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2016 Volkswagen Jetta Test Drive Review
A brand new engine injects much-needed energy into the Jetta brand, finally making it a worthwhile competitor.
The 2.0-liter engine that previously powered the Jetta has been laboring along since back in the 20th century, and it feels every bit as old as its 20+ years. With a new 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, the Jetta is no longer an also-ran in the compact sedan segment, offering performance and fuel economy to rival competitors like the Civic and Corolla. Add to that a new touchscreen interface and some additional safety options for accident avoidance, and the Jetta is definitely worth a look.
Look and Feel
For years the Jetta shared styling, panels, and even a wheelbase with the incredibly popular Golf, but this sixth-generation Jetta is only loosely based on the same PQ35 platform as that legendary hatch. Its body panels are all unique, and the wheelbase is stretched, bringing a more imposing profile to what is arguably Volkswagen’s most invisible offering. Still, there’s a fine line between boring and classic, similar to the difference between flashy and trashy. For me, the Jetta lands squarely on the classic side of the fence, with clean lines and an uncluttered interior that don’t try too hard to get noticed.
Starting MSRP for a Jetta 1.4T S is just $17,680, getting you 15-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, keyless entry, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, full power, air conditioning, and a 5-inch touchscreen. The S Tech Package ($995) will upgrade you to the 6.3-inch touchscreen and add a USB port, satellite radio, rear-view camera, and smartphone integration for the very useful Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But at the very least you should consider upgrading to the 1.4T SE with its 16-inch alloys, push-button start, and heated front seats. An SE Connectivity package ($3,330) is also tempting if a bit expensive, and it adds a sunroof, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, vinyl upholstery, and a 6-speaker stereo with upgraded VW Car-Net smartphone integration.
If the 1.4-liter engine just isn’t enough, the 1.8T Sport adds the larger engine, a sport suspension and 17-inch alloys and drops the sunroof, while the 1.8T SEL gets you the softer suspension tune, unique 17-inch alloys, keyless entry and ignition, an upgraded interior, and automatic headlights and wipers as well as the sunroof. Add the Premium Package ($2,680) by special order only to the SEL and you’ll get a 6-way power driver’s seat, an 8-speaker Fender stereo, dual-zone automatic climate control, and strangely, a cooled glove compartment.
My week with the Jetta was spent in a 1.4T SE with no options chosen. Its MSRP of $20,095 was bumped up by an $820 destination charge for a total of $20,915.
Things are just so much better in the Jetta these days. People criticize it for losing some of its special character as it becomes more and more like the rest of the entries in the segment. Perhaps that’s true, but that can’t affect the glee I have with this new engine.
The old, sluggish, frustrating 2.0-liter engine couldn’t do much to motivate vehicle or driver, as it was unable to help a Jetta beat a Prius to 60 mph. With 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque from just 1,400 rpm, the new 1.4-liter turbo beats the old 2-liter by 35 hp and 59 lb-ft of torque, plus it adds 5 mpg at both ends for a total of 28 mpg city/39 highway/32 combined with the 6-speed automatic. Go for the 5-speed manual, and you’ll gain another mile per gallon on the highway for a combined rating of 33. Those are impressive numbers, especially for an engine that took the old block, shrank the bore and lengthened the stroke, and tossed on a small turbo.
The results speak for themselves. With efficiency numbers like that coupled with nearly 200 lb-ft of torque at just 1,400 rpm, the engine is punchy and responsive, bringing the Jetta to 60 mph in around 9 seconds, while still managing to deliver at the pump. Well done, VW. My only concern is with longevity as with most “stroker” motors, but perhaps VW has managed to keep this in check.
The 1.8-liter turbo adds 20 hp up high, but torque numbers stay the same, so the extra power will be noticed only high in the rev range, helpful for passing and enough to drop 0-60 times by more than a second and a half. With the 6-speed automatic, expect a return of 25 mpg city/36 highway/29 combined.
