2014 Volkswagen Jetta Test Drive Review

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2014 Volkswagen Jetta Test Drive Review

Look and Feel 5
Performance 7
Form and Function 6
Technology 5
Safety 7
Cost-Effectiveness 6
6 10 Overall Score

Punchy little bugger. A sport sedan in an Izod-collared shirt. Very easy—and fun—to drive fast on twisty roads. Those are just a few of the comments I jotted down after spending a little less than 24 hours with the Jetta in and around Los Angeles.

With a new turbocharged engine and an upgraded suspension, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta has been transformed into a sedan that’s a genuine hoot to drive. A comfortable driving position and a spacious trunk are added perks, leaving only low-grade interior materials to sour the deal.

Look and Feel

5

Out of 10

When the Jetta sedan was redesigned in 2011, there was no shortage of critics panning what they perceived to be sedate styling. Some went so far as to call it boring, a description that wasn’t far off the mark. However, after a few years on the market, the Jetta doesn’t appear dated, a point that can be attributed to its lack of exaggerated sheet-metal angles and tacked-on chrome trimmings. As a 40-year-old member of the current singles scene, I can tell you plenty of people could learn a thing or two from the Jetta’s less-is-more approach to aging gracefully.

For 2014, Volkswagen hasn’t made any visual changes to its popular front-wheel-drive 4-door model, but there are a few behind-the-scenes tweaks that are definitely worth noting. Perhaps most significant is the introduction of a turbocharged 1.8-liter engine to the lineup; this four-banger replaces the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder powerplant that had long been a staple of the Jetta lineup. The company has also ditched the torsion-beam rear suspension system that had been used on most Jetta sedans to make way for a more responsive multi-link setup. Efficient electric power steering is now featured on all but the base variant (which keeps the old hydraulic steering system), and a smartphone-linked VW Car-Net telematics system makes its debut.

Those of you considering the purchase of a 2014 Jetta can choose from a slew of trim levels, starting with the 2.0L S. Opt for this model and you’ll get basics including a 4-cylinder engine, a manual transmission and 15-inch steel wheels, as well as niceties like power windows and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. Next up is the 1.8T SE, equipped with not only the new turbocharged mill under its hood, but also exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals, leatherette upholstery, an iPod cable and satellite radio service. A 1.8T SE with Connectivity adds, as its name implies, Bluetooth connectivity, a complimentary 6-month subscription for VW Car-Net and other differentiators such as 16-inch alloy wheels, while the 1.8T SE with Connectivity and Sunroof sweetens the pot with a power moonroof, push-button ignition and an upgraded touchscreen audio unit. Positioned one step higher on the Jetta ladder is the 1.8T SEL, which is fitted with an automatic transmission, 17-inch alloys, a navigation system with a rear-view camera and a Fender sound system. Volkswagen also offers a trio of diesel-powered TDI models that largely mimic the 1.8T trims in terms of content, three GLI variants hopped up with added performance and a subtle lower body kit, and a selection of Jetta Hybrids that are primarily distinguished by a gas/electric powertrain. Base prices, including an $820 destination charge, range from $17,540 for the 2.0L S to $32,265 for a Hybrid SEL Premium.

I evaluated a Jetta 1.8T SE with Connectivity and Sunroof for this review. An optional automatic transmission was included and brought the as-tested price to $23,985.

Performance

7

Out of 10

Punchy little bugger. Sport sedan in an Izod-collared shirt. Very easy—and fun—to drive fast on twisty roads. Those are just a few of the comments I jotted down after spending a little less than 24 hours with the Jetta in and around Los Angeles.

Frankly, this is a car that I didn’t want to give back. Granted, I’ve said that about other test vehicles in the past (the Ford Mustang GT comes to mind), but the allure of the Jetta wasn’t attributed to a guttural exhaust note, bold styling or horsepower that causes your palms to sweat and your mind to race with thoughts of law-bending asphalt endeavors. Instead, I quickly grew to appreciate the updated 2014 VW for one simple reason: It was a joy to drive.

Much of the credit goes to the new 170-horsepower mill under the hood, which doesn’t suffer from turbo lag, doles out all of its 184 lb-ft of torque at only 1,500 rpm and is connected to a throttle that’s a little sensitive on initial takeoff but otherwise easily modulated. Unlike the 5-cylinder engine it replaces, the 1.8-liter 4-cylinder sounds and feels refined even at high revs.

