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.