How I Ended Up in the Arms of a Base-Model Volkswagen Jetta
I’d spent about a year building up to this moment: my first new car purchase since 2005. A lot happened between then and now, including a messy divorce that took two years to finalize, and which left a giant, smoking, Ground Zero-style smoking hole where my finances (and credit) had been.
But I needed a second car so my 20-year-old daughter could use my old Buick LeSabre to get back and forth to college and her student teaching gig. So, I rebuilt my credit, Six Million Dollar Man style. I did my homework on financing. I drove Lord knows how many cars over a one-year period. And I decided on one that I thought was vastly superior: a Volkswagen Golf. I even negotiated a decent price.
Still, the numbers weren’t working.
“You have to be kidding. That works out to how much?”
The payment was coming in quite a bit higher than I’d anticipated. Was it the usual car sales game? It was entirely possible. Then again, as it turns out, VW had a promotional rate going on Jettas that wasn’t available on Golfs. I’d extrapolated that rate and applied it to the Golf. Either way, the Golf was much more expensive.
I’d promised myself up front that I’d hold the line in my budget, so I told the (young and quite attractive) saleswoman that I wasn’t standing for this, and was heading to the Honda dealer to buy a Civic, on which I’d already worked a deal. She asked me to wait a moment, and walked back to the office. I figured this was the old “talk to the sales manager” bit. Instead, a few minutes later, she pulled up in front of the dealership in different car.
That’s how a manual 2017 Volkswagen Jetta S, in Cardinal Red, ended up in my parking slot.
Jettas have never gotten a whole lot of respect, least of all from me. I rented one a couple years back, and I’ll be kind and simply say I was unmoved by it. The rental was a base Jetta with an automatic and the God-poundingly bad “two point slow” engine. It wasn’t all bad. The Jetta felt solidly built and felt more connected to the road than most other compacts, but it was loud and tediously slow. The interior was also darker and harder-edged than Sylvia Plath’s worst nightmare. So, when it came time to actually buy a Jetta-like car, the Jetta itself wasn’t even on my radar.
So, when the saleswoman pulled up in that Jetta, I groaned, but I tried it out because attractive, young ladies have a way of talking divorced men of a certain age into just about anything. And, yeah, that was a desperation play on her part, but it turns out there’s nothing desperate about base Jettas anymore.
The first impression the Jetta makes on you isn’t much of an impression at all. There’s a lot of stylish metal in the compact market — Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Ford Focus, in particular — but very little of it found its way onto the current-generation Jetta. It’s relentlessly conventional and anodyne, albeit with correct proportioning and details. It’s an all business, no-frills, gluten-free sort of look.
After you climb in and take a moment, you’ll notice how solidly the door handles operate and how the door itself opens with just enough resistance to feel damped. The doors, hood and trunk all shut into place with a solid, no-nonsense feel. You feel bolted in, just as you do in the Golf – or an old Mercedes, for that matter.
Once inside, you find the excellent, firm, supportive seats from the Golf. There’s no digital instrumentation here — just a tach, speedometer, and an information center between them. Still, those instruments are clear and eminently readable, and they don’t wash out in sunlight like the digital ones do on the Mazda 3. The seating position is somewhat high with some of the best seat backs in the class, and the Jetta’s controls are all intuitive and easy to use — unlike the Civic or Mazda, which require a learning curve to master all the various high-tech control. It’s a direct, no-bullshit driver interface.
The S model I bought doesn’t come with advanced app integration (you have to step up to the SE model for that), but it does have a useful, simple, hands-free Bluetooth interface for your phone and music. All the must-haves — air, cruise control, power windows and locks, etc. — are here, too. Oh, and trunk space is plentiful.
The Jetta’s ace in the hole lives under the hood. In 2016, VW replaced the hated 2.0 in base Jettas with a 1.4 turbo, and ditched the old beam-axle rear suspension for a fully independent setup. In so doing, Volkswagen transformed the Jetta into a fine little stealth warrior. The 1.4 produces a middling 150 horsepower, but you also have 184 lb-ft of torque at 1,400 rpm. You can get the Jetta with a very good six-speed automatic, but you’ll want the five-speed manual teamed with its sweet, fluid clutch.
No one’s done instrumented testing on a manual Jetta, but automatics accelerate from 0 to 60 in about 8.5 seconds; informally, I’ve timed mine at around 7.8 with the manual, and that’s first-rate in the compact class. From a dead stop, there’s a small hint of turbo lag that leaves you wondering where all that torque is, and then you get a seemingly endless, effortless, smooth flow of torque from around 1,500-2,000 rpm to about 5,500 rpm. From 3,000 rpm to 5,000 rpm, in second or third, the Jetta feels fast as hell, and that makes it a blast in everyday traffic. Need to squirt into that spot in traffic? Drop it into second, and you’re there. Want to waste that guy next to you on the freeway on-ramp? Get into third and you can consider it done. Like the Golf, the Jetta feels effortlessly quick, and there’s a sweet, refined, just-loud-enough engine note. And because the Jetta looks so innocuous, no one sees the hurt coming.
But the 1.4 also has a split personality. Yes, it’s quick, but it’s also amazingly efficient if you drive it like you’re trying to get back into the EPA’s good graces. So far, in a mix of around-town slogs and freeway driving, with a large mix of (admittedly lame) Stig imitations, I’m averaging around 32-34 mpg. On the highway, I’ve seen averages of around 38-40 mpg. Combine those rates of consumption with the Jetta’s 14.5 gallon tank and its outstanding freeway manners, and this should prove to be an A-plus student on the Interstate.
On back roads, the Jetta’s no GTI, but it’s quick, precise, refined and satisfying. The steering rack is electric, but it’s one of the better ones out there – it tightens up nicely with speed, and there’s a decent amount of feel. The new independent rear suspension works wonders for its handling – turn-in happens quickly, and there’s minimal roll. Does the Jetta feel as eager to run as, say, a Mazda 3? No, but it’s certainly entertaining for someone who loves to drive, and it’s blessed with that businesslike, refined feel that German cars have. Ask it to go fast and it will — with quiet composure.
So, paraphrasing Han Solo, the Jetta may not look like much, but if you like going fast and you’re on a budget, it’s got it where it counts.
That’s a good thing, because the faults people used to (justifiably) trash the current-generation Jetta are still there. Lots of hard, black plastic? Yep. Cheap-looking fabric? Check. Unexciting styling? Definitely. Hell, my Jetta even has plastic wheel covers! There was the bait-and-switch sales tactic. And then there’s the 900-pound gorilla in the room: VW’s reputation for quality, or lack thereof. (Hopefully doing a 36-month lease solves that issue.) These are all turn-offs, particularly when the car you’re comparing it to is the zero-cheapness Golf, which feels and drives like a $20,000 Mercedes.
All this occurred to me when I was driving the Jetta.
When I started the test, I was wondering why I was wasting time when I could just go down to the Honda dealer and pick up the Civic. But I’ll be damned if the Jetta didn’t connect with me. I can’t explain why rationally. Maybe I like boring-looking cars with a harlot’s heart. Maybe it’s the suave, composed way the Jetta goes about its business. Maybe I felt smarter than the average bear for liking a car that no one else does. And remember the promotional lease rate I talked about earlier? It was available on the Jetta. Combined that with some haggling, the numbers worked out perfectly.
As much as I liked the Civic – and if you can get past the styling, I’d definitely recommend it – I fell in love with the Jetta.
She may be Plain Jane, but she’s drivin’ me insane.
[Images: © 2017 Michael Freed]
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