New & Used Volkswagen Jetta: In Depth
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The Jetta is a compact four-door sedan in the Volkswagen lineup that shares many of the same components with the Volkswagen Golf. Because of the only until-recent American interest in hatchbacks, the Jetta continues to be the more popular choice between the two models.
Read our full review of the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta for car prices with options, specifications, and fuel economy ratings.
The Jetta range also includes a compact wagon, itself quite a rarity these days, that's deemed the SportWagen--but it's a minor player compared to the sedan. Alternatives to the Jetta include the titans of the compact class--the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, plus the surging Hyundai Elantra--along with surprisingly good new entries from U.S. makers, the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus. On the sportier end of the scale are the Mazda 3, still perhaps the compact that's most fun to drive, and the Subaru Impreza, with its standard full-time all-wheel drive.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--is 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.
In 2006, the fifth generation of Jetta sedan debuted, larger but stylistically very conservative. Again the interior was remarkable for its quality and materials, but now the back seat could hold U.S.-sized adults for the first time. The base engine for this larger Jetta sedan became the 150-hp, 2.5-liter five-cylinder, which delivered more power--and weighed more--but did little for actual performance or fuel economy. It's best matched to the six-speed automatic, and delivers relaxed cruising on the highway. This generation of Jettas offered significant improvement in refinement and ride quality as well.
Jetta wagons were offered in the fourth generation--from 2001 through 2005--and then re-introduced for 2009 onwards. These days, fully half the Jetta SportWagens are fitted with the TDI turbodiesel that delivers a combined EPA fuel-efficiency rating above 30 mpg--and, say owners, real-world mileage that's considerably higher yet.
The TDI is 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 include a six-speed manual and VW's superb six-speed direct-shift (DSG) automated manual transmission.
For 2011, Volkswagen replaced the Jetta sedan it had sold since 2006 with a new sixth-generation design--but carried over the SportWagen on sale since 2009, which continues to be built in Germany. 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 solves both of those problems with its punchy 200-hp turbo four and a soft-plastic dash cap (for considerably more money). The dash cap, by the way, is also being added to the high-end SEL model and the TDI this 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 should bring in new buyers to the model, VW says, and may ultimately provide about 5 percent of total Jetta sales.
That means that the Jetta now comes in base S, mid-level SE, and high-end SEL trims, plus specialty TDI diesel, GLI turbo, and Hybrid models. There's also the SportWagen, which occupies its own niche. The new Jetta Hybrid sedan is projected to return 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. No Jetta has been offered with all-wheel drive, however; it's strictly a front-drive compact sedan.