The compact sedan is somewhat of a Canadian icon. Excluding trucks and SUVs, the five best-selling cars so far this year are the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla and the Hyundai Elantra. We sure buy a lot of these practical reasonably-priced sedans and hatchbacks, and Volkswagen recognizes that with vehicles like this 2021 Volkswagen Jetta Execline.
Ten years ago, they launched a Jetta that was larger, less-expensive and more practical than ever before. While they have walked that strategy back in recent years, it still seems like a recipe for Canadian sales success. To see what all the fuss is about, we borrowed a 2021 Jetta for a week and came away very impressed indeed.
Looking at the Jetta, it just seems more mature than many other compact sedans. That maturity doesn’t simply come from one element, but from an overarching theme of honest utilitarianism. The Jetta is consciously aware that it’s an affordable car that needs to be a practical form of everyday transportation. As such, the roofline is quite traditional because Volkswagen knows that rear seat passengers have heads.
The linework is restrained yet brimming with unfathomably sharp creases that display a stereotypically German obsession with precision. The grille is just a touch on the large side and the wheels look a bit small, but if the only controversial points of the Jetta’s design are such minor details, it’ll likely age well visually.
No new mass-market car would be complete without an abundance of in-cabin tech, and Volkswagen’s pulled out all the stops with the Jetta Execline. Toys on display here include configurable mood lighting, heated and cooled front seats, a very slick digital instrument cluster and an absolutely enormous sunroof. The user-friendly touchscreen infotainment system also uses a proximity sensor to only show more detailed information when it senses that a hand is near it, keeping the interface uncluttered at most times.
Audio comes courtesy of a BeatsAudio stereo that features a solid range of equalizer adjustability including a separate slider for the subwoofer gain. It’s quite a good system for the segment, offering reasonably clear sound, decent staging and some actual semblance of sub-bass.
Look past the flashy tech, and the interior of the Jetta is a minimalist, logical and well-built environment. Some materials are a bit cheap, but said cheap materials are also hardwearing. Important for surfaces like the lower door cards and centre console which are likely to see their share of abuse from muddy boots and spilt drinks respectively.
More importantly, there’s absolute heaps of room inside of the Jetta. Space in the front is more than adequate, while space in the back borders into midsize car territory. The trunk is also one of the largest in the segment at 399 litres, handily besting the Toyota Corolla and Mazda 3.
Powering the Jetta is a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine cranking out just 148 horsepower. While that’s certainly on the low side for the segment, peak torque is a proper 184 lb-ft of torque that goes all the way from 1,500 RPM to 4,000 RPM. As a result, the Jetta never really feels slow. Around town get-up-and-go is quite good while highway passing power is far superior to that of most rivals.
What’s more, the eight-speed automatic gearbox is tuned for real-world driving. It doesn’t really get into eighth gear until highway speeds, and high-speed cruising manners are remarkably settled and composed as a result. What’s more, fuel economy is excellent. We averaged 6.1L/100km over a week of mixed driving, significantly better than the government’s combined rating of 7.1L/100km.
When it comes to ride and handling, Volkswagen knows that the state of Canadian roads ranges from abysmal to “We live, we die, we live again.” That’s why the Jetta’s suspension is noticeably tuned on the soft side. While it’s certainly not as sporty as some competitors, it absorbs bumps and potholes like cleaning cloths advertised on TV absorb blue-dyed water. Compared to other compact cars, the Gardiner Expressway never felt so smooth. With such a pillowy ride, it’s easy to assume that the Jetta will roll like a marine mammal in the corners, but that’s not exactly the case.
While there is some body roll on display, Volkswagen’s pairing of soft spring rates and high-quality dampers ensures body motions are admirably well-controlled. The steering, while light, is nowhere near as vague as the steering in a Toyota Corolla. It’s also quite accurate, linear and features a slow enough ratio that the driver doesn’t have to make constant adjustments in freeway driving. The brakes are also wonderfully strong, delivering short stopping distances and confidence-inspiring pedal feel when it matters the most.
Any new car wouldn’t be complete without a wide array of active safety kit, and the Jetta Execline sports it. There’s lane-keep assist, front and rear automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and a following distance indicator, among other nannies so desired by shoppers today. We found these systems to do a great job of augmenting a driver’s skill without ever interfering unnecessarily. In fact the only black mark is how few driver assist technologies are available on the entry-level Comfortline model, considering that every Toyota Corolla comes with a well-stocked safety suite.
Our fully-loaded Execline tester rang in at $28,995, but even the entry-level $21,595 Comfortline model includes heated seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, alloy wheels and LED head and tail lamps. That’s a lot of value for the money, no matter which way you split it.
If you’re in the market for a small car, the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta deserves to be on your shortlist. While it may not feel as luxurious as the Mazda 3 or have the Toyota Corolla’s aggressive design, it’s an incredibly practical, well-equipped, efficient and reasonably-priced car that carries itself with a sense of maturity. By focusing on creating a car that’s a cohesive overall package, Volkswagen has created a compact car likely to win the hearts of many Canadians.