2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
September 9, 2011

The 2012 VW Jetta delivers a better driving feel and more back-seat room than many other compact sedans; skip the cost-cutter base versions in favor of the TDI or the GLI for a distinctive choice in the compact class.

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta hits showrooms for the new model year with a big victory notched into its serpentine belt. Critics said the move away from independent suspensions, high-dollar interiors and premium pricing would cost it customers--but VW's beat that bet, and the Jetta's selling better than it has in a decade.

It's no stroke of luck, though. Careful planning and marketing have given shoppers a Volkswagen choice in the cheap-compact class for the first time in a long time, and in a grim economy, that means more people considering the brand. Budget shoppers care less that the Jetta’s rear suspension is an older, cheaper design that’s not fully independent, or that the cabin wears harder plastic than it has in the past. They look past the sluggish base four-cylinder and see the Jetta's much roomier back seat, essentially a body custom-tailored for American buyers, and features like a Fender sound system and Bluetooth to meet their more basic needs.

This year, VW's taken some steps to cater more toward the other VW buyers, the ones more obsessed with handling and heritage. The new GLI model's an instant favorite, with its turbocharged four-cylinder engine, its soft-touch dash and its different, independent rear suspension. We're still enthusiastic about the TDI's 42-mpg fuel economy, especially in the SportWagen, which rides on the last-gen Jetta platform and still carries a torch for old-school VW interiors (and tight back seats)--and this year it gets a sunroof and navigation package, making it a great long-distance tourer.

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In 2015, Volkswagen admitted diesel engines in this model illegally cheated federal tests and polluted beyond allowable limits. As part of unprecedented settlements with federal and state governments, Volkswagen agreed to buyback from owners diesel-equipped models of this vehicle. To determine eligibility for all affected Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi models, Volkswagen set up VWDieselInfo.com for owners. (Owners of affected vehicles can enter their VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

In the grander scheme, the Jetta still shines in its class, in its traditional ways. Handling still is sharper than anything in this class, with near-perfect ride quality that still eludes the Asian competition. The Jetta--even in base form--steers and brakes with a more intimate feel. Only now, six-footers can fit behind tall drivers in the Jetta's back seat, even come out ahead on leg room. It's not progress on all fronts, but with its new take on value, the Jetta pitches itself squarely into a class of cars where its soft-pedaled style and its emphasis on core engineering actually make it stand out more.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Styling

Conservative styling and lackluster finishes cut into the base 2012 VW Jetta's appeal, but the GLI softens up its cockpit while it firms up its red-stitched bona fides.

Volkswagen's taken flak for the tepid styling of the 2012 Jetta, and while it doesn't move mountains this model year, it moves the needle a bit with the deft little touches that transform the basic four-door into a GLI.

The standard-issue Jetta sedan sits fairly upright, and is good-looking in a traditional way. Versus the last Jetta's overly slick shape (which you can still see on the current SportWagen), the new sedan's facets and creases pay more of an homage to the VWs of the Seventies, and give it a more pronounced outline. That's especially true in front, where a big VW emblem sits on a thin ribbed grille, flanked by angled headlamps that are echoed in blocky taillamps. We kind of miss the pert, high-trunked rear end that made the Jetta a standout in the early 1990s. That car looked exactly like what it was--a trunked Golf--and the Jetta hasn't quite escaped anonymity since. Want proof? Look at the new Hyundai Elantra or Ford Focus to see how a makeover can transform an image.

The Jetta's interior is just as familiar, and the straightforward lines and layout can feel like a welcome respite if you've just climbed out of those other compacts. Still, it can be a penalty box, too: the cost-cutting is evident in lots of low-rent plastic, a disappointing turn away from Volkswagen's industry-benchmark interiors of the early 2000s. Some loving details are worked in among the hard black plastics and open-grained trim--big round gauges are classic VW,  and the "leatherette" seats have sporty horizontal ridges, while the shifter’s capped with a stripe of metallic trim. That said it’s nearly impossible to lose your way in this cockpit, even if the pushbutton to start is down in front of the shifter, not up near a standard key slot. You can’t say that for the obtuse Honda Civic dash. With a downmarket tip, the cabin still looks like a Volkswagen, just one best seen from a few feet away.

That's not the case with the new Jetta GLI, nor with the SportWagen. The GLI is spun from the new Jetta body, and shares the base dash structure, but it wears a soft cap on the dash that gives under fingertip pressure. The texture isn't quite as high-grade as before, but it's much better than in the base Jetta. The GLI also is flecked with the details that trigger performance nerves into action: red brake calipers and a lower ride height sharpen its profile, as do optional black 18-inch wheels, and red stitching on the sport seats and the flat-bottomed steering wheel anticipate its brisk performance.