For those who want to make sure they’ve got the quickest Jetta around, the formidable 2.0-liter turbo engine offers 210 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque with a standard 6-speed manual transmission. The 6-speed DSG is optional and will lose you 1 mile per gallon on the highway versus the manual, delivering 24 city mpg/33 highway/27 combined. The reward for the pump penalty? A 6.5-second 0-60 time.
Form and Function
With most of the performance “function” out of the way with this new engine, we now turn to the other most important factor for a compact sedan: the ability to comfortably carry people. While the suspension characteristics of the Jetta have been criticized in this latest generation, this must be viewed through the enthusiastic lens of the typical German car enthusiast, many of whom seem to want every car to handle like a sport sedan. While the lower trims certainly don’t fit this description, you can certainly outfit your Jetta accordingly and get a car that will at least attempt to fit the bill. The larger engines and sport suspensions can provide a lot of punch if you want it, but the Jetta's real strong suit has been how competent it is even at the lower levels. With this new engine, that’s more true than it’s ever been.
And with class-leading storage of 15.7 cubic feet in an easily accessible trunk, the utility of the Jetta can’t be argued. Fold-flat 60/40 rear seats expand that even further, and when in the upright position they easily accommodate 6 footers with no problem. In the front it’s even better, with comfortable, supportive seats that have long been VW’s strong suit.
Interior design is a wild departure from the competition, which is to say it’s wholly reserved and conservative. While that can sound like a critique, it’s actually a compliment, as the segment has a tendency to gravitate toward excess with regard to interior design. See Ford’s current lineup for the perfect example. Here, things are classic and clean, avoiding the eye-catching flashiness that can become stale so quickly. Many have complained about too many hard plastics, but that’s to be expected at this price point. The bigger issue is that a GLI Jetta will crest $30,000, and there’s only a slight upgrade in the interior with that trim.
There are a few major upgrades here, smallest and perhaps most important being the inclusion of an actual USB port, with VW abandoning the proprietary cord it had been using of late. That cord never worked very well and often required you to remove a phone's case to connect it. An actual USB port changes things immensely.
Beyond that long-awaited correction, the upgraded user interface for the 6.3-inch touchscreen is a nice improvement, especially with the inclusion of full smartphone integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The ability to mirror your phone on your touchscreen display means you no longer have to settle for whatever software the auto manufacturer decides you’ll get. The one issue here is that you have to stick with your particular poison. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll have to use Apple Maps. Sorry, Google fans.
Even better, safety technology in 1.8T trims gets an upgrade this year with adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and a frontal collision avoidance system with automatic braking through a Driver Assistance package, important options for families and first-time drivers especially.
With all those safety-tech upgrades, it’s no surprise that the Jetta has such an impressive safety rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the Jetta a 5-star rating out of 5 overall, with only total frontal impact tests receiving a lower score of 4 stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was equally complimentary, awarding its highest rating of Good in all tests.
In addition to the adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and frontal collision avoidance with automatic braking, the Jetta comes with all the standards of traction and stability control, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, front-side and side-curtain airbags, and active head restraints. Testing has shown a 60-0 stopping distance of less than 120 feet, which is better than average for the segment.
Sure, you can get a cheaper car in the Jetta's segment, but it really depends on how you want to spend your money. The Jetta offers classic styling, the best engine lineup in its class, better-than-average stopping distance, a near-perfect safety rating, and the best storage and interior space available. No, it’s not as fancy as some of the competition, and others are sportier, but the Jetta offers the total package that others struggle to put together.
The little computer issue VW has been struggling with of late in its diesel offerings is sure to impact resale value, but it also may give you some bargaining leverage at dealerships that may be finding their sales floors a little light on customers of late. That said, the Jetta remains one of VW’s most popular models, with a near cult following, so perhaps it will remain untouched by the negative effects of VW’s current scandal. Plus, the reliability and build issues that plagued VW/Audi in the early years of this century have been left behind, and the current crop has shown tremendous improvement over those dark first years of the 21st century.
Volkswagen is currently hosting a financing incentive program through April 2016, with competitive APR rates depending on the length of your finance window.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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Volkswagen Jetta Questions
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