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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Jetta - 118TSI Comfortline sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Spacious interior, big boot, classy lines, dashboard design and layout, sweet and gutsy 118TSI/DSG combo, fuel economy, fun to drive hard
Room for improvement
Ride quality on ‘Sport’ suspension and rubber, lower-quality cabin than Golf, hesitation at take-off with DSG, bland styling

7 Oct 2011

THINK American sedans and a massive land yacht such as an old Cadillac Eldorado springs – no, sorry, lumbers like a wounded walrus – to mind.

Fact is, though, the Yanks love their Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords, too. And they just go ape over a Hyundai Sonata.

So are you so surprised that the favourite Volkswagen in the United States (and Canada) is the Jetta?

Little more than a sedan version of the Golf for its first 31 years up until 2010, this four-door sedan has sold consistently well, even when its famous hatchback sibling has faltered over the years.

Jetta – a car as American as frankfurters and apfel pie – is VW’s answer to the Camry and, with the Germans hungry for global automotive domination, VW expects 800,000 Jetta sales by 2018. To put that into perspective, ‘just’ 256,000 VWs in total – including Golf, Tiguan, Touareg and Beetle models – were shifted Stateside last year.

Now there’s an all-new Jetta. And that old adage – stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap – is certainly the order of the day.

The sixth-generation sedan is still Golf-based, but it’s been stretched by 19cm, sits on a 5cm longer wheelbase, shares no exterior body panels and is a somewhat different car inside compared to the previous edition.

We won’t beat around the bush. The new Jetta feels like a larger but cheaper clone of itself, and that’s what it is.

Quite a lot of surprise-and-delight features that help make the Golf seem special have been expelled in the name of affordability. A case in point is the interior – though the steering wheel is as great to the touch as ever, the lower dash plastics are coarser and look low rent, the sliding cupholder and ashtray lids have vanished, the centre armrest is now fixed, there is no flocking in the door bins or glovebox and the trim feels of a lower grade.

So while a Tennessee photocopier rep might still coo and ahh on first acquaintance with the VW compared to a Camry, down here in Oz anybody familiar with a Golf or Passat will cock an eyebrow.

At least we are given the ‘good’ rear suspension (multi-link) rather than the cost-effective torsion beam found in North America.

This is what you need to know before signing the bottom line. The Jetta might be a bigger VW, but somehow it is less of one against Polos, Golfs, Passats, Eos, Tiguans and Touaregs.

Get past that – and we suspect you will be cross-shopping the $32,490 118TSI Comfortline DSG tested here with a Camry, Accord, i45, Ford Mondeo, Mazda6, Kia Optima, Subaru Liberty, Suzuki Kizashi, Nissan Maxima, Skoda Octavia and Renault Latitude – and the Jetta begins to make a very strong case for itself.

Stylistically it does have a classy presence, with a sharp contemporary face, pleasantly unadorned profile and an angular posterior that thankfully loses the bulbous bulk of the last model.

There is space-aplenty to be appreciated inside, too.

Up front – save for the aforementioned cutbacks – the dash is generic VW, right down to the three-spoke wheel with cruise and audio controls, classy analogue instruments featuring a very comprehensive trip computer screen, and a well-formed driver’s environment augmented by a tilt/telescopic steering column.

Getting cosy isn’t a chore, but we do prefer the Golf’s seats as the Jetta’s are a little too flat and shapeless in comparison.

And, while the ambience remains VW visually, the feel and odour is somewhat below that of this Mexican-built car’s German-made siblings.

Move to the purely Jetta aspects of the cabin, however, and the car starts to claw back some critical points.

Long doors that open incredibly wide make entry and egress child’s play, while rear seat space is fine for a pair of average-sized adults, with a deeply contoured backrest, hefty headrests, two grab handles apiece, cupholders in the central armrest, map pockets for each outboard passenger, and (knee-level) air vents to help keep the rather less comfortable middle-row occupant ventilated.

