Car reviews - Volkswagen - Jetta - sedan range
Powerful but frugal engines, comfort, refinement, all-round competence, sharp pricing, full-size spare on most variants
Room for improvement
Drab front-end styling, some questionable interior trim, not engaging to drive, space-robbing goose-neck boot hinges
22 Aug 2011
CUSTOMERS who like Volkswagen's Golf but hanker for a sedan have long had an option – be it named Bora or Jetta – which has been for all intents and purposes a Golf with a boot tacked on the back.
VW now has decided to do something about the fact that desirability gets lost in translation in the transition from chic hatch to more conservative three-box format, resulting in ungainly styling and compromised interior layout.
Although the Jetta has long been hugely popular in the United States and even sold a respectable 15,000 units in Australia since it was launched in January 2006, VW has seen fit to return to the small car-based sedan drawing board – and it claims to have a solution.
Using its extensive parts-bin expertise to engineer a long-wheelbase variant of the platform that underpins its evergreen Golf, VW wiped the design slate clean and started afresh to create something new.
Speaking at the launch, Brazilian-born exterior designer Jose Pavone said VW's Californian design team started afresh with the aim of achieving true sedan styling for the Jetta, with a longer wheelbase and bonnet but “fast” sloping rear pillar to give the impression of a shorter boot.
The result is a sedan that still shares much mechanically with the Golf but exhibits uncompromised looks while offering greater interior space and helping the brand to pursue its goal of tempting downsizers out of their traditional large cars.
But does it work? Being a fully paid-up member of Volkswagen's latest design language, the 4774mm long Jetta now more closely resembles the Passat, which is just 25mm longer.
To be picky, compared with a Polo or Golf it is a conservative design and not the most successful interpretation of Wolfsburg's new corporate face. Mr Pavone said that although the design may not look striking or particularly fresh now, he believes it will age gracefully.
On the upside, the Jetta had us thinking it was an Audi A4 more than once when viewed from the rear three-quarter – no faint praise.
So, first impressions dealt with and it's time to climb aboard. First up we sampled the steel-wheeled base model, the 118TSI with six-speed manual gearbox and a sticker price of $26,490 plus on-road costs.
That's a sizeable $2500 less than VW was asking for the previous entry-level Jetta, which packed a frugal 77kW TDI engine. However what we're dealing with now is VW's almost miraculous 1.4-litre twin-charged petrol engine – the cheapest Jetta with which used to be priced at $30,990, a sizeable $4500 more than today.
Jump inside and the seating position is instantly and refreshingly comfortable with minimal adjustment and a height- and reach- adjustable steering wheel is present and correct.
The interior is Golf-esque but with subtle differences to take it a tiny step forward, like how the cowling of the instrument pack runs across the top of the central air vents on the typically VW soft-touch dash.
The central arm-rest hinges to reveal a deep storage area and all four doors have their own bins. Two cup-holders are present in the centre console and the refrigerated glovebox is of ample capacity.
There are front and rear 12-volt outlets and rear passengers get their own air vents. The base-model has no cupholders in the rear quarters, although on Comfortline and Highline variants has then in the centre arm-rest.
Disappointing hard plastic cheapens the door trims, lower dash and glovebox lid, which while accurately matching the dashboard texture and no doubt being hard-wearing, fall short in terms of tactility and perceived quality for surfaces that occupants frequently come into contact with.
Open the boot and surveying the deep load area is like staring into a tunnel, but some of that 510-litre space will be robbed by the goose-neck hinges once the lid is closed. Curiously, only the left-hand hinge is trimmed in plastic. Comfortline and Highline variants score a plastic divider behind the left wheel arch and net on the right. All variants but the Highline get a full-size spare wheel.
The long wheelbase of the Jetta allows for decent rear-seat space, with room for a 186cm-tall passenger behind a similarly lanky driver, an extreme test but one that shows how the Jetta occupies the small end of the mid-sizer spectrum.
To this end, knee-room is not sufficient for the passenger to slouch, something that could get wearing on a long journey as the top of the passenger's head brushes the ceiling if sitting upright.
On the move it all feels solid enough, although the top-spec Highline variant we drove did have an annoying squeak coming from the dash.
