Volkswagen's 1.4 TSI is the Best Small Car Base Engine Today
Perhaps you heard. Volkswagen ran into a little trouble with their previously acclaimed TDI diesel engines.
Volkswagen’s recently introduced 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gas-fired engine was already beginning to weaken the case for the optional 2-liter diesel. But now a new 1.4-liter turbo – yes, a wee little 1393 cc four pot – generates the same amount of torque as the 1.8T, has only 20 fewer ponies, revs with sweet abandon, and produces real-world fuel economy figures that challenge the TDI.
The pick of the Jetta range? You better believe it. More pertinently, there’s no better base engine in an affordable small car in 2016. Say goodbye to the TDI if you must, even temporarily, then welcome this TSI with wide open arms.
At least, as wide-armed a welcome as you can give a Volkswagen so soon after its betrayal. Our reactions, while at varying points between 1 – amazement that Volkswagen could be so stupid – to 10 – disgust that they’ve harmed your personal green cred and harmed the resale value of your precious VeeDub – fit somewhere along a fairly narrow scale.
Even the jaded cynics find themselves approaching unaffected, enthusiast-oriented Volkswagens like the Golf GTI a little bit differently now. The cool factor once engendered by plaid seats is counteracted by the realization that passersby, from the automotively interested to the automotively unaware, now look at a Volkswagen through an ignominious filter.
But do all you can for just a few moments to forget the last four months. Imagine yourself as a Volkswagen aficionado, keen on a diesel Jetta but conscious of the 1.8 TSI’s favourable pricing. (In 2015, a Jetta SEL automatic cost $2,130 more in diesel form than as a 1.8 TSI.) Your unfriendly local Volkswagen salesman informs you that there’s a new, even less expensive option. So you drive the cheaper 1.4 TSI back-to-back with the 1.8 TSI, completely ignoring the TDI now that a mid-grade 1.4 TSI SE is $2,720 less than the least costly 1.8 TSI, not to mention the premium-priced TDI.
Can you feel a power difference? If it’s there, it’s scarcely measurable by your backside. Is one torquier than the other? Technically, the smaller engine makes the same amount of torque, but the EA211 1.4 TSI hits its torque peak 100 rpm sooner than the 1.8 TSI.
You wouldn’t have believed that a scraggly one-point-four could steady itself, could find the resolve, could settle into a civilized groove sufficient to meet the NVH demands of our time. Yet here you are in a quiet car with no vibration coming through the pedals, no buzzing in the headliner, no low rpm shuddering, and only hints of turbo lag when it could be confused with or married to the 6-speed automatic’s position in too high a gear.
Admittedly, the 42 mpg result we recorded during a cold winter’s week on winter tires with an automatic-equipped Jetta 1.4 TSI must be an exception, not the rule. The 1.4 TSI automatic is rated at 28 mpg in the city; 39 on the highway. Though very little of our time was spent on the highway, vehicles we test periodically overperform because of vast stretches of lightly trafficked 40 mph four-lane through which we must travel to leave our neck of the woods. It’s worth noting, however, that our vehicle delivery benefactor drove this Jetta 1.4 TSI from Ontario to Nova Scotia when it was wet behind the ears and registered 45 mpg. The word you’re looking for is dieselesque.
Still, establishing the 1.4 turbo as the best engine in the Jetta range is one believable declaration. Naming it the best base engine in a small car is another matter.
But which competitor combines this level of power, torque, fuel economy, and refinement? I’ll be spending the next week with the 1.5-liter turbo from the Honda Civic, but that’s not the base Civic engine. The 155-horsepower 2-liter in the Mazda3 is part of a better package overall, but it needs way more revs to produce less torque. The Subaru Impreza’s 2-liter boxer four is unique, but it’s much thirstier than the 1.4 TSI. You could bring the 1.5-liter turbo triple from Mini’s basic Cooper into the debate – 134 horsepower and 162 lbs-ft of torque at a low 1,250 rpm – but quirky isn’t necessarily better.
Independent rear suspension, Apple CarPlay availability, and other tinkered-with parts of the Jetta work with the 1.4 TSI to make the Jetta better than ever. Nevertheless, we remember why the sixth-generation Jetta came in for such criticism when newly launched. The climate controls from lower-trim Jettas, for instance, are cheaper than the price of gas during a one-day sale at the Beacon & Bridge Market in Houghton Lake, Michigan. Exterior styling barely qualifies as styling. Dynamically, the basic Jetta lacks the distinct Germanic flair of its predecessors. The rear doors don’t thunk, they clink.
Thus, back to reality, we all remember that the Jetta isn’t the even the best compact Volkswagen, let alone the best compact car overall. The Jetta’s 1.4 TSI four-cylinder engine, however, is a separate issue altogether.
Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.
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If that engine, along with the manual tranny, could find its way into a base(r) Golf Sportwagen for a decent price, I'd be tempted to consider it as a replacement for my '04 Lancer Sportback...
I have a 2016 Jetta 1.4t, poverty spec. My wife has a 2016 Jetta 1.8t sport. I honestly see no justification to go with the 1.8t over the 1.4t other than getting into optional trim levels. My 1.4t is just as powerful (maybe a little less power, but the car is lighter) and gets 37-38 mpg vs. my wife's 30ish mpg (both combined city/highway driving averages - and yes, I calculate by hand, not by what the computer says).