DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—Volkswagen’s bestselling vehicle is not an SUV or pickup truck, it’s the humble Jetta, so there was a lot riding on the company getting the 2019 redesign spot on. Fortunately, VW pretty much did that. My friend Eric gives it an 85; I give it a 90.
There’s only one drivetrain in this car, a 1.4-liter turbocharged TSI four making 147 horsepower and 184 foot pounds of torque. The car weighs just under 3,000 pounds, so the combination is good for 30 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway (34 combined).
I am knocked out by the combination of the stellar fuel economy and the roomy, nicely appointed car. It’s hard to duplicate in the marketplace.
The buyer’s perception starts with the visual, and Volkswagen got that right by giving the car a wide-grille smile, design cues that shout out the VW brand, and an aerodynamic shape with 0.27 drag. Active grille shutters and sculpted underbody panels aren’t part of the visual package, but they do help the car cut through the wind. The shape yields decent rear-seat passenger room, and an absolutely cavernous trunk.
The price of the slightly enlarged seventh-generation Jetta (on the MQB platform also used for the Golf) actually went down, with $18,545 buying the base-level S with a manual transmission. The manual is only available in the base model, which I find a bit weird, but VW’s compact car product guy, Serban Boldea, told me that anyone who’d want a manual in an upscale trim would probably just buy a GTI. The manual Jetta is expected to have a paltry 10-percent take rate.
All other specs get an eight-speed automatic. Pricing, for the SEL Premium with such features as 17-inch wheels, leather seats, and the navigation package, tops out at $26,945.
The SE trim will be the volume package, and it includes a sunroof, special black alloy wheels, heated leatherette seats, front assist and blind spot monitor for $22,995. You have to upgrade to the SEL to get all the safety features.
VW’s sales were up 5.2 in 2017, against a market that was down 1.8 percent. The bump is largely due to sales of the Tiguan and Atlas SUVs, which is kind of ironic because VW was a latecomer to the sport-utility craze (even though it wrote the book on vans).
The interior of our sage green $24,415 test SEL Jetta was an austere black in the German tradition, with a beige leatherette interior. Nothing fancy—the seats were manual, but heated—but very functional. I liked the optional Digital Cockpit. Our car also had the optional 400-watt Beats Audio stereo, with seven speakers (including a subwoofer in the spare tire well).
It sounded fine (via a stick with songs that, apparently, the kids are digging), but I have to ask: Since the car has no CD player, aren’t we putting all that sophisticated audio gear at the service of the crappy MP3 files that people have on their phones? This is the kind of compromise Neil Young has been raving about, though I’m not sure the answer is his self-designed player (which played files so big only a few albums fit on the hard drive).
Don’t blame VW for this—I brought up the issue, and they pointed out—rightly—that this is what the ultimate arbiters (the customers) want.
I would have liked to try out the manual Jetta, but with the eight-speed auto it was still fun to drive. It’s interesting to point out there’s no drop in fuel economy with the auto. Around Durham, the Jetta was pretty flawless as a mainstream sedan. It’s not a sports car, but for normal driving it’s 99 percent of what most people need. Here's a closer look at the car on video: