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2019 Volkswagen Jetta Test Drive Review
A comfortable and functional interior, the latest technology, and an athletic, refined ride help the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta regain the ground lost by its predecessor to other small cars.
Small cars aren't asked to do much beyond the basics: provide efficient, reliable transportation at a manageable price. Plenty of models fit this form, and in some rare cases, they manage to do it while also being fun to drive, like the Mazda3. In other cases, the vehicle manages to feel more upscale than the competition, like the Honda Civic. But the Volkswagen Jetta's legacy has historically been defined by its ability to offer both an upscale interior and a rewarding driving experience.
But then something happened with the Jetta. Starting with the 2011 model year, Volkswagen attempted to broaden the Jetta's appeal, and until 2018 we were left with a drab interior, an underpowered engine, and an uninspiring driving experience. VW’s hallmark was always that its cars felt a little special, so by adopting a homogenous look and feel, VW removed what made the Jetta unique and desirable to its fans.
So Volkswagen had some work to do with the new seventh-generation 2019 Jetta. Will this new car move the Jetta name back toward driving refinement and upscale feel? Or will it continue to disappoint as just another bland entrant among small cars?
Look and Feel
The new 2019 Jetta is slightly longer than the outgoing model. Its wheelbase is also a bit longer. It maintains the same height but is wider by about 1 inch. This alone creates a slightly more upscale presence. Then it adds a wide, angular grille, inspired by that of the new VW Arteon sport sedan.
This new look is far more dramatic than the previous generation's comparatively staid appearance. Simplicity was often the hallmark of VW design, but the previous Jetta’s front end could put you to sleep. This new design doesn’t indicate much from a performance standpoint, but VW is clearly attempting to bring an upscale aura to the new Jetta.
That said, I would have been fine with a more subtle grille. The new one might be fine on a range-topping sport sedan, but it’s a little much on a compact sedan. Of course, when you move inside the cabin, you'll see the same angular design language. So even while driving, you can't really escape it.
But that design element adds to a cabin that manages to be as upscale as the car's exterior. It’s spacious and attractive, while also being quite functional. Not all surfaces are soft-touch, but they're just enough to give the interior a premium feel. The seats are impressively comfortable and would be perfectly fine for long drives.
Trims for the Jetta are S, SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium. Automakers typically send us fully loaded versions of their new vehicles, but not so with the Jetta. Of all the trims VW could have sent us, it shipped the base S trim, which is a pretty gutsy move. Volkswagen knows exactly what it has with this new car, as the base S trim comes well equipped, with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED head- and taillights, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with Volkswagen’s Car-Net App-Connect. This touchscreen also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The SE is likely to be one of the more popular trim selections. It adds V-Tex leatherette seating surfaces, a panoramic moonroof, 16-inch wheels with a unique two-tone design scheme, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, and heated front seats. It also adds a rear center armrest with integrated cupholders, heated side mirrors, dual-zone climate control, and keyless entry with push-button start.
Finally, the SE adds driver-assistance features such as standard forward-collision avoidance and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
The R-Line trim adds some unique touches, including exclusive front and rear bumpers and side skirts as well as a specially blacked-out grille. Inside, the R-Line features a unique take on the leather-wrapped steering wheel with high-contrast accent stitching. It also adds fog lights and 17-inch alloy wheels, and though it doesn’t offer anything more in the horsepower department, it does add Volkswagen's XDS differential to manage power for a more sporting drive.
Moving upmarket, the SEL adds upgraded LED projector headlights with LED accenting, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rain-sensing wipers, and a cabin accent lighting system that offers a choice of 10 colors. The SEL also adds an upgraded 8-inch infotainment screen, satellite radio, and the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit (more on that in the Technology section).
The SEL Premium rounds out the lineup and adds front fog lights (which also come on the R-Line), side mirrors with integrated turn signals, and unique 17-inch alloy wheels. It also adds a heated steering wheel (optional on all other trims but the S) and an 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat with memory settings—it’s a little strange to make a power seat available only on the range-topping trim, but if you’re commuting with this car, you probably won't need to adjust the seat often. Other standard features on the SEL Premium include heated rear seats, leather upholstery, and a navigation system integrated into the 8-inch upgraded touchscreen. The SEL and SEL Premium also add a 400-watt BeatsAudio system with 8 speakers and a subwoofer.
Regardless of trim, the Jetta offers a single engine: a 1.4-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder. This engine makes 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It actually has 3 fewer horsepower than last year's engine, but you’d never notice. In fact, the engine feels more responsive than the one in the previous Jetta.
Part of this is because, although it's less powerful, the engine is tuned to deliver power quickly from a stop. You can also credit the new Jetta's acceleration to a new 8-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the previous 6-speed automatic. The new 8-speed unit manages power very well, and the added gears allow the Jetta to operate with more power and more efficiency across a greater range of speeds.
