2019 Volkswagen Jetta First Drive - Moving Forward Gracefully

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Most of us mature as we age, sanding off the rough edges and perhaps muting some of the rowdier aspects of our characters for the sake of grace and politeness. This often accompanies a shift in behavior to accommodate some more upscale habits and hobbies – dressing better as your bank account grows, for example. Or maybe taking in operas instead of rock concerts.

Not all youthful spunk is lost, however – even the most cultured of the gray-hair set cuts loose once in a while.

Peek at the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, which marks the car’s seventh generation, and you can see this process in action. Interior materials and road manners suggest a car that prefers a gentle life rather than a sporty trashing, but the exterior design, which remains conservative overall, uses details such as character lines to infuse some enthusiasm that was missing in recent years, possibly in a bid to cut a bit loose.

Full disclosure: Volkswagen flew me to Durham, North Carolina and paid for a night in a very nice hotel right downtown so that I could drive the new Jetta. The company also fed us several nice meals and snacks, but gave no gift to my knowledge, which I am A-OK with.

Compact car buyers as a whole care less about “sport” than most of you reading this piece (that’s true across the industry, as you no doubt know). Value, comfort, fuel economy, space – that’s what matters now in this class, especially with the dreaded rise of the crossovers. If customers are still going to buy mainstream compact sedans (and hatches, and coupes) instead of leaving store behind the wheel of yet another car-based CUV, the new breed of compacts will have to be strong in these categories.

MQB to the rescue. That platform is seemingly everywhere across the brand these days – it’s under the Atlas, the Golf, the Arteon, the Tiguan and even the Tanoak concept truck. In English, it means Modular Transverse Matrix (the “MQB” comes from the keyboard-breaking German: Modularer Querbaukasten).

In this application, it gives the Jetta a longer wheelbase, wider track, and a shorter front overhang compared to the previous-gen car. It’s now also longer overall, wider overall, and taller, with more interior space.

Jetta buyers can choose from five trims (S, SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium) and two transmissions (well, sorta – the manual is only available on the S), but when it comes to engines, there is only one. It’s a 1.4-liter turbo four that makes 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. As mentioned, you can get a six-speed manual transmission on the base car. Otherwise, it’s an eight-speed auto for you, bucko.

At $18,545, the base car undercuts the minimum price for the previous Jetta, and standard features include aluminum alloy wheels, smartphone mirroring, USB port, Eco mode, rearview camera, automatic post-collision braking, and LED lights throughout. Base cars cost $18,545 with the manual and $19,345 with the automatic.

A Driver-Assistance Package can be added to the base model. It adds Front Assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear-traffic alert, and heated sideview mirrors.

Pop for the SE that I drove, and you now add in a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a trip computer, sunroof, dual-zone climate control, leatherette seating, heated front seats, keyless entry, push-button start, front assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic assist. That’s $22,155 before D and D.

Our prescribed drive route was mostly gently curving rural two-lane, with a little bit of around-town and freeway driving mixed in. With no Sport mode in the SE (available on the higher trims, which I did not drive), there was no way to firm up the suspension or steering of the Jetta. The steering feels a bit artificial – it’s appropriately sporty at times but light at others.

Not that I really needed to. The car isn’t exactly tuned to sport, but it’s not soft, either. It’s a comfortable, compliant commuter cruiser that felt at ease on the road. I don’t know how it would hold up on a seriously challenging road, but most buyers won’t care – they just want a calm commute, and this car achieves that. If you want sport in your compact, VW will happily sell you a Golf, and Honda’s Civic also offers sporting character.

Certainly, don’t expect much from the engine. It’s loud and trashy in the upper rev ranges, and freeway passes felt a little labored. I did find the manual-transmission prototype car to be peppier (having a stick will do that), but the stick-shift base car has cheaper seating material and, as much as I love rowing my own, I am not sure I want to save the manuals so badly that I would give up even the SE’s content.

