The Honda Accord got a dramatic makeover for 2018 that also included a pair of turbocharged engine options. I spent a week driving a top-of-the-line Touring model with the 252-hp 2.0L engine and 10-speed transmission and came away impressed with the car’s performance and roomy interior. However, I’d like this car even more without its push-button transmission controls.
I’ve always liked hatchbacks for their practicality. If you like them too but don’t want people to know you’re driving one, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe hides its handy hatchback-ness under a slick body that looks more like a sedan.
In the early 2000s Volkswagen introduced its first SUV, the Touareg, which seemed conceived to annoy the German brand’s upscale cousins: It was a spin-off of the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne that felt nearly as posh, but for a lot less money.
In its latest move, and at the other end of the lineup, VW has now taken its Jetta compact upscale in look and feel. Despite having been the poshest choice among economy cars for many years, the Jetta’s new design raises it up a notch to rub shoulders with Audi’s entry-level offerings, the A3 and A4, but at a more accessible affordable price point.
More significantly, this new Jetta is better-placed to compete against economy-car notables like the Honda Civic, along with the raft of other affordable vehicles that account for a big portion of Canada’s car sales.
The look is new, but shoppers coming from a previous-generation Jetta will find the driving experience familiar. A 1.4L turbocharged engine is carried over to become the sole offering, as VW has discontinued the 1.8L used in last year’s top-end Highline. It makes less horsepower than that larger motor, but boasts the same 184 lb-ft of torque.
Power output is newly managed by an optional eight-speed automatic transmission, unique in a class of six-speeds and continuously variable transmissions (CVT). Smooth in its work, it upshifts as early as possible in acceleration to save fuel while taking advantage of the motor’s generous low-end torque.
There’s less urgency here than in the Honda Civic with its optional 1.5L turbo, which trades about 20 lb-ft of torque for a nearly 30-hp bonus over the Jetta. The Civic has a less-exciting CVT, but it feels more eager to keep pulling at higher engine speeds than the Jetta does.
True to the Jetta’s position as a favourite of driving enthusiasts, Volkswagen offers it with a manual transmission in all three available trim levels, even the posh Execline model I tested (though this one had the automatic). The Civic’s otherwise entertaining turbo motor can’t be had with a stickshift in the car’s sedan body style.
As before, the Jetta’s steering is very light, giving an initial impression of a car that won’t be much fun to drive. But even without toggling into sport mode, which makes the steering a bit heavier and brings more aggressive powertrain responses, the Jetta is an engaging car to drive enthusiastically, providing its entertainment along with a comfortable and composed suspension.
Our test car’s fuel consumption averaged 8.4 L/100 km against VW’s estimates of 7.8/5.9 L/100 km (city/highway).
One of the key items our Jetta Execline test car borrowed from Audi is a virtual gauge cluster that will display a digital representation of the conventional gauges used in lesser Jetta trims. It can also be set to show all kinds of other information (not all of it useful to the task of driving). It’s a central piece of a cabin that looks and feels elevated well beyond the old Jetta’s interior, whose quality already never left me wanting.
As with so many redesigned cars, the new Jetta is larger than its predecessor, on the inside as well as the outside. The difference is incremental, because previous versions of the Jetta already boasted roomier cabins than many of their competitors, but if you’re comparing this car to its upscale cousins from Audi, the Jetta is much more commodious than the A3 and is comparable to the A4, despite the Audi’s longer wheelbase.
At its entry-level Comfortline trim, the Jetta comes standard with niceties like heated front seats, 6.3-inch infotainment display, automatic LED headlights and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. Highline adds automatic climate control, a sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rearview mirror and artificial leather upholstery. By the time you get to an Execline model like the one we drove, the $27,700 price includes an upgraded sound system, 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with navigation, ventilated front seats and real leather upholstery.
With this new design, Volkswagen is acknowledging that other compact-sedan makers have upped their collective game. This time, rather than trying to outdo the competition in terms of quality and refinement, Volkswagen has pitched the Jetta as a solid, middle-of-the-road contender to help satisfy the Canadian market’s appetite for affordable and comfortable transportation. It’s a new approach for VW, but one that will work as well as the Jetta itself does.