If you want to shift on your own, the base manual transmission has been upgraded to a 6-speed, replacing a less efficient and less fun 5-speed manual.
Usually with small, turbocharged engines, you experience one of two issues. Some are well-suited for acceleration from a standstill, thriving in stop-and-go city driving. Try getting up to speed on the highway, however, and you’ll wait a while for the power to arrive.
On the other hand, some small, turbocharged engines are well-suited for gaining speed and passing on the highway, but they just aren't tuned to accelerate off the line. These can be brutal while driving around town.
Thanks to its engine tuning and the transmission's additional gears, the Jetta doesn’t have hidden weaknesses at low or high speeds. It handles residential driving just as well as cruising on the highway, and it even has enough guts to overtake at higher speeds.
Steering is fantastic in the new Jetta. It’s not overly stiff like a German performance sedan, but it strikes a blend of smooth and sporty—like an entry-level trim of the BMW 3 Series. It’s well-weighted and has precise turn-in when taking a corner, and there’s not much body roll at all.
All of that should be expected from a German sedan, but the ride also manages to be soft over rough roads. That’s been a real surprise, although it's also something I’ve found in other new cars lately. Several automakers seem to have cracked the code on offering a refined yet soft ride without it feeling like you’re floating. This is something VW must have forgotten about when it made the redesigned Tiguan SUV a little too soft, but when it comes to handling and ride quality, Volkswagen has found its mojo again with the new Jetta.
Incredibly, there’s no penalty for going manual or automatic; both return 30 miles per gallon city, 40 highway, 34 combined.
Form and Function
The Jetta's front seats are comfortable even on long trips, something uncommon among new small cars. And even though both front- and rear-seat legroom is down a fraction of an inch for 2019, you won’t notice it. Rear-seat space is perfectly adequate, while the front is plenty spacious.
Trunk space is down as well, but this still isn't a major issue. The previous-generation Jetta offered 15.7 cubic feet of trunk space, and this year it shrinks to 14.1 cubic feet. That’s still average for the class, so no major penalty.
Even though the cabin is smaller, VW has made it more useful with two clever changes. First, the touchscreen has been moved above the front climate vents. Second, the shifter has been moved back a bit. This makes the touchscreen easier to use and operate, putting it more into the driver’s line-of-sight. And the change in shifter placement allows the center tray in the middle to grow. VW also did away with the retractable tray cover—people care more about easily tossing a wallet and keys into their car than how it looks in photos.
Layout and function are key in the Jetta. Some automakers are putting volume and climate controls on the touchscreen, but here the touchscreen functions are blended with real buttons and dials. Arguably, only a Subaru Impreza is more function-forward than the Jetta. If it’s practicality you want, that's high praise.
As we mentioned in the trims breakdown, you get a lot with the base Jetta, including a 6.5-inch touchscreen display that comes with Volkswagen’s Car-Net App-Connect as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Offering CarPlay and Android Auto as standard equipment is great, because that means you don’t need to move up to the top-tier SEL Premium trim to get a navigation system. You can simply use the Maps app within CarPlay or Android Auto.
A notable feature standard for the SEL and SEL Premium trims is Volkswagen’s Digital Cockpit. Similar to Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, Digital Cockpit replaces the conventional instrument panel with a full-color digital display. This display can be personalized to present a driver with the information of his or her choosing. The driver can also project the navigation display directly onto this massive 10.25-inch screen.
The Jetta comes with a full array of front and side airbags as well as a reversing camera and a tire pressure monitoring system. It also comes with an automatic post-collision braking system.
Driver-assist systems such as blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and forward-collision avoidance are standard on the SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium but optional on the base S.
The SEL and SEL Premium come standard with additional driver-assistance features like adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping assist system, and automatic high beams.
The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta's base MSRP is $18,545—that’s $100 less than the base price of a 2018 version. The S trim with an automatic transmission starts at $19,345 and is the least expensive way to get into an automatic-transmission-equipped model.
The mid-range SE starts at $22,155 and will likely be one of the most popular trims. The all-show-but-no-additional-go R-Line trim starts at $22,995.
Moving upmarket, the SEL starts at $24,415, while the range-topping SEL Premium starts at $26,945. Our base S test model with the automatic transmission and an $850 destination charge clocked in at just $20,195.
It’s possible for a vehicle to be more than the sum of its parts. Nothing about the Jetta is particularly ground-breaking, but then again, small cars aren’t supposed to be head-turning—they're just supposed to get the job done in the most comfortable, efficient way possible.
But the Jetta manages to combine a comfortable, refined interior with the latest technology and an efficient powertrain. That would have been enough, but VW went a step further and actually made the Jetta a truly enjoyable car to drive. That final bit may be enough to return the Jetta to its previous market position.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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