…when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — G. Santayana
Wide-light Rabbits. As a child, I firmly believed that there were two kinds of VW Rabbits. There were awesome Rabbits, with round headlights and narrow taillights, and they had all been assembled in the Fatherland by white-lab-coated Germans who, prior to taking jobs on the hospital-clean Rabbit production line, had all been Messerschmitt 262 pilots or actual rocket scientists. Then there were awful Rabbits, with dopey-looking amber turn signals and thyroid-condition, reflector-pregnant asses, which were created by drunken Pennsylvanians who used eight-pound sledgehammers to install body-side molding and who aligned the doors by hanging on the hinges until even the most sausage-like of fingers could pass comfortably through the gap between crooked window frame and mis-welded unibody.
Keep in mind that I couldn’t drive, and that nobody I knew even owned a Rabbit. I received all this wisdom osmotically, hyperbole passing from the diarrheic prose of the Tony Swans and David E. Davises of the day directly from the page to my mind. German Rabbits good. American Rabbits bad. And when VW finally gave up and closed Westmoreland, didn’t that validate what the scribes had scribbled?
Time passes, and we are told that the new, “Americanized” Mark VI Jetta is a disgrace, a stain, a repudiation of all for which the fabulous Emm Kay Five stood. My drive of the current Jetta didn’t quite square with the conventional wisdom. Still, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that Volkswagen deliberately chose to repeat its history, that it made a conscious effort to once again dive whole-heartedly into the American market with products that are locally assembled and directly targeted at us. So far, it’s been a success, but the Bowdlerized History Of Cars fed to us by the color rags cheerfully omits the fact that the original American Rabbits were popular, too. The death of American Volkswagen production had a lot more to do with dismal dealers and champagne-priced, poverty-specced product than it did with Pennsylvania production.
Time to cleanse my palate a bit. Hertz still rents Mark Five Volkswagens, so I requested one and drove it 931 miles over the course of approximately forty hours. A final chance to figure out the truth, before the conventional wisdom becomes fact, before what everyone knows becomes the only thing anybody knows, before history repeats itself.
The first hitch in our story, as I pick up my 33,200-mile black sedan from the Hertz office: like virtually all the Jettas sold in this country for many years now, this one was hecho en Mexico. As far as my imperfect memory can recall, the last Jetta to be sourced from sacred Germany was the second-generation car. Mexican production or not, however, this narrow and tall Volkswagen is screwed together correctly. Thirty-three kay of uncaring abuse, and there isn’t a rattle or squeak to be found. The touch surfaces are free of obvious wear or deterioration. The Elantra I rented a few months ago had obvious wear everywhere the hands of renters had touched, but this Jetta still feels fresh. Part of this is no doubt socio-economic in nature: Hertz simply rents to a different group of people, and maintains their vehicles with considerably more attention than Enterprise does. In fact, this Jetta is rolling on new tires. Still, hands are hands everywhere you go, and the #1 Gold Club member on his way to leverage some synergies sweats through them in a fashion no less corrosive than the single mother trying to make it to work after her Cavalier swallows its final piston.
I’ve been driving my Town Car a lot lately, and perhaps that’s why the oft-reviled five-cylinder fails to offend me at the first offramp. It’s remarkably similar to Ford’s venerable mod motor in the nature of its power delivery. It is relaxing to drive at part throttle, and it works as intended, as does the Tiptronic slushbox to which it’s attached. I’ve decided to try to drive in a fuel-conscious manner, mostly to find out if the five is as thirsty as the Internet swears it is. Therefore, there will be no kickdowns, no manual plussing or minussing, no pasting the pedal to the floor. The Enterprise Elantra was positively flaccid when driven in this fashion, but the Jetta is smooth and efficient. No wonder this powertrain has been popular with real buyers. When I finally give in to temptation and decide to run on the high side of a hundred, the Jetta fails to impress. Sorry about that. This car was available with the two-liter turbo, so if you want to play street racer, get that one. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you bought a better powertrain. You just got different.
My destination is the town of Paw Paw, Michigan, where I am to see a man about a dog, or something like that. Actually, I’m planning to buy a couple of guitars and a 1965 Gibson “Saturn” amplifier. It all fits in the trunk with room to spare. I never understood the moral authority of owning a hatchback. Nine times out of ten, the sedan makes more sense. It offers a locked compartment, free from sun load and prying eyes, someplace where the contents won’t come up and smack you in the face if you need to take evasive action. Volkswagen got this right, both with this Jetta and the current one.
