Is there a more quintessentially American Volkswagen than the Jetta? Having grown up in Europe, my default image for VW is the humble Golf. But hatchbacks never really caught on stateside. Until the age of the crossover, you needed a trunk if you wanted to sell, and the Jetta—a Golf with a trunk—proved that in spades.
VW has sold way more than three million of them here since 1980, keeping the Jetta nameplate alive in the US market even while it called them Ventos or Boras or Sagitars elsewhere.
Now there’s a brand-new Jetta on the block, the seventh generation to bear the name. Calling it a Golf with a trunk is underselling it. These days, car companies like VW use architectures, not platforms, and the MQB architecture lets it build Golfs and Jettas but also Atlases, Tiguans, A3s, and TTs, plus some Seats and Skodas we won’t see for another 25 years. The architecture fixes some dimensional relationships, including the distance between the front axle and the pedals, for example. But it leaves others free, so a Jetta can be as wide as a Golf but much longer and with a larger wheelbase. (Or plain bigger all around, like that Atlas.)
In fact, the new Jetta could reasonably be called super-sized; it’s longer (185.1 inches/cm), wider (70.8 inches/cm), and even a tiny bit taller (57.4 inches/cm) than the sixth-gen Jetta. Despite this expansion, the new car is really rather slippery, with a drag coefficient (Cd) of just 0.27. It’s also not that portly, at a curb weight of 2,970lbs (1,347kg). That’s good, because for now your only choice of engine is a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder one. This offers 147hp (kW) and 184lb-ft (Nm) coupled to an eight-speed automatic, unless you pick the $18,545 S trim, in which case the automatic gearbox is an $800 add-on.
Consequently, the 2019 Jetta is not a car that you want to hustle, even if it does have a Sport mode. Perhaps underscoring that point, I can’t even find reference to a 0-60mph time anywhere in VW’s press kit for the car. On the other hand, a slippery body, a relatively low mass, and a small turbocharged four can make for efficient cruising. The EPA rates the Jetta at 30mpg city, 40mpg highway, and 34mpg combined. Based on my drive from Denver to Pikes Peak and back, I have no reason to doubt that. (A few weeks later, the best I could average was 25mpg, but that involved a lot of DC traffic and a slowish puncture that would also have affected fuel economy.)
That’s not to say Jettas can’t be fast. A couple of weeks ago, one broke the 210mph (338km/h) barrier at Bonneville by using a modified version of the 2.0L that will show up in next year’s Jetta GLI. Just don’t expect 600hp and a braking parachute on the GLI’s options list.
Car architectures like MQB are about more than just the physical layout of the vehicle—they also include all the electronic stuff that we can’t do without. That means advanced driver-assistance systems like adaptive cruise control and various collision alerts (blind spots, rear traffic, forward, etc.), but it also means LED headlights that know when to turn themselves on, infotainment, and instruments.
Speaking of adaptive cruise control, the Jetta’s system works fine and kept me out of trouble on long drives and in traffic. The lane-keeping assist isn’t anywhere near as strong as you’d find in a more expensive Audi, though.
Both Jettas we tested were top-of-the-line ($26,945) SEL versions, so they came with all the bells and whistles. As an illustration of how interconnected all these various subsystems are, consider the following: switching among Eco, Normal, and Sport modes remaps the throttle, changes the transmission shift points, and can even tighten the steering. But it will also tweak how the adaptive cruise control behaves, changes the climate-control settings, and even changes the interior ambient lighting.
The interior tech might well be the Jetta’s strongest card. SEL Jettas come with the 10.25-inch “Digital Cockpit” display, a VW version of Audi’s “Virtual Cockpit” that I’ve raved about in the past. You can configure it to a great degree, from austere minimalism to information overload, and together with the MIB II infotainment system, the overall experience is slick. (Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and MirrorLink are included.)
The rest of the interior is also pretty slick. Mostly. The seats and steering wheel are wrapped in leather, and almost all the bits you’ll touch regularly are made from high-grade plastics and have pleasant finger action. At the same time, the front seats offer less lateral support than you’d find in the Honda Accord, and the exposed bodywork on the doors and B-pillar did call to mind how some bits of this car were definitely built to a budget.
Indeed, VW makes much of the fact that the seventh-gen Jetta is cheaper than the sixth-gen car—$300 cheaper for the cheapest S trim and a useful $1,380 cheaper for the SEL. Perhaps this comes into starkest relief when looking at the Jetta’s most Jetta-ish attribute: the trunk itself. Its felt lining is thin and not well secured, but the bigger problem is the lid. Forget the gas struts that hold up a Golf (or even a Polo) hatch: here are two very simple hinges, painted body color.
Mind you open the trunk lid , though. Otherwise prepare for a smack on the back of the head as the trunk lid attempts to return to its natural resting state. This caught me out more than once in Colorado and at least twice back in DC until I finally noticed the warning and instruction glyph.
Maybe it’s the repeated head trauma, but I never entirely gelled with either of the two Jettas I spent time with. Sure, the pricing is reasonable, as is the fuel economy, and they had some good tech. Then again, the Honda Accord has all that, too, and is more engaging to drive. I guess your preference will come down to how much you need that dashboard.