The Volkswagen Jetta is Germany’s answer to the affordable small car. Any automaker wishing to compete with the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Mazda3 (just to name a few) need to be sure in their intentions and be careful in their executions. The Jetta, for many years, represented a slightly more premium choice, thanks to its nicely finished interior, premium features, and advanced powertrain technologies. My father actually owned a second-generation Jetta with the 1.8L engine many years ago. I thought it was a pretty cool car with its rocker switches and the single LED for the turn signal in the instrument cluster. Subsequent generations retained the high-quality feel and improved on the clean, no-nonsense look inside and out. People were generally willing to pay the premium for a better experience, but it’s this same ideology that kept the Jetta just slightly out of reach for a lot of prospective buyers looking for a simpler choice.
The sixth-generation Jetta was released as a concept in mid-2010. Volkswagen came up with the idea to move the Jetta downmarket, which not only reduced production costs, but would make the Jetta more accessible to more consumers. Internet forums were ablaze with reports of doom and gloom, with the most vocal opponents decrying the tangible drop in the feature set and build quality. Cut out were premium items such as HID headlights, the reduction of premium materials inside, and the simplification of suspension configurations, among other items. VW was hedging its bets on more volume, rather than the profit margins they have enjoyed over the years. Count me as one of vocal few that left a little disappointed after seeing the details on the sixth-generation model. I was offered the chance to try out the recently-updated 2014 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8 TSI, in the Highline trim, and painted a very journalist-friendly Toffee Brown Metallic. Would the departed fifth-generation Jetta cast a shadow on one of VW’s most important products to date?
For many years, it was rare to see VW pushing out television ads touting the low starting price of the new Jetta. Starting at just $14,990, people woke up and took notice – Volkswagen was serious in wanting more of the compact sedan pie. I find it very interesting that they’ve brought back the old 2.0L 8-valve four-cylinder engine (informally called the 2.slow) that departed with the end of the fourth-generation (Mk4) Jetta. It’s an old design, not particularly refined or efficient, but it’s cheap and it works. My tester, being the Highline model (starts at $25,490), gets the all-new 1.8L TSI (turbo stratified injection) motor, six-speed automatic transmission, and nearly every option available with the addition of the Technology Package ($1570). This brings us to a subtotal of $28,460 before the usual dealer fees and taxes. Some quick calculation shows this to be nearly double the price of the stripped-out base car.
The Jetta has the distinct advantage of being available with three different powertrains. There’s the base 2.0L, the uplevel 1.8L TSI in my tester, and the excellent 2.0L turbodiesel. Whether you’re looking for up-front value, overall performance, or maximum efficiency, the Jetta has you covered. The 1.8L TSI is new for 2014, and is standard in the top-level Highline trim, replacing the old 2.5L five-cylinder engine. It produces a useful 170 horsepower, and 184 lb-ft of torque from 1500rpm to 4750rpm, thanks to the turbocharger, direct injection, and intercooler. A versatile powertrain – the wide torque band is great in the city and provides more than ample passing power on the highway. You also have choice when it comes to the transmissions available. You can either do things yourself with a six-speed manual, or have the six-speed automatic do the work for you. Unfortunately, this automatic is not of VW’s excellent DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) variety – this is a conventional automatic transmission. Nonetheless, shift quality is quick and crisp, making good use of the rich torque curve. One interesting tidbit: in standard Drive mode, when you come to a stop, the transmission will automatically shift into Neutral. When you take your foot off the brake, it will engage Drive again. This is not totally seamless as the split second before the transmission engages takes some getting used to. In Sport mode, the transmission will remain in gear all the time. 2014 brings forward some very relevant updates: the new engine is most obvious, but less obvious is the update to an independent rear suspension design (similar to the GLI), which improves ride quality and handling.
The Volkswagen group has shown stereotypical German restraint when it comes to the styling of their cars. The Jetta has always been conservatively styled and is often considered “clean” without any serious frills or risks. This sixth-generation Jetta is even more conservative than prior cars – some may see this as a drawback, as some entries in the segment feature more expressive styling (Mazda 3 and Hyundai Elantra come to mind). It’s too bad HID headlamps are not available – they would not only improve nighttime visibility, but add a premium touch to the front end. You’d have to step up to the top-shelf Jetta Hybrid before HIDs and LED daytime-running-lights are made available.
Inside, the “clean” design language continues with mostly straight lines and soft curves. There are more hard plastic surfaces than before, but the good stuff remains where it matters. Noteworthy: the armrests on the doors are very generously padded. The instrument cluster is very simple and easy to read. The Fender audio system (part of the Technology Package) is a nice addition, producing good quality audio and full integration into the central navigation system. I would have liked to see a temperature gauge – there is easily enough room for one. The driver information screen between the speedometer and tachometer is also very small and sits in a much larger frame that would be nicer if the entire space was used. The Jetta cannot be equipped with automatic climate control regardless of trim model or option package – it simply is not available. Rear-seat room is competitive in this class – almost as good as the new Toyota Corolla.
German automakers are no strangers to downsizing engines and adding turbocharger technology. VW rates the Jetta Highline with the 1.8L TSI at 8.1L/100km in the city, and 5.6L/100km on the highway. I managed 7.2L/100km in mostly mixed driving (about 60% city). Thankfully, the Jetta, even with its turbocharged engine, will take 55L of regular 87 octane fuel. The transmission, in Drive mode, is very eager to upshift at the earliest opportunity to maximize fuel savings.
The Jetta has been largely successful in its identity transformation. No longer a premium compact sedan, it now competes directly with the high-volume sellers from around the world. The Jetta is the first in VW’s grand plan to dramatically increase sales around the world. Even with all the “decontenting” that has happened, Jetta sales are actually up across the board. As much as the forums on the internet would cry bloody murder, the numbers don’t lie. For those still not happy with what the Jetta has become, the Golf is still available and still follows the old “premium” philosophy. The question that comes to mind now is whether $28,000 is worth spending on a Jetta, considering its new position on the market. This price point is in-line with many of its competitors when they are optioned out, but the Jetta is missing a few features mentioned earlier, making it comparatively a poorer value. Opting for the mid-range Comfortline with the same 1.8L TSI engine brings down the price considerably. Ultimately, the Jetta has waded into an incredibly competitive segment, but it now has the ability to compete with the big boys directly, rather than always pricing itself out of the battle.