From the July 2018 issue
If you observe closely, the new, seventh-generation Volkswagen Jetta has a tell. Ignore the strakes on the hood that make it appear something like a shrunken Passat. Don’t be fooled by the shiny chrome exhaust tips integrated into the rear-bumper valance-they’re fake. Instead, trace the major character line from the little badge on the passenger front fender back along its length. There, hiding within the crease in the metal, is the Jetta’s fuel-filler door. Look familiar? Of course it does: It’s nearly the same shape as on the Golf, the Jetta’s once-again platform-mate.
For 2019, the Jetta moves to the MQB platform, VW’s do-everything, be-everything architecture, which made its U.S. debut in the 2015 Golf (and also underpins the Tiguan and Atlas as well as the Audi A3 and TT). The Jetta now shares many components with the seventh-gen Golf, including its steering and front suspension, crash structures, HVAC, infotainment software, and even its 13.2-gallon gas tank. But no sheetmetal. Certainly the relationship is more complicated than it was in the era when the Jetta was a Rabbit with a trunk grafted to its hindquarters.
But it’s from axle to axle and under the hood that the sedan diverges most from the hatch. VW stretches the Jetta’s wheelbase to 105.7 inches, nearly two inches longer than the Golf’s, and the Jetta’s overhangs make it almost a foot and a half longer overall. Yet the sedan is not legitimately cavernous inside. Rear passengers get 1.8 inches more legroom than in the Golf, though they’ll sacrifice almost an inch of headroom. And don’t plan on seating three adults across the back, as the Jetta’s middle seat is cramped. About that trunk: It has shrunk in the new model relative to the previous Jetta, although the Golf’s comparatively enormous cargo hold is more a testament to efficient hatchback packaging than any deficiency of the sedan.
The Jetta’s turbocharged 1.4-liter four carries over from last year and is the only engine available-at least until the sporting GLI launches next year. With just 147 horsepower, the 1.4 is down 23 horsepower to the Golf’s 1.8-liter; although, when paired with manual transmissions, both engines make 184 pound-feet of torque. (Automatic Golfs have 199 pound-feet.)
The new Jetta gets upgraded gearboxes: a new automatic with eight gears rather than six, and a slick six-speed manual that replaces the commodity-car five-speed. Fuel economy grows by as much as 7 mpg, with all Jettas now hitting 30 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway, per the EPA. Sadly, the manual is available only on base S-trim cars, with other trims, including the R-Line tested here, getting the automatic.
The Jetta feels punchy, with excellent throttle response and virtually no turbo lag. If you boot it off the line, even the automatic-equipped car will squeal its front tires and trip the traction-control system. However, a clean launch with the eight-speed produces only a 7.7-second zero-to-60-mph time, merely average for the class. The most recent Golf we tested isn’t any quicker, although it is more fun to explore the upper reaches of its tachometer, where its bigger engine shines. Revving beyond 5000 in the Jetta yields no reward, aural or otherwise, and the automatic will grab a higher gear by 6000 rpm anyway. Although you can shift the eight-speed yourself, this transmission favors smooth over snap.
Indeed, smooth is the Jetta’s mien, a yacht rocker rather than a hard rocker. It is noticeably and measurably quieter than the Golf. Also softer, with more body roll and less feedback through the steering and chassis. But otherwise the siblings drive and ride similarly, with a light steering weight and good impact absorption. The new Jetta uses the same front struts and steering system as the Golf, although Volkswagen reverted to a rear torsion beam for the Jetta. In a small concession to sportiness, R-Line models get a brake-based torque-vectoring system on the front axle. Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 Plus tires in either 16- or 17-inch size shunt steering feel but don’t keep the Jetta from matching the Golf’s 0.83-g roadholding. Braking performance is poor, however, with the Jetta covering 191 feet to stop from 70 mph, which puts it behind the Golf and at the back of the compact segment.
The new Jetta leapfrogs its platform-mate in one area: Digital Cockpit. Four years ago, a larger version of this 10.3-inch reconfigurable screen, which replaces the traditional speedometer and tachometer, was auto-show hoopla from Audi. Now Volkswagen offers it as an enticement to spend $25,265 for the SEL trim; it’s a feature unavailable on any Golf save for the stratospherically priced, $40,000-plus Golf R. Even without it, though, lower-trim Jettas have a great analog cockpit. One pod encircles the main instrument panel and infotainment system, with the touchscreen perched high on the dashboard and canted toward the driver. This seamless control center proclaims the Jetta’s driver-centric mission even if it’s not actually a driver’s car.
The Jetta is good, certainly better than previous generations. The old cut-rate interior is much improved. The Jetta now offers one of the most comprehensive feature sets in its class, and the price even gets an across-the-board trim. You can drive one away for as little as $19,395, which undercuts competitors like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla by a few hundred dollars. But like most carmakers, Volkswagen reserves the stuff you want-whether it’s a bigger touchscreen or an upgraded audio system or adaptive cruise control-for the higher trim levels. The Jetta is less expensive than the Golf, too, by more than $2000. Also, you get what you pay for. The Jetta is not as much fun to drive as the Golf. Its performance attributes are not as well balanced. If you look again at that little rhomboid aperture on the Jetta’s flank but this time widen your gaze, you’ll notice that it is not the snug-fitting puzzle piece of its twin, the Golf, where its sides run parallel to the fender-panel edges. That’s the real tell, a metaphor for all the ways this new Jetta is not as precise, not as perfectly executed, as its exceptional sibling.
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