic transmission may be installed in the GLI. In addition to 0.6-inch lower ride height and sport-tuned suspension, the GLI features a honeycomb grille, bolder front fascias, 18-inch wheels, red brake calipers, and flat-bottom steering wheel.
Known for precise handling and tempting fuel economy, Jettas compete against such popular compacts as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, and Mazda 3. Jetta’s boxy sedan configuration mixes with a traditional cabin layout, making this compact more roomy than some midsize four-doors.
Jettas have earned good, but not perfect, crash-test scores. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave it five stars overall, but four stars for frontal impact and rollover protection (a calculated figure, not an actual test). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave Good ratings for all tests, including the formidable small-overlap frontal test. IIHS awarded its Top Safety Pick+ designation to the Jetta if equipped with available advanced safety features, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking (standard with SEL trim).
Jetta 1.4T S ($17,895) comes with 1.4-liter engine, 5-speed manual shift, 5.0-inch touchscreen radio, Bluetooth connectivity, rearview camera, and LED daytime running lamps. Jetta 1.4T SE ($20,895) adds a sunroof, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts, heated front seats, keyless access, pushbutton start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, imitation-leather seats, satellite radio, and a 6.3-inch touchscreen. Automatic transmission is available ($1,100) for either model. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Jetta 1.8T SEL ($24,995) has the 1.8-liter engine and automatic transmission, plus power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, navigation, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control. Jetta 1.8T SEL Premium ($26,995), the top trim level, is now available on special order only.
Jetta 2.0T GLI ($27,895) gets the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed manual gearbox, plus 18-inch wheels, navigation, power driver’s seat, parking assistance, Fender premium audio, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. Automatic is available.
Being nondescript isn’t necessarily a drawback in terms of attracting buyers. The Jetta hasn’t changed much since its 2011 redesign, yet customers keep buying, unconcerned about fashion trends. Updates along the way, including several freshenings for 2016, have been subtle, noticeable only to Jetta advocates.
Basically, the Jetta is a simple example of the familiar three-box sedan profile, with compact dimensions. Slab-type bodysides dominate the design. Up front, a three-bar grille extends into the bumper, creating a nose that fits neatly into Volkswagen’s corporate styling themes.
Like its exterior, the Jetta cabin retains its conservative, straightforward nature. As a benefit, its upright profile translates to easy entry and exit. Drivers can also expect satisfying rearward visibility.
Spacious in front and rear, the Jetta is among the larger sedans in the compact category. As a result, four adults can ride in comfort, with ample head and leg room, while hauling a substantial amount of luggage. Five will fit, too, at least for shorter jaunts.
Back-seat passengers enjoy plenty of legroom: 38.1 inches, to be precise. Even with a sunroof installed, cabin space is ample all around, with no sense of confinement. Still, heads of tall riders might touch the headliner fabric. Back doors open quite wide, making entry/exit easy. All Jettas have fold-down rear seatbacks, activated by trunk-mounted levers, which reveal a slim pass-through.
With 15.7 cubic feet of cargo volume, the trunk is quite spacious. One demerit: large elbow-shaped hinges protrude into the cargo space.
Large round instruments convey a classic-VW look. Drivers might notice that the steering wheel is positioned slightly closer to the center than usual, but the driving position isn’t really affected. Numerous surfaces in lower-end models are hard plastic. Front seats are comfortable, with sufficient side bolstering.
Roadholding and precise handling are the top Jetta benefits, scoring higher than most competitors, except for the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus. Ride quality also excels. Excellent suspension control yields an absorbent ride, nearly eliminating the bounding suffered by some compact sedans.
All Jettas have electric power steering, which behaves well. Brakes feel strong and inspire confidence. A Jetta can dash around corners more confidently than some popular rivals.
Tauter springs and shock absorbers, coupled with slightly lower ride height, help give the GLI more precise road behavior. Steering feels a bit sharper.
A base model with the 1.4-liter engine takes more than seven seconds to reach 60 mph, yet feels lively, though not exactly quiet when accelerating emphatically. The 1.8-liter isn’t noticeably swifter, but feels a bit more confident and energetic. Better-sounding, too. Jettas with either engine are enjoyable to drive. Most available engine power arrives at lower speeds.
The GLI’s 2.0-liter engine delivers stimulating, consistent power through 6,000 rpm. Expect some noise when pushing hard. Shifts from the 6-speed manual gearbox feel a bit notchy. The optional dual-clutch automatic reacts promptly, especially when paddle-shifted.
The 1.4-liter base engine is the thriftiest, EPA-rated at 28/38 mpg City/Highway, or 32 mpg Combined, with automatic. Manual shift raises the highway estimate to 40 mpg. The 1.8-liter four is EPA-rated at 25/35 mpg City/Highway, or 29 mpg Combined. With automatic, the GLI’s 2.0-liter engine is EPA-rated at 24/33 mpg City/Highway, or 27 mpg Combined.
At any level, the Jetta is still an appealing choice in the crowded compact-car field. Upper-trim models, in fact, come across almost like lower-cost Audis. Even base models are nicely equipped, but we think the SE trim delivers the greatest value.
Driving impressions by Aaron Cole, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.