The little 1.4 – a VW staple engine producing 118kW and 240Nm – employs a supercharger and turbocharger to help punch above its weight and shames powerplants a litre larger while achieving freakishly good fuel economy into the bargain, so long as it is fed at least 95 RON premium unleaded.
It pulls strongly through the rev range with only its fizzy soundtrack giving away its size. All three pedals are pleasantly weighted and the six-speed manual has a positive, short-throw action.
Although the engine responds well to being rowed along with the manual 'box, the engine is flexible enough that in sixth gear the little engine happily pulls up hills without requiring a down-change.
The enthusiastic engine is not silent but neither is it intrusive and like the ride and general ambience on the move, it is impressively quiet and refined.
Bumps are soaked up with authority but without sending shocks through the cabin. Likewise the seats are supportive without being too hard, as can too often be the case in German-branded cars.
A monochrome multi-function screen between the dials informs of the currently-selected gear and whether changing up would be appropriate for maximum fuel efficiency while also offering various combinations of digital speed readout, cruise-control display and fuel consumption data.
Most of the switchgear feels VW-tough, but in this base model the flimsy-feeling rotary ventilation controls are a letdown, especially the air-flow direction knob which offers no feedback as to which position is selected and has tiny, hard-to-see icons that can cause a dangerous distraction while driving.
The fuel-saving and speed/input-sensitive electro-mechanical power steering is on the light side of meaty and just enough road-feel makes it way through to the chunky leather helm to make accurate judgements and steering inputs possible. The wheel is fitted with controls for audio, Bluetooth telephone and aforementioned multi-function screen.
Weighing just over 1300kg, the base Jetta feels nippy in bends and when dashing across roundabouts, but does it in a competent, cosseting way that makes it relaxing to drive rather than engaging.
Part of this is the lack of a sensation of speed – great for blasting down an unrestricted autobahn but not so great for Australia's low speed limits. And there's the rub – the Jetta just is not the kind of car we would drive just for the sake of it.
Hoping for a little more dynamic enjoyment, we sampled the sportier 147TSI Highline next, top of the range and $11,500 more expensive than the base model and $1000 cheaper than the entry-level Passat.
Compared with the rather spartan and basic 118TSI manual that offers only metallic paint as an option, the extra money buys a 2.0-litre ex-Golf GTI engine with six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, 17-inch alloys and 15mm lower sports suspension.
The exterior is further tarted up by the presence of front foglights, chrome on the grille, lower air intake and along the bottom of the side windows. It is a subtle effect but visually takes the car upmarket, especially when coupled with metallic paint.
Inside is leather upholstery, dual-zone air-conditioning, heated front seats, a bit of extra chrome on the dashboard and an intuitive 6.5-inch touch-screen audio system with six-disc CD changer.
The car we tested was fitted with the $500 optional electrically-adjustable seats, but in contrast to the instantly-comfortable 118TSI manual, they took some messing about with to get the position right.
About 100kg heavier than the manual 118TSI but with a bigger slug of power and torque, the Highline disappointingly never feels fast because the speed builds up deceptively and without drama.
Despite the lower ride height and resultant busy ride, the sensation of speed is dulled even further compared with the entry-level car. The Highline raises the bar in terms of outright grip but is almost too unflappable to be fun at legal speeds.
A Mondeo EcoBoost can be had for slightly less money, is bigger, has more power, feels faster and is echelons more involving to drive.
In price-equivalent Zetec trim, the Ford lacks the Jetta's leather, fancy stereo and perhaps a little badge prestige, but its modern marvel of an engine makes the 147TSI feel old-fashioned.
We did not get chance to test the middle-spec Comfortline variant with the 103TDI eco-champion engine but reports from other launch attendees verified that it was achieving close to VW's quoted fuel consumption figure of 5.5L/100km in mixed driving.
The Highline does not gain much in terms of equipment over the generously-equipped Comfortline, which is priced at $32,490 when fitted with the 118TSI engine and a seven-speed DSG gearbox.
The Comfortline is available with a wide range of options that can have it emulating a Highline but without the engine or extra exterior chrome.
VW thinks the Comfortline will be the volume-seller and we are inclined to agree, as it offers the best spread of drivetrain and equipment – although it is a shame the sweet manual transmission that suits the 118TSI engine so well is restricted to the base model.
The Jetta is a polished product that does almost everything well as befits the badge on its nose but buyers looking for an emotional experience would be better served elsewhere.
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