The wagon model still is based on the last-generation Jetta, and has its soft-touch dash intact, with lovely textures and switches and overall quality feel everywhere.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Performance

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta has lots of personalities. Base fours are sluggish; five-cylinders are fine if not exciting; GLI and TDI models get our respect for great fuel economy and very good handling.

Volkswagen's 2012 Jetta lineup now offers four powerplants and three transmissions, but we'll make it simple for you--take the TDI or GLI.

A 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the base powertrain in the Jetta. It's offered with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. We haven't yet driven this version, but can’t imagine anyone other than the most frugal shoppers with a deep Germanophile streak looking at it seriously. It's a price leader, with low power and a curb weight of 2800 pounds. VW says this version with the automatic transmission will take almost 11 seconds to reach 60 mph, slower than many subcompacts now on the market. It's slower than a Honda Insight, in fact, and bordering on Smart ForTwo territory.

We've had the most road-test experience in the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder Jetta, the version that represents the best value in the lineup, but one still that leaves a little bit to be desired. It's impressive enough under acceleration, with a grunty feel and without as much of the grumpy engine sounds that usually come with off-balance five-cylinders. The five-cylinder pairs with the automatic transmission pretty well, and is torquey enough to deliver 0-60 mph times of just under 8.0 seconds, VW says. A decent value when kept simple, the pricier five-cylinder Jetta sedans can't compete with 270-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinders found in the Sonata and Optima for just a few hundred dollars more, and it's not as frugal as the fours in the most expensive Elantra, Cruze or Focus compacts.

The Jetta sedan we admire most offers VW’s clean-diesel TDI. The turbodiesel turns in hybrid-like 42-mpg highway fuel economy while nearly matching the five-cylinder for drivetrain quietness and coming close to its straight-line performance, with a 0-60 mph time of 8.7 seconds. Like the sedan it comes standard with a somewhat notchy manual transmission, but instead of the conventional six-speed automatic coupled to gas engines, the TDI comes with a version of VW's dual-clutch transmission. It's responsible for some of the super fuel economy, and aside from the occasional shift lag at urban speeds, the dual-clutch's smooth midrange shifts make a great companion for the diesel's narrow powerband, though it lacks the paddle shift controls found in other applications.

On these versions of the Jetta sedan, the mechanical simplicity of its non-independent rear suspension shows through a little bit, when compared to the sweeter handling of past versions and other current Jetta models. On paper, "torsion-beam rear axle" sounds a lot less appealing, but the Jetta maintains a lot of its old composure. It saws away at corners, with a little more body motion from side to side in deep corners, in ways that most drivers will find too esoteric to worry about, save for more suspension noise over all kinds of bumps. This Jetta drops the old model's electric power steering for old-fashioned hydraulic actuation, and it feels more natural and responsive as a result. On the open road, the Jetta's tire slap sounds soothingly familiar to anyone who's driven a Golf or Passat, and there's next to none of the bounding and hopping you might feel in a Kia Forte, for example. Brake feel is strong, confident and deep—though we’re curious to see how those drums feel after a few winding roads.

VW throws a couple of curve balls into this equation. The first is the Jetta GLI, the turbocharged Jetta with 200 horsepower emanating from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder. One of the best-known powerplants in the VW corporate world, the torquey turbo four comes on boost low in the rev range, and pushes out consistent, exciting power into the 6000-rpm range. It growls and whistles while it works, putting an aural exclamation point on the exit points on curves, bringing silly grins every time you tap into the boost, doling out slightly notchy shifts and long pedal strokes with the standard six-speed manual, or pinball-quick gear changes via the available dual-clutch box's paddle controls. We wish this were the base Jetta powertrain, since it delivers 7-second 0-60 mph times just like some bigger, more basic Asian sedans, but with a lot more engaging manners.

The Jetta GLI gets those manners from a different rear suspension than other models. The swap-out turns the torsion-beam axle on other models to a true independent suspension. While they're changing out parts, VW also lowers the ride height, tightens the springs and shocks, and adds electric power steering and an electronically simulated front-differential lock dubbed XDS, which helps tighten the GLI's line in corners. The GLI wears standard 17-inch wheels and rear disc brakes, too, with 18-inch wheels as an option. The result: a sedan that's great at 7/10ths driving, with alert steering and a nicely damped ride. More precise than base versions, the GLI isn't as sporty as purists can imagine in their wildest Wolfsburg dreams, but does underscore the German advantage in suspension tuning when it's held up against almost all of the Asian-brand compacts we can think of.

