Part of why I’m so knee-deep into everything relating to cars comes from my father.
Back in his more sprightly days, he would spend entire weekends at a time wrenching, mostly because he didn’t want to pay somebody else to do all the work, and also because he was naturally good with his hands (Vietnamese ingenuity is a thing). He would buy cars that were beyond the brink of dead, and spend some time bringing them back to life as I watched. One of those cars he brought back to life was a 1986 Volkswagen Jetta GL (Mk2). I remember it being a Silk Blue Jetta, with a five-speed manual transmission. It was fitting that the all-new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Execline we sampled was also painted Silk Blue Metallic.
For a long time, the Jetta was more-or-less a sedan variant of the VW Golf. When the 2011 model year rolled around, VW made the call to separate the two models, with the Jetta moving downmarket to chase a more budget-conscious consumer. The Golf would continue on as the “premium” option it has always been. The simpler Jetta would go on to see increased sales, though enthusiasts were eager to criticize the “cheapened” Jetta. The Jetta for the 2019 model year finally joins the “MQB” chassis family that the Golf and nearly all of VW’s smaller cars are built upon, and this does wonders in just about every way.
The Jetta has never been a style-forward sort of vehicle – putting the new “Mk7” Jetta alongside the outgoing one shows that the overall styling language is more of an evolution. Built on the Volkswagen Group MQB platform, the new Jetta is now almost 6cm longer in length, about 2cm wider, and 23mm lower, all while providing more interior room. The fully-loaded Execline gets 17-inch “Tornado” aluminum wheels, though all Jettas in Canada come standard with full-LED headlights and 16-inch wheels, even on the base model. An unwelcome change: the rear exhaust tips in the rear bumper are purely decorative – the real exhaust is directed downwards, behind the bumper cover.
Inside, the fully-loaded Jetta Execline does a great job at emulating the feel an entry-level Audi would give you. The Volkswagen Digital Cockpit is the Jetta’s killer feature: instead of an analog (or even mostly analog) instrument cluster, you get one large all-digital 12.3-inch LCD screen with lots of customization. Looking beyond the snazzy Digital Cockpit, the rest of the interior does a pretty good job feeling almost like an Audi A3, complete with ambient lighting and even ventilated seats – but no heated steering wheel unless you add the optional Winter Pack. The added room inside the Jetta is most noticeable in the rear seats – legroom is fairly generous, as is headroom thanks to the fairly upright roof. Every Jetta comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration.
The VW Jetta and Golf, as of now, will differ in the engines offered. Every Jetta is powered by a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which also utilizes direct fuel injection. It is rated at 147 horsepower at 5,000RPM and a hearty 184 lb-ft. of torque from just 1,400RPM. Power is sent to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, supplied by long-time partner Aisin. The Jetta isn’t going to win any races, but the competitive torque figure comes on early in the rev range, getting you moving smartly.
The transmission does a mostly good job switching through the eight ratios, but if you get deep into the throttle off a stop, the Jetta feels like it engages a “high-stall” program (for the transmission nerds) that keeps revs from falling too low between ratio changes. The result is that the Jetta accelerates like a car with a CVT automatic, if you ask for a lot of power. It’s a strange feeling that some may not expect. For those who like to perform their own gear changes, a six-speed manual transmission is available on all trim levels. Fun fact: the 1.4L TSI engine (codenamed EA211) in the Jetta still uses a timing belt.
Being built on the MQB chassis has its benefits, but this isn’t quite an Audi A3 with a fewer luxury amenities, or a Golf with a smaller engine. The Jetta does boast a lot of feature content in the top-end Execline trim, but VW has opted to cut corners in other places to bring the price down. There’s the aforementioned 1.4L engine, but also other hardware such as the rear suspension. The rear axle is made up of a simpler torsion beam, rather than a fully-independent setup. Driving on the street, the Jetta was mostly inoffensive in its steering feel, brake feel, and the suspension is set up to deliver ride comfort, rather than maximum road holding.
VW Canada rates the Jetta with the eight-speed automatic at 7.8L/100km in the city and 5.9L/100km on the highway. We did quite a bit of highway driving during our time with the Jetta, and during the long highway stint, we did manage to hit an indicated average of 5.9L/100km, just like the estimate said we would. After a full week with some city driving, the overall indicated average was showing 7.0L/100km, which is impressive, considering the 184 lb-ft. of torque. Jettas equipped with the automatic transmission also come equipped with an idle start-stop system, which helps save fuel in the city. The fuel tank will hold 50L of regular fuel.
The base Jetta “Comfortline” with a six-speed manual starts at $20,995, with the mid-grade “Highline” (which adds a larger eight-inch infotainment touchscreen, keyless access and start, blind spot monitoring, sunroof, simulated leather seating surfaces) at $24,095. The loaded “Execline” costs $27,695, with this particular tester equipped with the $995 “Driver Assistance” package, which adds adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane assist, and automatic high-beam headlights. There’s also a “Winter” package for $485 (not equipped) which adds heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and a heated wiper park area. This brings the total as-tested price of this VW Jetta Execline to $28,690. Adding the automatic transmission will cost $1,400, regardless of trim level.
For what it’s worth, the Honda Civic (reviewed here) in all its trim levels (even the $17,790 manual-only DX) includes the comprehensive HondaSensing safety suite, compared to the $995 you’d have to pay on top of the Highline trim (it’s not offered on the base Comfortline) to get this extra technology. Hyundai doesn’t offer their “Sun & Safety” package until you get to the mid-level Preferred package, and Toyota offers their “Safety Sense P” on all their models as standard equipment. For buyers looking for active safety technology as standard equipment, you may need to look elsewhere, or pony up to check that option box.
One of the Jetta’s toughest competition may come from within the family: the 5-door Golf gives you most of the same competitive feature set, with the added perk of being a versatile hatchback body style. It doesn’t get the newer eight-speed automatic transmission, and the manual transmission only gives you five gear ratios, but the Golf does give you more overall polish for being on the same platform. Then there’s always the 288 horsepower, all-wheel drive Golf R (reviewed here).
The Volkswagen Jetta has now moved closer to the Golf, but VW has sought to keep some space between the two models. Between the two, I still prefer the Golf for its more versatile body style, but the interior updates to the Jetta are certainly expected to attract more people – specifically that VW Digital Cockpit. This one feature alone has the ability to impact the way drivers feel behind the wheel and is one of the better examples of “high end” technology trickling down to the mainstream market. It’s impressive how much latitude the MQB platform continues to provide to the Volkswagen Group, and when it comes to North America, the Jetta Execline may be one of the most affordable ways to get most of that small Audi feel, without paying for the premium branding.