My brother-in-law has gone through some rough spots in his career. Recently though, his situation has been improving. So much so that he got that much sought-after perk, a company car. Last weekend he and the family drove over to my dad’s home. He works for a German company so, guess what? He is now driving around in the latest from Wolfsburg via Puebla, a Volkswagen Jetta 2.0 Comfortline. I grabbed the keys and said see you later.
I was curious about the car. After all, after reading all the international bad press on it, and the usual tiresome panting of the Brazilian press, I wanted to know: Could it be that bad?
Jumping into it, my first impression was not that good. You see, my sister had been driving the car and the seat was all the way up and snug against the steering wheel. After fiddlingg around with the controls and wrestling the seat into a good position for me, I thought, is this really well thought out? I mean, it took me a good three minutes to do all the adjustments. Granted, it’s not a problem after you get used to them, but intuitive it is not. Well, maybe if you have a VW it wouldn’t be a problem as you’d be pretty used to the different levers and such that need pulling, pushing and shoving. As I have read many times in the press, all the buttons and levers and switches are pretty much standard fare across the VeeDub line.
Second impression was generally good. The plastics and such had a nice look about them. The seats were covered in leather. The design was conservative, but all the required doodads were there. Then I started prodding and pulling and pushing. Meh. I quickly found out that while visually appealing, the stuff had the same tactile feel as those in a R$30,000 Gol. Not good. I also noticed that the leather wasn’t real. In fact, it was some of the worst imitation leather I’d sat on recently. My neighborhood upholsterer offers better Naugahide.
The steering wheel had a nice, modern design. Like with the alleged leather though, it was easy to see that VW was pinching pennies. This version’s wheel does not have the audio controls and such on it. The place where they should be has a blingy fake aluminum finish on the higher trim level. In this lowly version it’s just an expanse of drab, grey plastic. The wheel itself is no better than that found in lesser VWs. The design is better, but it just isn’t that nice a place to rest your hands. It’s not thick and at least my hands did not naturally find a comfortable position. Later, while driving, I also noticed the strange bulge in the A column inside the car. Probably to house the window bags that this car did not have. I felt it was uncomfortably close to my head and obstructed my vision out the car somewhat. Again, you’d get used to it, but isn’t there a way to do it better?
After I had taken in the car’s inside, I realized I hadn’t even stopped to look at the car’s exterior. I realized then that the design is conservative to the point of being anonymous. So, I decided to get out again and analyze it. I’d seen it in photos and had not thought much of it. Looking upon the car with my own eyes, I confirmed that impression. It’s just a big sedan. That face is now spread throughout VW’s Brazilian line. The headlights are the simple ones. Not good for such an expensive car. The backlights have that Audi going on and being horizontal help to widen the car visually. It’s a nice enough design. Guess you can call it good in the time-honored VW tradition. With the competition that this car faces, I thought it could use some flair. One word kept coming to my mind. Anodyne.
The proof though is in the driving, right? So I fired it up and backed up my dad’s steep driveway. I remember that I’d read that this engine was good for 120 ponies on ethanol and not even that much on the concoction known as Brazilian gasoline. It handled the climb well enough. So far so good.
As I started driving through the lazy streets that make up my dad’s gated community a strange sensation came over me. I had the vivid impression I was back in 1986 or thereabouts. At that time my dad had a VW Santana Quantum, which was VW do Brasil’s version of the Audi 100 station wagon. I learned to drive in that car. It was uncanny, but more than 20 years late, the feel of the car was like I remembered the Quantum. So odd.
It felt solid. I just slowly drove along and savored it. The community’s streets are littered with speed bumps and ups and downs. I came to a stretch that was flat and has a speed bump that’s lower than the others. I stomped on the pedal. The car didn’t go. I expected better. As we hit the speed bump I was not nearly at the speed I had anticipated mentally. That turned out to be a good thing as I felt the suspension with its torsion beam out back was just not up to the task. It was my first indication of how easy it would be to unsettle the car.