The other curve ball is the SportWagen, which still rides atop the last-generation Jetta architecture. More compact, with an independent rear suspension distinct from the one in the GLI, the SportWagen comes with either five-cylinder or TDI powertrains, as well as even better-tuned handling. We regularly recommend the Jetta SportWagen TDI over crossovers for its well-weighted electric power steering and for its excellent ride. Braking is superb, too, and given the choice, we'd opt for the dual-clutch transmission in the wagon just as in the TDI sedan.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta sedan has exceptional interior room and trunk space; the SportWagen is tighter inside, though it does have a flexible cargo hold.

The latest VW Jetta sedan is larger than its predecessors, and splits the size difference between many of the most popular compact and mid-size sedans. That gives the four-door great head and leg room, while SportWagen models still based on the last-generation Jetta have less space for people.

The Jetta sedan is 2.9 inches longer than the former model, with a 104-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 182.2 inches. It's larger than vehicles such as the Hyundai Elantra and the Kia Forte, which trade some of their back-seat leg room for more front-seat space, and the Suzuki Kizashi, which runs a couple of inches shy of the Jetta in rear-seat space. Looking up the size ladder, the Hyundai Sonata and Subaru Legacy both are much longer in wheelbase than the Jetta, but give up an inch or three in back-seat leg room—and with the Legacy, a cubic foot of trunk space, too.

The Jetta is simply one of the most spacious compact sedans on the market. Climb into its cabin and the reputation for a cramped interior evaporates. Base cars come with cloth seats, but all other versions have sporty vinyl seats with impressive bolstering that strikes a good balance between give and grip, especially on the GLI. The Jetta's been derived from other VW platforms, and it's clear how it's been expanded: there’s more elbow room to the outboard side, while the steering wheel sits more inboard. In other words, the controls haven't moved, but the doors have been pushed out to boost space. It doesn't affect driving position all that much, but it does leave more space on the left side of the steering wheel than on the right.

The Jetta sedan's back seat is the triumph. Wide-opening doors reveal plenty of leg room, and better entry and exit than a Cadillac CTS, even. The expanded leg room means you can transport adult pals, though ordering the available sunroof will nibble away at headroom, and anyone over 5’ 10” will notice.   

The rear seat folds down with a narrow opening to the cabin—and the flip-down controls are pull knobs located inside the trunk itself, just as in the Hyundai Sonata. When you think about it, the location makes better sense—and it’s probably much less expensive to manufacture. The Jetta trunk is spacious, with low liftover and a wide opening, but has gooseneck-style hinges that could pose trouble if you fill it to the brim.

 A roomy glovebox hides the optional iPod port inside, whether you like it there or not. A shallow bin ahead of the shifter can hold other thin items, and the doors have molded-in bottle holders to go with the center console’s large cupholders.

The SportWagen isn't a footnote here: the carryover model from the previous Jetta lineup still wows us with the interior fit and finish of VWs gone by, and with firm, supportive seats. The interior room isn't as large as in the sedan, though, and it can be a tight squeeze for large adults riding in the back seat. But this wagon's all about cargo space, and its wide-mouth hatchback and fold-flat rear seats make it a versatile, roomy counterpoint to small crossovers.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Safety

The 2012 VW Jetta doesn't have some of the latest safety gadgets, but crash-test scores are strong.

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta has been crash-tested by both the government and the insurance industry, and it's proven to be a strong performer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't reconfirmed its scores for the wagon yet, but it's rated the Jetta sedan at four stars overall. That's a composite score of four stars for front impacts and rollover protection, and five stars for side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has even better news from its stringent tests: it's given both the Jetta sedan and SportWagen its Top Safety Pick award.

Six airbags are standard on every Jetta, including dual front, side and curtain airbags. So are stability control and anti-lock brakes; active headrests; and tire pressure monitors. The Jetta also features a crash-response system that turns off the fuel and turns on the flashers after an airbag deploys.

Visibility inside either version of the Jetta is fine. Big glass areas, low rear headrests and relatively tall C-pillars stay mostly out of the way. But unlike some competitively priced mid-size and compact sedans, the Jetta doesn't offer a rearview camera, blind-spot detectors, or parking sensors, even as options.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Features

A new Fender audio system brings warm, clean sound to top models of the 2012 VW Jetta; to get navigation, you'll have to buy a GLI or a TDI.

Volkswagen's raised the base price of the 2012 Jetta sedan for the new model year, and added more features in new trim levels, while the SportWagen continues on with just a few minor changes, at a price point significantly higher than the base sedan.