Though a 5-speed manual gearbox is standard, my Jetta was fitted with an optional 6-speed automatic transmission featuring manual and sport modes. Power delivery was always smooth and predictable, allowing for confident passing without worry of the engine bogging down just as I cut into a passing lane full of take-no-prisoners commuters. Shifting into S (sport mode) amped up the responsiveness, as I discovered while exercising the Jetta on some curvy mountain roads in Malibu; when slowing and heading into a corner, the transmission would kick down a gear, setting me up with the perfect level of get-up-and-go I needed to exit the turn quickly.

It was along those same winding, mostly shoulderless stretches of pavement that I’d experienced issues with brake fade in other Volkswagens, but I’m pleased to report the 2014 Jetta didn’t suffer from the same problem. Despite a good bit of abuse, there was no noticeable change in stopping power.

Of course, an impressive powertrain and capable brakes need to be joined by an equally noteworthy ride and handling package. That’s been accomplished with the introduction of the multi-link rear suspension previously reserved for the Hybrid and performance-oriented GLI models and electric power steering that feels somewhat light yet provides a commendable level of feedback—especially for a car with an as-tested price of $23,985. Understeer wasn’t a factor, and the rather liberal electronic stability control system allowed the tail end to get just a wee bit loose when pushed hard in corners. In town and on the freeway, where the 2014 Jetta will undoubtedly spend the bulk of its time, the sporty chassis delivers a ride that leans more toward firm than soft and does a laudable job of isolating the effects of bumps and potholes from the cabin.

Over the course of a couple hundred miles, I averaged 27.2 mpg. EPA-estimated fuel economy for Jettas equipped with the 1.8-liter engine and automatic transmission are 25 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg combined.

Form and Function

6

Out of 10

For cars like the Volkswagen Jetta, comfort behind the wheel is just as important as an entertaining powertrain or well-tuned chassis. These are the efficient family sedans destined for daily-driver duty and the occasional long-distance road trip. As such, they need to be comfortable enough for not only a 20-minute commute, but also a 2-hour delay in rush-hour traffic or a 300-mile marathon between fill-ups.

The 2014 Jetta fits the bill. Since I was limited with the time I had to get all my test-driving done, I spent the better part of a day and evening planted in a seat that didn’t leave me feeling the least bit sore or fatigued. I attribute that to cushions that are supportive but not stiff, as well as a tilt and telescoping steering wheel wrapped in soft leather and an adjustable padded center armrest. Collectively, these features allow drivers to find a seating position that suits them very well. The quietness of the interior contributed to the overall feeling of comfort, too.

As is typical, rear-seat passengers aren’t coddled to the same degree, though at 5’8” tall, I was afforded ample leg and foot room. Folks with longer legs will likely appreciate the soft front seatbacks that won’t hurt their knees. Outboard cushions are flat and not all that inviting, but the center hump is by far the most inhospitable spot and should be reserved for short distances or people you really don’t like.

Storage provisions inside the Jetta are sufficient, yet not what one would call abundant. They include a felt-lined tray forward of the shift lever, a spacious locking glovebox, a cubby below the front center armrest, door pockets and a few other slots. The trunk is deep and nicely detailed with fabric and plastic trim. When there’s a need to transport larger items, the split-folding seats can be lowered with pull tabs.

That brings me to my one major gripe with the 2014 Jetta. Simply put, the interior materials are a big disappointment. Prior to its latest redesign, the Jetta was home to soft-touch surfaces that gave the car a premium feel, but in an effort to reach a lower price point, the cabin was watered down with what we have today—cheap hard plastics. Vinyl sunvisors are another low point. Those bits are marginally offset by durable leatherette upholstery and a mesh headliner that extends to the front window pillars.

Tech Level

5

Out of 10

With the exception of the base 2.0S variant, all 2014 Volkswagen Jetta sedans feature what VW calls a Media Device Interface (MDI) with iPod adaptor, or in my case, an iPhone adaptor. It’s a simple plug-and-play setup that has, conveniently, been relocated from the glovebox to the storage compartment under the front center armrest. The Jetta 1.8T SE with Connectivity and Sunroof links the MDI to a touchscreen audio system highlighted by well-marked buttons and icons that are clearly labeled and large, meaning users won’t need the focus and precision of a sharpshooter to hit the one they’re aiming for. There’s also a slot for an SD card, which serves as yet another avenue for sourcing music files, audiobooks and more.

