Two years ago “Dubbers” around the country from AnimeCon to FanimeCon were shocked by my decision to make the Jetta GLI the winner of the VW Intramural League. My failure to recognize the obvious Euro-superiority of hatchbacks at all times caused the phrase “threw up in my mouth a little” to be used to the point that certain backbone Internet routers achieved sentience just by being forced to repeatedly consider the concept of holding in one’s vomit to express disgust.
If you, like Ender’s “toon”, have mastered the process of elimination, you have just realized that this time we had to let the hatchback win. Was it because it wasn’t a straight GLI-on-GTI scrap, or was it because the Mark VII platform represents a major step forward? To find out, you’ll have to click that “Read More” link below, which will immediately cause TTAC’s advertisers to deposit yet another Brazilian-Rosewood-and-Beeswing-Sipo-festooned Paul Reed Smith guitar into my private vault. So go ahead and do it!
I didn’t re-drive the GLI this year because time was short and I wanted to give each of the cars I drove a full forty-five minutes to demonstrate its on-road virtues. Instead, I chose this “Jetta SE w/Connectivity”. To paraphrase Marcellus Wallace, it’s pretty freaking far from a GLI… but it’s closer than last year’s Jetta SE 2.5 would have been. Not only does it have the new 170hp 1.8TSI engine that I also drove (and liked) in the Passat, it has shed the beam-axle rear suspension in favor of the same control-arm layout found in the GLI. In Europe, Volkswagen has occasionally fielded a lower-power “Golf GT” alternative to the GTI; you could argue that this is a Jetta GT. Or Jetta GL, perhaps. Since VW used the “Jetta GL” badge on their Mark III “two point slow” models, perhaps not.
Of the five Volkswagens I drove in Napa, only the Jetta gave me an authentic moment where I realized I am going wayyyy too fast here. It was on one of the long downhill sections I’d previously driven in the larger sedans, a series of narrow-radius turns along the side of a hill with two-hundred-yard stretches of curving pavement connecting them. Coming out of a turn at full revs in second, I snagged third and rode that to the end as well before reaching for fourth and realizing that I had let the Jetta convince me to temporarily triple the reasonable speed on that road. The mid-sizers couldn’t make that kind of speed, while the Scirocco and GTI’s aggressive demeanor reminded me that I was There To Go Fast And Stuff and so therefore I was velocity-conscious. Only the Jetta managed to build serious pace without being brazen about it.
The sticker said it was a “Jetta SE w/Connectivity”. That means Bluetooth for the fascist states out there that would prefer you crash your car trying to connect your phone to the stereo rather than crashing it while holding said phone, an improved stereo, alloy wheels, and “partial power” front seats. It also incorporates “Car-Net”, which allows you to do some OnStar-style things with your car from your iPhone. This is the type of feature about which twenty-something marketing types get extremely excited but in the real world it’s used by a vanishingly small percentage of owners. I’m sure that is changing, and I am also sure it is changing slowly. One good thing is that your iPhone will apparently tell you when your VW needs service. They had to wait to implement this feature because the original version, which called your Motorola StarTac every time a coilpack or window regulator failed, was sticking users with $200/month phone bills! Thank you! I’ll be here all week! Try the veal!
Thirteen years ago, on a whim, I took delivery of a black Golf GLS 1.8t five-door. It seemed like an okay car, and my wife drove it a lot. I sold it about a year after I got it and picked up a Saab 9-3. That was not a great idea, as it turned out, particularly because in the years that followed I realized that my little black Golf was, in fact, the Holy Grail Of Dubbers Everywhere. “YOU HAD A GLS 1.8T?” people would ask. “AND YOU SOLD IT?” That last question would be delivered with the kind of incredulity typically reserved for stories of having bought in AAPL stock at $21 and selling at $32. Oops.
That Golf was popular among the VW crowd because it was a bit of a Q-ship, fast and subtle. Not everybody wants their quick little German (or Brazilian) commuter to have red stripes and big wheels. So. This Jetta doesn’t weigh much, if any, more than that old Golf and it makes more power everywhere you look. There’s more room inside and it even handles better, particularly at higher speeds, where it fails to display the kind of mushy-nosed grind that the Mark IV in all forms and guises used as a back-road calling card. In the Passat, the 1.8TSI is adequate; in the Jetta, it is good. If you liked the old GLS 1.8T, you would love this car. If you could find it in your heart to forget all the claptrap on the Internet and drive it for yourself.
Shame, then, that VW cheaps out on the car by equipping it with a five-speed. I suppose we should be grateful that there’s a self-shifter at all, but in an era where the Hyundai Accent has six forward gears this feels like old-school Type I penny-pinching. Hey, my Fox had a four-speed in 1990 so I suppose this is progress. The five cogs with which you, the Jetta SE w/Connectivity driver, are grudgingly supplied are actually reasonably-spaced and usable. Only on the freeway would you want a sixth gear. The claimed highway MPG is a respectable 36 so perhaps it’s not necessary. On the other hand, the EPA has not an inkling of the various and sundry times you’ll be stuffing the accelerator pedal into the floorboards for the hell of it, so if you have thirty-six miles between here and your destination you would be wise to have more than one gallon of fuel left.
Certainly I burned more than a gallon in thirty-two miles of mountain driving, alternately using full throttle and whoa-Nelly braking. Thankfully, the Jetta simply stops better than the Passat and CC. It doesn’t have a Scirocco’s worth of brakes but neither does the brake pedal flirt with the carpet when it’s time to shed seventy or eighty miles per hour going into a turn. No doubt a significant part of my improved progress along the route compared to the Passat was due to the reassuring feel from the middle pedal. It should be mentioned that heel-and-toe is no problem in this car, but that’s generally been the case in VWs of the watercooled era.
Equipped like my tester, the Jetta SE w/Connectivity is about twenty-one grand. It’s $3800 cheaper than a GLI. Should you spend the extra money? I certainly would. There’s an extra gear in the box, thirty more horsepower on tap, a more sporting suspension tune, various little interior bits the absence of which makes the SE’s interior seem a little purposefully dismal, and a resale-value bump that makes the GLI trim more or less free for years. Seriously. KBB says a ten-year-old Jetta Wolfsburg is worth $3200 in a private-party sale. The GLI? $4200. And guess which one is easier to sell in the real world? That’s right, the one that some kid wants.
If you can afford it, the GLI continues to be recommended over this SE 1.8TSI. If you can’t, or if you want to strike a balance between efficiency, price, and performance, then there’s no shame in choosing the lesser model. It’s a joy to drive, it’s more than spacious enough for four people, it has plenty of trunk space, it’s not missing any genuinely critical features. It looks pretty sharp and if you are a VW fan you already know you want it, so what are you waiting for?
Oh, you’re waiting to hear about the next-gen GTI. Well then. Come back tomorrow!