In the space of 48 hours last week, I saw a first-generation Jetta plying its rusty way down the middle lane of a freeway near Columbus, Ohio and I saw some spiky-haired hipster girl driving a fourth-gen Jolf on Interstate 75 north of Lexington, KY. It was a reminder of the Jetta’s uneasy position in the Volkswagen hierarchy. On one hand, it’s the uncoolest of the watercooled VWs, the American-market special loathed by the kind of Euro-fanatics who make up the vast majority of the company’s loyalists in the United States. They view the existence of the Jetta as an open expression of German contempt for Baconator-eating Americans, and the sharp divergence between Jetta and Golf that took place in the sixth generation hasn’t exactly poured oil on the waters.
On the other hand… it’s been the best-selling VW in this country more often than it hasn’t. It’s the official VW of sorority girls, single moms, adventurous empty-nesters, and rental fleets. It’s the Volkswagen we deserve, because we sign on the dotted line for it more often than we do the Golf and the GTI and the Tiguan combined. As such, it deserves a full slate of TTAC reviews. Our Managing Editor, Mark Stevenson, had kind things to say about a loaded-up Jetta TDI, and our good friend and itinerant contributor Blake Z. Rong was less complimentary about the GLI. Which leaves just the infamous “2.slow” 115-horsepower base model and the newly-remixed 1.8 TSI mid-ranger.
I chose the latter for a cheerful little 514-mile jaunt the other night, from just south of Asheville, NC to just north of Columbus, OH. It rained for much of the drive. There was fog. I witnessed the aftermath of three massive accidents, including one semi-trailer that had skidded sideways across one of Interstate 40’s most treacherous segments then flopped over in the median. I had some nontrivial time pressure and I’d already been awake for fifteen hours when I got in the car to begin the trip. Lousy circumstances, to be certain. So how did the Jetta do?
Over the past forty years, VW has become infamous for its Brokeback Mountain-esque inability to quit its old platforms. The Beetle stuck around until 2003, the Mk1 Golf was produced until 2009, the second-generation Passat (Quantum to us) continued to dazzle Chinese buyers until, um, the year before last. No surprise, then, that VW’s decision to continue the Golf unto the seventh generation has yet to apply to the Jetta. Instead, there’s a mild facelift both inside and out for 2015. Perhaps the more important change happened in 2014, under the wide, flat hood: the 170 hp @ 6200 rpm/184 [email protected] 1.8 TSI that shines in the Golf TSI is now standard with the SE trim level. It’s $20,915 as I drove it with the six-speed auto, or $19,815 with a manual transmission.
That’s two or three grand cheaper than a Camry or Accord, and you’ll still get heated cloth seats, Bluetooth capability, sixteen-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, and cruise control for the money. What you will not get is the room and interior furnishings of even the most basic mid-size Japanese-brand car. The Jetta is adequately spacious front and back, and VW’s managed to do a decent job with the steering wheel and the center stack, but there’s no premium feel here. Everything’s bolted together pretty solidly, however, and if a few of the details (like the seat adjuster) feel deliberately cheapened there’s nothing that requires apologies at this price level.
As I headed north from Asheville, I figured that I needed to average just over 70 mph for the entire trip to avoid being late for work the next day. Unfortunately for me, that section of 40 runs through the mountains, and there was heavy rain mixed with sections of thick fog. Traffic was light, but it wasn’t breaking the double-nickel in most places. Immediately the 1.8 TSI earned my affection as it chugged up a succession of four-thousand-foot climbs, usually without requiring the transmission to select fourth. The steering in this car is supposedly electric power assist and it’s fairly light, but I found that incipient scrub against wet pavement was telegraphed pretty well, allowing me to run remarkably quickly through the long, damp curves. A few times I got a bit too enthusiastic and felt the front end slip, but this wasn’t too alarming. Simply reducing throttle caused the car to find its line again.