Helpfully, a 12-volt outlet is fitted and there is a pocket for your smartphone.

There are similar good and bad aspects in the well-integrated boot, which beats a Holden Commodore sedan’s for total volume (510 litres versus 496), though not its predecessor’s 527-litre total.

VW includes a pair of rear backrest releases so you fit longer items inside, there’s a full-sized spare beneath the long, wide, flat and deep boot floor, and the boot’s opening mechanism is good to use.

But there’s no 12V outlet back there, and a generally slapdash look and feel detract from the boot experience a little.

A relatively small engine lives at the other end of the Jetta, and of course it is VW’s now-familiar 118kW 1.4-litre direct-injection ‘Twincharge’ turbo/supercharged petrol four-cylinder petrol unit.

Quiet, smooth and very strong once it is on song, the 118TSI really pulls away cleanly with decisive speed after a slight hesitation. Possessing a distinctively raspy exhaust note, like a muted wasp that’s eager to fly, it will charge harder than you might expect given its head and a clear road.

On our Comfortline-spec test model, the only gearbox on offer is the seven-speed DSG dual-clutch ‘auto’ – an equally slick shifter that also needs a moment to think before it transmits a wad of torque to the front wheels.

Combined, this engine/gearbox combination is one of the best things about the Jetta – just be prepared to wait a moment off-boost at low speeds.

Once on the go, though, the 118TSI will quickly and easily catapult you to the wrong side of 110km/h, and maintain the momentum until your nerve or luck runs out in Australia.

Load the car up with passengers and there is less bucking from the DSG when you step off the line, while a hill hold device will keep your Jetta from rolling backwards on an incline. All good stuff.

Furthermore, in ‘Sport’ mode, the transmission remains in the lower gears for longer and it even learns your habits by hanging on to a particular ratio, making for a rapid cross-country racer.

Considering how hard we pushed the Jetta, the average fuel consumption figure of 8.1L/100km pretty much astounded us.

VW may have dumbed-down the quality, but the chassis dynamics in the Sport-suspended version we sampled rated very highly.

Though not the most communicative steering, the Jetta nevertheless reacted speedily to inputs, for precise and controlled handling and reassured roadholding, backed up by a superb set of brakes.

Thrown into a corner, or executing a quick avoidance manoeuvre, highlighted to us the degree of security and finesse that underpins the Jetta – just like most modern VWs.

But there is a price to be paid and that is the Sport’s ride quality. Hard and unsettled on all but the smoothest surfaces, it jarred us around town to the point where we would sacrifice some of that dynamic aptitude for a bit more pliancy.

Unfortunately, if you insist on the 17-inch wheel and firmer suspension set-up, then a busy ride is the price you pay. At least the Golf offers optional dynamic dampers to cushion your tush. They take the hard edge off most low-profile-tyred VWs.

Surprisingly, we found road noise to be well suppressed except when the suspension slammed against a bump or pothole, maintaining the general air of refinement that permeates the Jetta.

However, there is a really big problem with the 118TSI Comfortline DSG with Sport pack and that’s the price – high-$30ks before niceties like sat-nav and a sunroof are added.

In this realm the Jetta is playing ball with some proper medium heavy hitters like the Ford Mondeo EcoBoost and Honda Accord Euro, as well as the in-house Skoda Superb 118TSI and – of course – big brother Passat.

Frankly, we would have any of those over the Jetta because they have it all over the smaller VW.

Against most of these, as well as the Polo, Golf, Tiguan and Touareg, the VW sedan (just like the Beetle and Golf wagon, which is really little more than the previous-gen Jetta anyway) feels palpably inferior in quality, and that’s just not on for a model from this marque.

Our advice would be to either spend less on a cheaper (sub-$30K) Jetta 118TSI or look elsewhere.

Americanising VWs has never improved the breed, as this Camry-like Golf proves. It just makes it larger.

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