Not too long ago, driving a small car in America meant sacrificing something: performance, luxury, features, quality, or the prestige that comes from a bigger nameplate. But over the years, European brands have hammered the point home to U.S. buyers — bigger isn’t always better. After all, wouldn’t you really rather have a 3-Series or a C-Class?
Americans get the point. We’re rediscovering small cars with a voracious appetite, if sales are any clue. Buyers are realizing all over again that they can have the same level of refinement and luxury as large cars without the parking-lot problems and fuel-sucking issues.
The Volkswagen Jetta is one of those cars that’s drilled small-car goodness into our heads. It’s a paradigm of this new breed of small cars, one that handles and performs and leaves some change in your wallet to boot.
Unless you’re absolutely itching for the VR6 badge, we recommend the 1.8T. The Jetta 1.8T’s 150-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is ideally suited to the Jetta, and it works well with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. In contrast to the 1.8T, the economical 115-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine just doesn’t give the Jetta enough thrust (especially with automatic), and the 174-hp, 2.8-liter VR6 engine remains a smooth and powerful, though more expensive and thirsty, option. The VR6 doesn’t have a lot of low-rpm torque anyway, so the robust 1.8T feels nearly as strong in normal driving.
The 1.8T’s torque curve says it all. While the peak power of 150 hp is made at a high 5700 rpm, the peak torque of 155 lb-ft is achieved at a low 1950 rpm and maintained up to 4500 rpm, giving the 1.8T an uncommon robustness. The powerplant feels especially responsive in the midrange revs: It’s a heavy breather with the help of a low-boost turbocharger and five valves per cylinder. The 1.8T’s power is always accessible with a stomp of the right foot. There’s a very slight lag at lower revs, but it’s barely noticeable and unlike the harsh on/off boost of high-boost turbos.