As I left the community I decided to take the road and go to the city. As I accelerated to merge into traffic, the déjà vu hit me again. Contrary to most modern cars that rev happily, this engine just doesn’t. It behaves like that 2.0 engine from the 80s. Good back then, now not anymore.
The road was mostly empty. I started putting the car through its paces. It was an unwilling partner. Slow and noisy when fast. Lazy when stuck behind a slower vehicle and asked to overtake. In short, not quite up to the task of motivating this relatively heavy car (give or take 1,350 kg).
Well, maybe it’s good in the curves? It was a dastardly day. Rainy and gloomy. I felt like I was somewhere in England. I tried but soon gave up pushing it. It wasn’t worth the effort and danger.
I pushed on. I reached the point where there are some nice, twisty country roads. I went for it.
There the pavement was much more worn. The curves were more acute. In spite of the conditions, I decided to force it a little. The car’s behavior soon conspired, together with the grayness of the day, to make me feel like the weather: Gloomy. No, on these country roads this car can’t dance. The back is always threatening to escape. The engine can’t rev. It’s slow to pick up speeds after the curves. I slowed down. The car settled down. Over the rough patches I was reminded how I felt the suspension is lacking. In the good German tradition it’s tauter than most of its peers. But why? It’s no sports car. Far from that. So, it’d be much better if VW would just come out the closet (as it were) and make the suspension more comfortable and in tune to the car’s nature.
Well, back to the main road. It’s a simple two-lane blacktop. But there are now more cars. I’m having a hard time overtaking them. Even puny little 1.0s. The curves, though not as acute as the side roads, slow me down. I started noticing the noise of the water hitting the car’s belly, the rain pelting the roof. For 70k I though it needed some more noise dampening
I had enough. In this weather why even bother to take it into town? In stop and go traffic I could predict its behavior. The 5-speed manual would shift well enough though I think that like in other VWs the stick is just a little too low for me. The throws are short and precise, but nothing special. The clutch is light enough, but again, nothing special. In city driving I’d have the chance to test the car’s infotainment system, but I realized I don’t give a rat’s ass for that. The car was boring me. Time to head back.
As I did so, I thought: Who is this car for? It’s too expensive for most folks with families in Brazil. It’s definitely not for young people. It’s not for an enthusiast as amply demonstrated. I sadly come to the conclusion this new Jetta is for those who don’t like driving. Those who want a big car and just want to blend in. Those who want a car from a respectable brand that will thusly keep its value and be an easy sell. In short, it’s perfect for most drivers of the world today. No wonder it’s selling well. I believe it’s outselling the Civic, Vectra, Fluence. However, it probably won’t reach the market-segment-leading-Corolla. It caters to the same crowd.
As I eased into the garage my brother-in-law comes out. He asks how I’d liked the car. Not wanting to be impolite, I turned the question back on him. He used a Brazilian expression to the effect that the car was plastic-fantastic. I asked him to elaborate. He talked about how he had just taken a highway trip and how he felt the car didn’t do curves. How he though the engine was unrefined and didn’t make up for its lack of power with economy. He told me how he’d pleaded with his boss to get another car. Not being a VW fan himself he cited a number of cars he felt would be better to drive.
Nothing positive? Well, he said, it fit his family of three young girls well enough. So it’d do well with the Germans he’d be driving to and fro. The trunk could swallow a good number of bags. He paused and commented how hard-pressed he was feeling to remember anything else. I had an insight then and told him that I was under the impression the car was a Logan for richer folk. Bland, big and boring. He laughed.
Basically then, we were in agreement. Neither of us would spend our sweated dime on the car. It was too expensive for what it offered. In a word, underwhelming. If you ever do get the car, do yourself a favor and get the higher trim. Maybe with the bigger output motor and the multilink suspension, this car could be fun. I suspect though that even in that case, this car just isn’t for me.
Don’t take my word for it. If you like, go and test drive it.
As they say, the proof is in the driving.