At least the clutch is firm and engaging, even if the shifter’s throws are a bit long. Brakes felt firm and easy to modulate, although our cruise never truly put them to the test.

I dig the exterior styling – it’s conservative without being nearly as bland as the previous car. A nice mix of character and anonymity. One complaint: The fake exhaust vents on the higher-trim cars look great – until you spot the muffler hanging out below. You can’t unsee that, and it ruins the look. I wish VW would’ve just spent more – and yes, probably charged more – for a true dual exhaust outlet.

The interior materials remain quality for the class, with a soft-touch dash being a highlight. The center stack is now angled towards the driver, which takes some getting used to. The infotainment system and gauges in the SE are by now very familiar to VW.

I shot photos of a higher-trim car with the virtual cockpit digital gauges and the larger 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system seen in other new VWs like the Atlas (lower trims get a 6.5-inch touchscreen unit that still has physical buttons around the edge). I couldn’t put it into practice on the road, but it looked nice in the Carolina sun.

Space isn’t an issue. Cars are growing across the board – the ‘90s Accord I once owned probably had less passenger space than a modern Civic, by a fair bit – so “compact” doesn’t mean what it once did, but my tall frame was comfortable in both the front and rear seats, and getting a good driving position was easy. Trunk space is 14.1 cubic feet – plenty for luggage.

New for 2019 is the availability of an R-Line trim on the Jetta. This is mostly an appearance package that includes 17-inch wheels, a black grille, and fog lamps as its highlights, but it also includes the XDS differential, which is essentially an electronic limited-slip differential that apply the brakes to the driven inside front wheel if a reduction in understeer is needed. The R-Line rings the register at $22,195.

Step up to SEL, and you add in LED headlamps, a second USB port, a drive-mode selector, satellite radio, the 8-inch infotainment display, telematics, adaptive cruise control, Beats audio, lane assist, and light assist. That car will set you back $24,415.

Two grand and some change more gets you to the $26,945 SEL Premium, which adds aluminum-alloy wheels (still 17s), fog lights, turn signals in the side mirrors, the rear bumper from the R-Line, leather seats, cooled front seats, sport comfort seats, power driver seat, navigation, an alarm, and later this year, a Cold Weather Package (heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, remote start, and a heated windshield-wiper rest along with heated windshield-washer nozzles). Destination fee for each trim is $850.

Stacked up against the closest competitors, the Jetta presents an interesting business case. The Honda Civic sedan’s price is just a bit more, but you have to step to the next trim to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the feature deck is a bit different. Still, each Civic trim is cheaper across the board, despite the fact that Jetta pricing has dropped as VW adds features.

Meanwhile, the lower-grade trims are in line with Jetta pricing but a tick more, while the Premier-trim Cruze undercuts it a bit.

Volkswagen has cooked up a car that retains a lot of the conservatism of the previous-gen car, yet the styling shows that it can cut loose and enjoy the party. Too bad the thrashy engine lacks punch and refinement — it’s a bummer, though understandable, that VW left most of the sportiness to the platform-sharing Golf.

Commuters looking for value won’t be disappointed here, thanks to quality interior materials, a nice content mix, a smooth ride, and oodles of space.

Which is fine. That’s how most cars are used these days. Aging gracefully sometimes means accepting the hard truth and making the best of it.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/The Truth About Cars]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Testacles Megalos Testacles Megalos on Apr 18, 2018

    Those flanks are taken from the early 1990's Pontiac Sunbird, and the hood from the 2000s Chrysler rental fleet cars. Both were ugly when new, and combining them on a VW doesn't change anything. It only shows the German engineers are no longer in charge.

  • TDIGuy TDIGuy on Apr 23, 2018

    From the world of strange marketing decisions: All new Jetta models in Canada get manual transmission options. US manual available on base model only.

  • Dartdude Having the queen of nothing as the head of Dodge is a recipe for disaster. She hasn't done anything with Chrysler for 4 years, May as well fold up Chrysler and Dodge.
  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.