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2019 Volkswagen Jetta first drive: steady and staid

April 12, 2018

Two decades ago, ubiquitous would have been too soft a word to describe the Volkswagen Jetta’s presence on the manicured grounds of a prestigious college like Duke University.

I recently found myself dodging students with backpacks on the narrow roads surrounding the stately campus in leafy Durham, North Carolina, behind the wheel of the 2019 VW Jetta. VW’s latest compact sedan is a pleasant, capable four-door that ticks off every box except for “shining personality.” The 2019 Jetta does many things well, but it doesn’t rekindle the budget Bimmer magic of Jettas past that made them such fun flings.

MORE: Read our 2019 Volkswagen Jetta review

Don’t place blame squarely on the Jetta. Today’s it-cars are crossover SUVs, and the Jetta tries to be nothing more than a compact sedan for Americans. That German flavor from the past is long gone.

That’s just what it is: a sedan for us. The Jetta has some links to VW’s similarly sized Golf hatchback, but while that five-door wants to be parked in front of a rejuvenated former cigarette factory-cum-loft apartment building in downtown Durham, the Jetta grew up and moved to the suburbs.

The Jetta misses out on the Golf’s more advanced multi-link rear suspension and its 1.4-liter turbo-4’s 147 horsepower comes up more than 20 ponies short. However, the engine’s 170 pound-feet of torque tops most rivals, and does an adequate job of moving the sub 3,000-pound Jetta. More importantly, though, it delivers 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined, according to the EPA, regardless of the chosen transmission.

The standard 6-speed manual shifts with a crisp, precise action, and it’s a shame most buyers will bypass it in favor of the 8-speed automatic standard on SE and higher trim levels. The automatic has few faults, but like the rest of the Jetta it’s short on excitement. On my drive around Durham, the turbo-4 furnished good power off the line and only ran out of steam while executing passes on two-lane roads.

The same holds for the Jetta’s ride and handling, which aims more toward in-town comfort than curvy road precision. The Jetta channels its Golf sibling when it responds with a heftier feel than its curb weight suggests over bumpy pavement. Hustled around North Carolina’s tobacco roads, the simpler rear suspension layout reveals its humble design. Even in R-Design guise, which is little more than a sporty body kit, the Jetta doesn’t raise the pulse rate. A Jetta GLI will follow, and VW promises that its dynamics will be akin to the sportiest version of the Golf, the GTI. In other words, look for more power and a buttoned-down suspension to match.

The Jetta’s three-box shape casts a shadow familiar to compact sedan buyers yet will raise few eyebrows. VW hasn’t pushed the styling envelope so much as it has creased it a few extra times. Standard LED headlights are the highlight—pun intended—here, and they probably represent a bid to earn the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick+ award. Practicalities are a part of growing up, after all.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Inside, the Jetta sports equally conservative lines at first glance, although the cockpit-like cant to its dashboard that puts the radio closer to the driver than the passenger might make a few Duke professors step away from their old Saabs.

Even the Jetta’s warmer interior tones, which include a pleasant two-tone black and brown, are only so aspirational. Up front, the seats want for more lumbar support and the center console intrudes into the driver’s footwell more than it should. The rear seat redeems the Jetta, though, with its spacious feel and easy ingress/egress.

The Jetta scores the most points for its value, another sign that it has grown up and has responsibilities now. The base Jetta S lacks for little other than automatic emergency braking at its sub-$20,000 starting price, but VW wisely makes that safety gear available for an affordable $450 for the S (it’s standard on the rest of the lineup). At about $23,000, the Jetta SE’s synthetic leather seats are like a durable version of real hides and its panoramic moonroof and keyless ignition are upgrades that’ll make passengers situated in the roomy back seat think you paid more than you did.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Loaded up, the range-topping $27,500 Jetta SEL Premium delights with a configurable 10.25-inch TFT display that takes the place of conventional gauges, heated and cooled front seats wrapped in real leather, and navigation.  

At every step of the way, that’s more car for the dough than the Honda Civic and Mazda 3, our two favorite compact sedans. That pair comes across as co-eds that never stopped working out, unlike the Jetta that let itself go after graduating as it adjusted to the real world. However, with this redesign it does feel like the Jetta just signed up for the gym again in an effort to rekindle its youth. Hey, progress is progress.

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