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The Volkswagen Jetta slots into the VW lineup as the compact companion to the big Passat sedan--but in truth, it's large enough that it encroaches on mid-size territory. Priced to compete with the likes of the Dodge Dart and Hyundai Elantra, the Jetta wears its German heritage on its sleeve in its sober styling and capable handling, and its unfortunately aged infotainment system.The Jetta looks conservative compared to other cars in its segment, and depending on your psyche, that's either a bonus or a point against it. The lines are sleek and understated, almost completely without drama--but finely rendered on closer look. The cockpit works from a driving perspective, and all the major controls are organized effectively, though VW's concessions to infotainment have been slow, and few.
Where the Jetta distances itself from the vast horde of excellent compact cars is in the powertrains it offers. From base four-cylinders to more exotically engineered hybrids, it spans a wide range of performance and fuel economy. We'd skip the base 2.0-liter, 115-horsepower four entirely--but find much good in the new arrival for 2014, VW's excellent new 1.8-liter turbo four. It's good enough, close enough to the 2.0-liter, 210-hp four in the GLI to make the distinction a slight one--versus the outgoing, lumpy, outdated five-cylinder.
For fuel economy mavens, the Jetta TDI is no longer the only play in VW's book, but it's still far more common than the new-for-2013 Hybrid. Think of the TDI as the 42-mpg highway cruiser that attains those figures with relative easy, one that lets you relax in pursuit of those numbers. The Jetta Hybrid? It's pegged at a lofty 45 mpg combined by the EPA; given our experience with hybrids as a subset of all vehicles, it'll be more challenging to attain those numbers, though in the Jetta at least, you'll be entertained by driving to meet them (cough, Prius.)
Another change for 2014 with a great upside: there's no longer a torsion-beam rear suspension in any Jetta, which means GLI-like handling can be had with the smaller-displacement turbo four, if you're willing to work with shocks and tires.
VW also is bringing back the Jetta SportWagen, which soldiers on for this last model year, riding on the last-generation Golf platform. Only the five-cylinder and diesel are offered on the SportWagen, and its fluid road manners are worth checking out, but back-seat passenger space pales against the back seat in the Jetta sedan.
The Jetta's safety scores have been very good, but a rearview camera comes only on more expensive models. Blind-spot monitors and other new inventions are off the menu, but for a price in the mid-$20,000 range, a well-equipped Jetta turbo or TDI will generate more driving pleasure than any touchscreen ever could. Are we agreed?