One of the most significant trends in the new-car market over the last couple of decades is the way upscale features have trickled down from luxury cars to more affordable models. The Kia Rio is a case in point, as the least expensive model from a brand known for catering to budget-oriented buyers, whose top-level EX Tech trim includes niceties like navigation, heated seats and steering wheel, leather seating, and automatic climate control.
That’s the car Kia gave us to test, and looking at the specifications before picking it up, we wondered how much we would have to temper our expectations of this handsome, not-quite-$24,000 car. It’s easy to think some of the Rio’s slick looks and upscale specs would rub off on the way it drives.
Initial impressions were good: The 1.6L engine idles so quietly, my wife asked if the car was a hybrid. It is not, however, and that notion was quickly dispelled when we put the motor’s 130 hp to work. It’s eager enough, but makes a lot of noise even in moderate acceleration, and the engine isn’t much to listen to.
Also noisy is the car’s suspension, which transmits a lot of clunking and clomping sounds into the cabin over rough pavement. We’d say that’s to be expected in a subcompact, but others in this class are better at isolating driver and passengers from the worst of that soundtrack. That said, this new Rio’s suspension did better at keeping our test car’s big and heavy 17-inch wheels planted on the road; versions of the last-generation Rio fitted with wheels like this tended to feel unsettled when driving on broken asphalt.
There’s more headroom in the Rio’s front seats than in many larger cars we’ve driven recently, a nice surprise in a small hatchback. Those riding in back will find vertical space is also good there, but legroom is predictably snug.
Upscale aspirations or not, fuel economy is still a major consideration in small cars, and our tester lived up to that with an average of 8.4 L/100 km in a week of city driving, just squeaking in under Kia’s estimate of 8.5.
We appreciate Kia’s efforts to keep the Rio’s secondary controls simple. The single-zone automatic climate controls are very tidy, located below the 7.0-inch touchscreen that houses the car’s straightforward UVO infotainment system and sporting a few redundant hard buttons to make its basic functions easier to use while the car is moving. UVO also supports the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integrated platforms as standard (these are still optional in some much more expensive cars).
Rio pricing starts at $14,795 for the sedan, and the hatchback comes in at $200 more. Our fully loaded EX Tech test vehicle carries an MSRP of $23,745, which includes the six-speed automatic transmission that comes in all trims save for the two least expensive.
That fully-loaded model is also the only way to get the Rio’s sole active safety feature, an automatic emergency-braking system that reacts to an obstruction in front of the car if the driver doesn’t. Despite the Rio’s upscale pretensions, the Honda Fit comes with a more comprehensive set of driver aids for just over $20,000, including lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist. Even the aging Toyota Yaris boasts more driver aids in a $16,000 base model that comes standard with automatic braking, lane-departure alert and automatic high-beam headlights.
About $21,000 will buy you a Rio EX, in which you have to go without automatic braking, but you get the same infotainment and climate controls, a sunroof, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.
Kia clearly feels the Rio is finally good enough to compete simply as a nicely made car, rather than having to load it with the most features for the least money. That old approach may have been a good way to get people to give the Rio a chance, but the company’s new philosophy will work better to keep those buyers coming back.
Nissan markets the Maxima as a budget-oriented upscale sport sedan, but we think they’d do better to drop the sport label and instead emphasize the car’s comfortable interior and smooth, efficient powertrain. Read my full review at TractionLife.com.
The Kia Sorento surprised us in ways we didn’t expect with a 2016 redesign, and in its top-end SXL trim, it continues to be one of the best values for a luxurious crossover vehicle. Read my full review at TractionLife.com
The Mazda6 mid-size sedan doesn’t get as much attention as competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, so Mazda has rolled out a new Signature trim and bolted its 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood in a bid to turn more heads in the family car crowd. Read my full review at TractionLife.com.