All Jetta S sedans come standard with the 115-horsepower four, and five-speed manual, along with power windows, locks and mirrors; an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack; and air conditioning. An automatic transmission is an option, as is a package with a sunroof; a front center console; and cruise control.

The Jetta SE upgrades to the five-cylinder engine and adds vinyl upholstery; heated seats; satellite radio; iPod connectivity; Bluetooth; a center console; cruise control; a locking glove box; and floor mats. Leather trim on the steering wheel and audio controls on it come with a Convenience package. The controls are rocker-style switches; we prefer the roller controls from other VW/Audi products, but these controls at least operate the track functions for the Jetta's Bluetooth streaming audio. A Sunroof package adds touchscreen controls for the audio system and the retractable glass roof.

Jetta TDI sedans are equipped like the SE, adding in the dual-clutch transmission and a touchscreen navigation system as an option.

The Jetta SEL takes the SE's standard equipment and adds 17-inch wheels; rear disc brakes; fog lamps; pushbutton start and keyless entry. New this year, standard Fender audio blends 400 watts of power, a subwoofer and Panasonic speakers into a warm, midtone-heavy sound package that's powerful enough to rattle the Jetta's rear package shelf. (The Fender system's an option on the TDI, too.) A Sport package with tighter suspension settings, grippy seats and metallic trim can be ordered on this version, as can a sunroof.

On the new top Jetta, the GLI, the standard gear starts with a turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed manual, with an option for VW's excellent DSG transmission with paddle controls. Standard features include sport bucket seats with red stitching; a flat-bottom steering wheel with red details; aluminum pedals and interior trim; red brake calipers; fog lamps; and 17-inch wheels. Options include two styles of 18-inch wheels; a sunroof; dual-zone automatic climate control; heated seats; and Fender audio.

The most expensive Jetta GLI sedan with navigation is priced at just over $27,000, including destination. At that price, it's still not offered with leather seating, or even a cloth-seat option.

The Jetta SportWagen, on its distinct platform, is sold in fewer trim packages. For a base price of just under $20,000, the wagon comes with 16-inch wheels and all-season tires; power windows, locks and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescope steering; Bluetooth; power front seats; an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary jack; and a trip computer. Options on the gas-engined wagon include a sunroof and 17-inch wheels; the TDI gets the same options and additionally, a touchscreen navigation system, keyless entry and pushbutton start.

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2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan

Fuel Economy

The turbodiesel TDI gives the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta its best gas mileage; other models are below average.

Gas-powered versions are below average by the numbers, but the turbodiesel engine available in the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta gives it hybrid-like fuel economy that's more often attainable by everyday drivers.

The basic Jetta this year comes with VW's 2.0-liter four--the "two-point-slow," as fans know it. Its primary virtue is gas mileage: the EPA rates it at 24/34 mpg when it's teamed with a five-speed manual gearbox; and it's only offered in the sedan body style.

Next up is the 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine. In either wagon or sedan Jettas, it's pegged at 24/31 mpg with the six-speed automatic, or at 23/33 mpg with the five-speed manual. These numbers are at the low end of the compact class, and even mid-sizers like the Hyundai Sonata and the new Toyota Camry are rated at about 35 mpg on the highway.

The GLI is the newest Jetta, a sedan with the 200-horsepower turbocharged four well-known to VW fans. With a six-speed manual, it's rated at 23/33 mpg.

Our favorite Jetta, the turbodiesel TDI, earns the best mileage for 2012. The sedan and wagon versions with the manual transmission get 30/42-mpg ratings, and so does the automatic-equipped sedan. With the automatic, the wagon earns EPA-rated mileage of 29/39 mpg. The sedan can cover more than 600 miles on a single tank of diesel, and in our experience, it's much easier to get close to the maximum 42-mpg rating in the diesel, than it can be to hit the 40-mpg ratings of some hybrid sedans.

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted diesel engines in this model illegally cheated federal tests and polluted beyond allowable limits. As part of unprecedented settlements with federal and state governments, Volkswagen agreed to buyback from owners diesel-equipped models of this vehicle. To determine eligibility for all affected Volkswagen, Porsche, and Audi models, Volkswagen set up VWDieselInfo.com for owners. (Owners of affected vehicles can enter their VIN numbers to see if their cars are eligible for buyback.)

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February 21, 2016
2012 Volkswagen Jetta Sedan 4-Door Automatic SE w/Convenience & Sunroof

Excellent mileage both city and highway, and that is with the 2.5 gas engine. Very comfortable and lots of trunk room.

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I have the Jetta Sportline 2,5 gas. Excellent gas mileage. As long as you look after and maintain the car, I have found it well worth the money.
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