The VW Jetta now offers car shoppers a choice from five powertrains and five transmissions, and with its latest additions, nearly all of them have a place in the right garage.
We'd pass on the base Jetta sedan, the one with VW's ancient "2-point-slow" four-cylinder. It's here for pricing strategy, period. With only 115 horsepower to put out through either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, it's nearly as slow as a last-generation hybrid like the Honda Insight--VW estimates 0-60 mph times of about 11 seconds. Even in the lighter-weight Jetta, it's really only an option for the most price-conscious of buyers.
This year, VW's new arrival under the sedan's hood does an excellent job of eradicating the biggest liability of last year's mainstream Jetta. The former five-cylinder has been axed, replaced by an energetic new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with the same 170-hp rating on the spec sheet, marginally more torque at its peak, at 184 pound-feet. That torque peak arrives much earlier in the party, though, and stays much longer, compared to the lumpy, coarse delivery of the five-cylinder. The new four's a sweet revver, too--and while it can push the Jetta to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds, it also does it with an eagerness completely missing from the flat-feeling five. Fuel economy's also much better, no matter whether it's coupled to the five-speed manual or six-speed automatic; top highway mileage is now up to 36 mpg, within sight of the best-in-class cars with smaller interiors.
One of the two fuel-economy champions in the Jetta family returns for 2014 unaltered, and it remains one of our favorites. The Jetta TDI's 2.0-liter turbodiesel four rates just 140 hp, but churns out 236 lb-ft of torque, easily turning in 42-mpg EPA highway ratings and accelerating to 60 mph in under 9 seconds. It's a trade-off we'll take for long-distance cruising--but even in urban-cycle driving, the diesel's torque doesn't miss out much on usability.
The TDI comes standard with a notchy but precise six-speed manual, but for drivers who don't want to shift, it offers a version of VW's dual-clutch automated manual transmission that knocks out shifts faster than some conventional automatics. It's perfectly suited to the narrow power band of the low-revving diesel.
Supplanting the TDI for the fuel-efficiency wreath is the Jetta Hybrid, which was new last year. It uses a 150-hp turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, paired to a 20-kilowatt (27-hp) electric motor, with a clutch on either end, and the company's seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Output of the combined gasoline-electric powertrain is 170 hp. The Hybrid earns a 45-mpg combined EPA rating, and our road tests indicate that real-world gas mileage could be close to that. VW's done a good job in suppressing the annoying features of hybrid powertrains, in giving the Hybrid enough electric-only power to run up to 44 mph max. On even the slightest, most undetectable downhill roads, the Jetta Hybrid will switch off its engine and slip into "sailing" mode, in which it is propelled only by the electric motor, for short stretches that turn out to make a real difference to efficiency.
Finally, there's the turbocharged Jetta GLI. It blows out 210 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The torquey four brings 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. A lot of its character is now found in the 1.8T, but the GLI is still quicker to 60 mph, with its own handling spiffs.
And that brings us to the more fundamental changes underlying this year's Jetta. Since 2011, most versions of the sedan have borne a torsion-beam rear suspension that made it less expensive to build, but less finely tuned for great handling, arguably a VW hallmark trait. This year, all Jettas get an independent suspension at all four corners, and the charm that puts distance between them and most of the Asian compact cars is almost fully restored. The Jetta has better ride control, and a more precise feel than even the independent-suspension Civic. There's next to none of the bounding and hopping you might feel in a Kia Forte, for example. Almost all versions now have electric power steering, too, and it's a good rendition with a hint of feedback. Brake feel is strong, confident and deep, too.
For the Jetta GLI, 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 final 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 VW's outdated five-cylinder or marvy 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.