New & Used Volkswagen Jetta: In Depth
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The VW Jetta is a compact four-door sedan. Historically it has been a companion to the hatchback Volkswagen Golf family, but the two diverged in recent generations. The current Jetta is a vehicle developed with American shoppers in mind--since we're the biggest market for the sedan.
With its firm handling and range of eco-friendly models, the Jetta is a standout in the compact sedan class. It competes with vehicles like the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, and Dodge Dart, as well as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic--not to mention the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, and Subaru Impreza.
In the past, the Jetta lineup has also included the SportWagen model, but after a hiatus in 2015 that vehicle is being absorbed under the Golf nameplate for the 2016 model year. Going forward the Jetta name will apply only to sedans.
MORE: Read our 2014 Volkswagen Jetta review
For 20 years now, the Volkswagen Jetta has offered a classic sedan design and sporty German road manners and driving feel. These days, about the oldest models on used-car lots will be the third-generation cars that were launched in 1993. Smaller than today's Jetta sedan, they performed well and were a step up in refinement from earlier generations. The base engine (still in use today) was a 115-hp, 2.0-liter four, but engines ranged all the way up to a 174-hp, 2.8-liter narrow-angle V-6 in the special VR6 models, which provided 0-60-mph times of less than 7 seconds and authentic sport-sedan credentials.
The fourth-generation 1999 Jetta shared underpinnings with both the Golf and the newly-launched New Beetle. A new 1.8T engine, the 1.8-liter turbo four--originally rated at 150 hp, later upgraded to 180 hp--was more fun to drive than the base 2.0-liter four and gets better real-world gas mileage to boot. The VR6 engine remained on the books, now at 200 hp, but the 1.8T was a better bet, cheaper, less complex, and more popular. The 1999 car and its descendants were the first ones that really cemented the Jetta's reputation for first-class interior materials that outshone any other compact car. Some models of the fourth-generation Jetta suffer from reliability problems, though, so do your research carefully.
The fifth-generation Jetta arrived for 2006, a larger car overall with staid styling that was a German hallmark at the time. The cabin was again a home for high-quality craftsmanship and materials, and the size increase also allowed for a real adult-sized rear seat. A 150-hp, 2.5-liter five-cylinder became the base engine, providing more output but making little impact on performance or fuel economy, partly because it weighed more than the 2.0-liter. The in-line five was helped by the six-speed auto, with a comfortable freeway cruising attitude. Other changes to this generation also improved ride quality and overall refinement.
Jetta wagons were offered in the fourth generation--from 2001 through 2005--and then re-introduced for 2009 onwards. The wagon was a big seller when fitted with the TDI turbodiesel that delivered a combined EPA fuel-efficiency rating above 30 mpg--and, said owners, real-world mileage that's considerably higher yet.
The TDI was also available on the Jetta sedan, as one of several engine options. Through 2006, the TDI was a 1.9-liter unit, and then it went on hiatus until 2009, when a new, 140-hp 2.0-liter TDI diesel returned to the lineup in both sedans and wagons. Its transmissions included a six-speed manual and VW's superb six-speed direct-shift (DSG) automated manual transmission.
The current Volkswagen Jetta
For 2011, Volkswagen replaced the Jetta sedan it had sold since 2006 with a new sixth-generation design--but carried over the smaller German-built SportWagen through the 2014 model year. The new Jetta sedan was lengthened for U.S. customers who demanded greater rear-seat space, and the underpowered base 2.0-liter four made a return. So did the torsion-beam rear axle from the 1980s and 1990s, letting VW offer a significantly cheaper base price on the simplest Jetta model--a car that very, very few buyers will ever take home.
The current generation of Jetta has drawn criticism for its hard-plastic interior and the painfully slow performance delivered by the base engine, though the GLI model that returned to the fold in 2012 solved both of those problems with its punchy 200-hp turbo four and a soft-plastic dash cap (for considerably more money). The nicer plastics and an independent suspension returned to most Jettas by the 2013 model year.
For 2013, VW added a new model, the Jetta Hybrid, which brings a fifth engine (a 1.4-liter four), a fourth transmission, and a new high-end model into the range. Its buyer research indicated that TDI diesel buyers and hybrid shoppers were entirely different sets of people, who proved remarkably resistant to the idea of cross-shopping the other car. The new Jetta Hybrid sedan returns an EPA combined gas-mileage rating around 45 mpg, just 10 percent shy of the Toyota Prius--and it's considerably more fun to drive.
The sporty Jetta GLI model is fitted with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 200 hp, along with the DSG plus a sportier suspension and upgrades to the tires, wheels, and interior trim. While no Jetta has been offered with all-wheel drive—it's strictly a front-drive compact sedan—the possibility is now open since an all-wheel-drive version of the Golf SportWagen will be offered for 2016.
For 2015, the Jetta gets another round of updates, including a new turbodiesel engine with even higher fuel economy and a slight power boost. The car's revised front end is cleaner, and LED daytime running lights are available now, too. Inside, the Jetta gets a new steering wheel design, plus reorganized climate and audio controls.
The latest turbodiesel engine has an EPA estimated highway rating of 45 mpg, which nearly closes the gap between diesel- and hybrid-powertrain Jetta models. It’s also 3 miles per gallon better than the prior TDI version on the EPA's highway cycle.
Safety was a big focus of the mid-cycle refresh. Because of ever-evolving crash-test procedures, cars like the Jetta are receiving structural reinforcements to improve their standing. Those updates have already earned the 2015 Jetta the coveted Top Safety Pick+ award from the IIHS as well as five stars overall from the NHTSA. The 2015 model also receives some new safety options, such as blind-spot monitoring, a forward-collision warning system, and adaptive headlights that aim where you're steering.