My test car was equipped with the all-new VW Car-Net telematics system. Like General Motors’ OnStar, this technology is connected to a manned call center but can also be utilized with a smartphone app. Services include automatic crash notification, stolen vehicle tracking, remote unlocking and the ability to send text alerts when the Jetta has passed beyond a preset speed or geographical boundary (think of it as a modern-day babysitter for parents of young drivers).

Safety

7

Out of 10

Safety technology is marching forward at an escalating pace, with systems capable of foreseeing impending vehicular doom, airbags popping out of who knows where and seats that will shake your butt just a bit if you’re backing up when you shouldn’t be.

For the most part, those features are absent from the 2014 Jetta, but Volkswagen has the basics well covered with standard 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, electronic stability control and 6 airbags. Some trim levels also contribute to the safety effort with a rear-view camera, bright HID headlights that swivel toward the direction of travel and LED taillights that illuminate faster than their traditional counterparts.

Unfortunately, as this review is being published, official crash-test results for the 2014 Jetta are incomplete. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded the car 4 out of 5 stars for its front-impact and rollover protection, but has yet to announce overall and side-impact scores. There are no ratings available from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Until the 2014 data is complete, we can look at the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta for reference. That model was named a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS (despite a disappointing Marginal rating for the Institute’s small overlap front crash test) and earned an overall 4-star rating from the NHTSA.

Cost-Effectiveness

6

Out of 10

The field of Jetta competitors is vast, with players ranging from the Dodge Dart to the Subaru Impreza. To get a better sense of how VW’s entry stacks up, I compared some of its key specifications and ratings to those of the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla. All carry a base price in the $17,000-18,000 range.

Knocking the negatives out first, the 2014 Jetta’s entry-level engine is relatively underpowered and inefficient, it offers the least amount of front head and leg room, and the car has earned a below-average reliability rating from J.D. Power and Associates (initial quality is rated average). Only the redesigned 2014 Toyota Corolla is expected to deliver above-average quality and reliability. Furthermore, Chevy leads this four-car pack with a 5-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, versus the others’ 5-year/60,000-mile coverage—and its OnStar telematics system is standard in all Cruze trims, whereas Volkswagen’s new VW Car-Net feature offers limited availability.

On the plus side, the 2014 Jetta is the only member of the bunch to boast standard rear disc brakes rather than less effective old-school drums, and it can accommodate more gear with its 15.5-cubic-foot trunk. Inside, rear-seat leg room stretches roughly 3 inches beyond what you’ll find in the Cruze and measures nearly 5 inches more than in the Focus.

There are other considerations that make the Jetta competitive, if not a true standout. One example is Volkswagen’s 2-year/24,000-mile free-maintenance plan that includes services such as oil changes and tire rotations. Problem is, Chevy and Toyota offer this benefit as well (ToyotaCare actually spans 2 years or 25,000 miles), and previous Jettas were actually covered for 3 years or 36,000 miles. Residual values are another factor worth noting; data for 2014 are not available as this review is written, but looking back to 2013 we see that the Jetta, Cruze and Focus were all in the same ballpark, though the Corolla consistently led the charge.

Finally, no Cost-Effectiveness discussion would be complete without touching on fuel economy. All these automakers are locked in a perpetual battle to outdo each other, but according to the EPA, the 2014 Jetta Hybrid is the most efficient compact car (not including plug-in models like the Ford Focus Electric) with a combined rating of 45 mpg. However, efficiency-minded shoppers who desire a more traditional powertrain will want to direct their attention to the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco, which delivers up to 30 mpg in the city, 42 mpg on the highway, and 35 mpg in mixed driving. That’s actually a smidge better than the diesel-powered Jetta TDI.

Updated

Thom Blackett is a lifelong car nut, owning cars ranging from Datsuns to Mustang GTs and, currently, a Ram 2500 plow truck. He has spent the past decade writing objective, thorough vehicle reviews and consumer-focused feature articles for Autobytel.com, Kelley Blue Book, The Boston Globe, Cars.com, and other leading websites and publications.

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