CORONADO ISLAND, California — Volkswagen of Germany has restructured its staple compact car, Jetta, and in the process has minted a new sedan rigged with precise manners, delightful interior appointments, multiple powertrain choices and more standard safety systems than anything else in the compact class.
The new Jetta also comes with a retail price chart that, unlike most German vehicles, approaches the realm of reason. Yet reasonable pricing has been a traditional hallmark of the cars which carry that round VW badge of Volkswagen since the days of the original Beetle. The name itself — translating from German as "people's car" — seems to suggest as much.
The Jetta, now the best-selling Volkswagen in North America, is built from the same basic platform as the hatchback Golf, which is VW’s No. 1 seller globally. That same basic chassis serves as the starting point for both the cute new Cabrio drop-top convertible version plus the roly-poly New Beetle — a modern interpretation of the car that was once this company's trademark, and only product.
All, save Cabrio, come out of a Volkswagen assembly facility in Mexico, where extensive retooling of plant and processes set the stage for the new products. A chance to sample the latest Jetta occurred recently during a romp across California, beginning in the desert at Palm Springs and concluding on a Pacific beach at Coronado, near San Diego.
Several trims and engines were sampled along the trek, which traversed the Anza Borrego Desert from the Salton Sea to Ocotillo Wells, then climbed high through the Vallecito Mountains to Julian before a downhill run past Descanso and the final quick clip on I-8 into San Diego.
Throughout the drive, the various Jetta variations felt so tight, precise and right that every other compact sedan on the road — save ultraexpensive German touring sedans — now seems loosey-goosey, flimsy and, well, not quite as right by comparison.
1999 Volkswagen Jetta
This new Jetta makes a cogent case for obedient performance, as the artful-yet-subdued styling and eloquent features merge into a savvy automotive package aimed at the hip who are seeking value. Every superlative aspect of Jetta's performance traits link to its foundation on the rigid Golf platform, which was redesigned completely for a whole new generation of cars from VW, with various interpretations also being provided for its Seat and Skoda nameplates in Europe.
Tailored blanks of sheet metal for the Jetta’s structure vary in thickness, and through intelligent applications derived from computer modeling, these various metals were used in selective means to increase strength of the platform but at the same time reduce overall weight.
In addition, laser welding and bonding of the materials were employed for the first time in mass production to forge a structure of unusual rigidity, which sets up a firm foundation for attachment of suspension components. The resultant chassis, with wheelbase stretched for 1.5 inches over the previous Jetta, integrates energy-absorbing crumple zones fore and aft designed into a steel safety cage wrapping around the passenger compartment. Dual front airbags and side-impact airbags surround front riders, and height-adjustable three-point safety belts pin them in place.
And get this: All editions of the new Jetta stock power disc brakes with computerized anti-lock controls.
What makes Jetta feel so good to drive?
Maybe it's the impressive mechanical mesh of all the parts, the firmness of the underpinnings for bucket seat bolsters, the quiet and efficient hum of a muscular engine, or the all-business attitude of Jetta's interior furnishings — as a whole, it exudes an attitude of fine craftsmanship and automotive mastery.
Seats, for instance, fit comfortably with firm support, the way all good German automobiles feel. Driver sits in an elevated position like in a chair, which cultivates superior visibility and optimal command.
1999 Volkswagen Jetta
Mechanical controls — precise and to the point with power rack-and-pinion steering and an independent suspension system plus the full disc brakes — are the type that will appeal most to the enthusiast driver who wants to be a constant master in charge.
The multilink independent front suspension manages the impossible for front-wheel-drive vehicles by virtually eliminating torque steer, whereby the car pulls to one side when rapidly accelerating, or drifts to the other when braking hard. Cut the wheel, and Jetta follows quickly in precise turns, balancing on that thin line separating characteristics of oversteer and understeer.
Drop a wheel in a pothole and you'll feel the effect transfer through steering-wheel arms into the driver's mind, but your body will barely notice, as the suspension seems to dampen all bumps.
And when stuffed with an optional V-6 engine, Jetta delivers a powerful kick and can run at autobahn speeds. The 2.8-liter V-6 engine, available for Jetta's top two editions, produces 174 hp and delivers the bulk of its torque at relatively low RPMs.
Prefer economy over action?
Then consider Jetta TDI. This is a Volkswagen that drinks diesel fuel but gets around that traditional diesel-engine plague of washed-out performance by adding the novelty of turbocharging by direct induction. The TDI only produces 90 hp from a 1.9-liter four, but achieves highway pace in short order. As a bonus, on the road it travels for 49 miles on every gallon of fuel.
Jetta's engine parade begins with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four Golf plant that musters 115 hp. A nice manual five-speed stick shifter applies to any Jetta, with an automatic four-speed optional. Models include a base GL, up-level GLS and ultimate GLX. Jetta GL and GLS get the Golf engine or TDI diesel, while the 2.8-liter V-6 slips into GLS or GLX.
All contain superior appointments like side airbags and anti-lock brakes, heated remote mirrors, central remote locking and a deluxe stereo with eight speakers and CD deck. The GLS adds power windows and cruise control, while GLX stocks leather seats, automatic climate controls, fog lamps, self-dimming rearview mirror, plus windshield wipers equipped with rain sensors for automatic deployment.
Cockpit analog instruments, inspired from international air traffic controls for superior night visibility, display dazzling blue numbers and red needles on black faces.
Jetta provides respectable room for five adults to travel in comfort, then adds a bona fide trunk.
Among small sedans, consider this one the sophisticate.