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.