Every rally-obsessed basement onanist on VWVortex can tell you, of course, that the Emm Kay Five has the superior parallelogram trunk hinges. These hinges perform a delicate ballet of opposed forces every time you close the trunk, folding away to a superbly efficient and nearly nonexistent stack of folded steel between trunk and unibody. By contrast, the Jetta Six has conventional goosenecks, which are well-known to deliberately seek and destroy your luggage before jumping through the decklid and going on an insane rampage in which their elephantine appendages will be stuffed inside your teenaged sister with the force of a million falcon punches, or something like that.
I smile as I load the Jetta’s trunk and look at the hinges. Their precision makes me think of my Phaetons, which had similar arrangements, forged by Campagnolo (no kidding) and powered by elaborate actuators. How superior I used to feel every time I opened the trunk of those Phaetons! “This sort of thing,” I would intone as the parallelograms performed Swan Lake, “is what separates the Phaeton from, shall we say, consumer-grade automobiles such as the Lexus LS.” It’s true. The Lexus LS has crappy, cheapo gooseneck hinges. The company that manufactures those hinges has the satisfaction of knowing that they are approximately fifteen times as busy as the Campagnolo trunk-lid line. That’s because in the real world, buyers don’t fucking care about trunk hinges, until they break. Guess which kind of hinge breaks more often in the winter: tricky parallelogram linkages, or spring-loaded sheet-steel tubing? That’s right. Close the trunk on that business. The consumer has spoken.
Nor does that consumer really care too much about European driving dynamics, primarily because nobody really knows what that means, not even Europeans, who produce vehicles as widely diverse as the Twingo and the 760Li. The Jetta tracks straight and true on the freeway, without slop in the steering. It’s like a BMW in that regard; it’s also like the Ford Focus and Daewoo Lacetti, which can both be had at your local non-European car dealerships. The Jetta Mark Six does about the same thing. The Korean competition doesn’t quite have this rock-solid-at-eighty-mph thing figured out yet, but weight has to have something to do with it. The Jetta is a porky little German-Mexican sausage burrito. On the broken Michigan pavement it clomps with authority. Even when the suspension absolutely bottoms out on some loathsome Detroit-area pothole at full speed, the resulting thunk is in the baritone register. This feels like a small big car, not a big small car, if you know what I mean. The Jetta’s felt this way since 1993 at least, and the customer expects it. The current one doesn’t disappoint in that regard, so you’re still okay to buy one of those, if you want.
Time to place this rental in context. Compared to the Focus and Lacetti (okay, okay, Cruze, I’m just trying to be all KDM on yo’ ass) the Jetta is miles behind on content, electronic integration, and available options. Oddly enough, however, the powertrain still feels like a better choice for American-style driving than the overwound four-cylinders in the competition. It’s not my favorite small car of all time — that position is occupied by the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 that I had restored for my entry in the 2005 One Lap Of America — but it is enjoyable and relaxing to drive. For a long drive I might still choose this over the modern competition.
The problem begins when we consider the ownership proposition. Small cars aren’t luxuries, they are necessities. My fuel economy, despite a light foot, worked out like this:
931 miles / 31.5 gallons = 29.5mpg
Not even thirty miles per gallon. It’s not the legendary thirst described on the web, but it’s not good enough. Plain and simple. Not when everybody else delivers an easy thirty-five. It’s the equivalent of paying five bucks a gallon when your neighbors are paying four. Then there’s the matter of durability. I trust a Corolla to be durable. My mother’s 2008 Focus just turned the odometer over 60,000 miles without a single genuine issue. I’ve seen plenty of Elantras cross the 100K mark, albeit with some daunting disintegration of the interiors. Would I trust the Mexican Jetta to reach 200,000 miles? The understressed powertrain would probably make it. Would the electronics? The window regulators? All signs point to “Hell No.”
The irony of the situation is that, to some degree, this is the Jetta which will determine Volkswagen’s fortunes in this country. Everybody knows the Mk IVs were pieces of soft-touch crap, and everybody hopes the new ones will last, but until plenty of people out there see high mileages on the Mk V, Volkswagen will continue to face a trust shortage in America. We all know the history. Only time will tell if it will repeat.