Down the long hills, I used the indifferent Tiptronic selector to maintain speed, but once I realized how well the brakes were holding up I stopped being so deliberate about shifting. Plus, the Jetta has reasonable grade logic built in and it will avoid upshifting all the way if you’re on a nine-percent hill or similar.
In circumstances like these, the Jetta has some clear advantages over something like an Accord. It’s a bit smaller, a bit more manageable, it has 205-width tires that cut standing water pretty well, the turbo engine/six-speed combination feels more enthusiastic and flexible than the big-bore four/CVT setup you get with a Honda or Nissan. I don’t think I could have made the same kind of time in a Camry or even (shhhhhhh) something like a 535i. So as the road flattened out and I saw the signs for Knoxville, I was feeling good about the Hecho-In-Mexico compact VW.
On a straight and dry freeway, however, the Jetta’s absolutely miserable stereo threatened to erase a lot of that good will. The single-zone climate control that seemed incapable of making subtle adjustments didn’t help either. And though there’s very little aero noise in this car, there’s no shortage of tire rumble, mechanical noise, and booming resonance at various rev ranges. All of a sudden, the extra money for something like an Accord EX seems like a solid return on investment. But the Jetta is no penalty box; it’s simply not quite up to the standards set by larger, more expensive competition.
Over the course of the next three hundred miles I came to respect this car despite the above-mentioned flaws. The ergonomics are correct. The controls respond with appropriate weighting and feedback. The cruise control offers adjustment in both one-and-five-mile-per-hour increments, and though it’s not quite as slick as the way Mercedes-Benz does it, at least the feature is present. The seats look like an experiment in using recycled garbage bags to wrap around low-density foam molds but they failed to aggravate the back injury I suffered at Laguna Seca a few weeks back. Compared to the much more expensive seats in the brand-new Porsche 911 I’d been driving earlier in the day, these cheapo buckets were positively delightful. This kind of stuff matters, you know. Like my old 1990 Fox, the Jetta has the basics right and that shines through despite the low-cost execution.
I would be remiss if I did not mention another particular excellence of this automobile: fuel economy. In the mountains, with full throttle the order of the day far more often than would occur in normal driving, the Jetta TSI reported 34.5 mpg. On the long run from Lexington to Columbus, it reported 38.9. These numbers were approximately confirmed when I refueled over the course of the trip. Given that I was running a flat 85 mph most of the time, that’s positively parsimonious. No Accord or Camry is going to turn in numbers like that unless it has the word “Hybrid” somewhere on the rear fascia. I’d be surprised if the Golf TSI could match it; there’s something to be said for the aerodynamics of three inches more wheelbase and quite a bit of trunk to smooth out the airflow in back. Keep in mind, too, that I never self-consciously drove for fuel economy. Operated in the same fashion, my Accord V6 six-speed typically returns about 25 mpg. Hell, my Honda VFR800 can’t return much better than 40 mpg at a steady 85 mph. So this is a big deal and if gasoline returns to four bucks a gallon outside California — you’ll see people taking it into account.
Thanks in large part to the Jetta’s long range on a single tank, I got home a few minutes earlier than I’d planned, letting me catch a quick nap before work. I felt reasonably rested and pain-free despite the length and conditions of the trip. I couldn’t think of another twenty-grand vehicle that would have done any better in this assignment — but I also didn’t feel even a twitch of joy or delight regarding the 2015 Jetta SE TSI. I’d rather have had a new GTI, but there’s six grand of difference between a stick-shift TSI Jetta and the GTI. At that point, if you’re willing to spend real money, you might as well go the whole hog, import a new Phaeton in a container, and rivet on the VIN from some junkyard’s 2005 basketcase W12. Am I right? Of course I’m right.
If we ever get a Mk7 Jetta, if there is even such a thing in the works, it will no doubt be a better car than this is. For today, however, the price is fair and the performance is more than adequate. So what if it’s the “American VW”. This is America. And for my American road trip, this Mexican VW was just fine.