The TDI diesel models aren't available, but the 2016 VW Jetta still manages to offer seven different powertrain combinations: three separate gasoline engines, each with a manual or automatic, plus a hybrid model that's by far the lineup's fuel-efficiency champion. VW has finally gotten rid of the ancient engines they used to launch this body style back in 2011, and every engine in the Jetta now sports a turbocharger. All are impressive and refined, as you'd expect from a German manufacturer.
Most Jetta 1.4T trim levels now come with a 150-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 putting out 184 pound-feet of torque. It's paired to either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automatic transmission. (This replaces the previous base engine, an ancient 2.0-liter four putting out all of 115 hp.) Its output is only 20 hp less than the mid-range 1.8T engine, and we recommend taking a test drive in the 1.4T before you get talked into the higher power of the bigger engine.
The middle engine, an energetic 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-4, is rated at 170 hp—and its torque maximum of 184 lb-ft arrives early in the rev range. It too is offered with a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, but only in a single model, the 1.8T Sport. Both the 1.4T and 1.8T engines are tuned to provide strong power low down in their rev ranges, and both are among the most pleasant turbo fours we've driven. They're quiet, too, if you don't hammer them—but if you do, the 1.8T turbocharger revs especially sweetly. It can push the Jetta to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds (the 1.4T is a tad slower) and it delivers that acceleration eagerly.
The top-of-the-line Jetta GLI 2.0T is the most powerful, putting out 210 hp from its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. This one too brings on its boost low in the rev range, and delivers consistent, exciting power into the 6,000-rpm range. Its growls and whistles provide an aural exclamation point to accelerating out of curves, bringing silly grins every time the driver taps into the maximum boost. The standard 6-speed manual has slightly notchy shifts and long pedal strokes, but the available dual-clutch automatic's paddle controls are quick to react. A lot of the GLI engine's character is now found in the 1.8T, but the GLI is still quicker to 60 mph, with its own handling spiffs.
It's also worth noting that the 1.4T, 1.8T, and 2.0T turbo engines all run on regular gasoline now, rather than the recommended premium fuel for some previous engines.
But if you want ultimate fuel efficiency, that's the job of the Jetta Hybrid, rated at a sky-high 44 mpg combined. It uses the same 150-hp 1.4-liter turbo four as the base 1.4T, but it adds a 20-kw (27-hp) electric motor with a clutch on either end, and it alone uses the company's 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Output of the combined gasoline-electric powertrain is 170 hp. VW has largely suppressed the annoying feel of some hybrid powertrains; the Hybrid can run up to 44 mph on electric-only power. It also switches off the engine and slips into what VW calls "sailing" mode, in which the electric motor alone propels the car, for short stretches that turn out to make a real difference to efficiency. Only the brakes give the game away: They're lifeless and change in feel abruptly when switching from regenerative to mechanical stopping power.
It's the handling and roadholding that set the Jetta apart from pretty much every other compact on the market, save for the latest Mazda 3 and Ford Focus. The Jetta's independent suspension on all four corners gives better combination of ride control and precise feel than any competitor.
The ride control is excellent, with virtually none of the bounding and hopping you might feel in a Kia Forte, for example. 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. While the latest Honda Civic is considerably better than its predecessor, and the Ford Focus has always handled in a crisply European way, none of them corner as confidently as the Jetta while delivering the same supportive but absorbent ride. It's almost an invitation to treat everyday driving like your own autocross.
For the Jetta GLI, VW also tightens the springs and shocks, lowers the right height, and adds an electronically simulated front-differential lock that helps tighten its line through corners. The GLI comes with standard 17-inch wheels and rear disc brakes, and 18-inch wheels are optional. 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 might dream, but it underscores the German advantage in suspension tuning versus almost all of the Asian-brand compacts.