Even before its diesel emissions scandal, Volkswagen’s story in the United States was one of boom and bust. Sales generally follow strong, or at least new, product, but ageing models like the Passat and delays in adding SUVs to the showroom have kept VW from being the people’s car in America that it is back in Germany. And while hot-hatch fans continually exalt GTI as the standard-bearer of the segment, the outgoing Jetta resides in the bottom half of compact sedan arena, well behind leaders like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.
For a company that made its name telling America to “Think Small,” Volkswagen is thinking big with the latest, seventh generation of the Jetta. The new car is subtly longer, wider, and taller than before and includes a longer wheelbase with a wider track. The Jetta is now one of the largest cars in the class. And while the growth spurt engenders only minor changes to interior capacity, the Jetta is nevertheless about 45 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, tipping the scale at just under 3000 pounds.
Credit this transformation to the Jetta switching over to Volkswagen’s MQB platform, which underpins the Golf plus the Tiguan and Atlas crossovers. The migration to these new bones shows VW’s commitment to the Jetta, going from savage cost-cutting in its last iteration to jumping ahead of the Golf in terms of the latest and greatest structure and components. The improvement is readily apparent with a glance at the interior, with its clean design and high-quality feel, the Jetta finally takes a page from the Golf’s playbook and punches way above its weight class.
Tech is at the forefront of the Jetta’s sales proposition, with a standard 6.5-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Shell out for the pricier SEL ($25,265) and SEL Premium ($27,795) trims for an 8-inch touchscreen, Beats Audio sound system, and a second USB port. Blind-spot monitoring and automatic forward collision warning are standard on everything except for the base S model ($19,395), where it’s a $450 option. Adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, a slick Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, and automatic high beams are reserved for the SEL and SEL Premium.
Consistent across the Jetta range is the engine, a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that carries over from last year. With 147 horses on tap, what it lacks in outright power it makes up for in low-end torque—184 lb-ft at just 1400 rpm. Only the base S model can be had with a six-speed manual transmission, replacing the Jetta’s old-as-dirt five-speed. Also new is an eight-speed automatic, adding two extra gears into the mix. While the powertrain is responsive and unobtrusive most of the time, it has a tendency on steep hills and highway merges to hold on to higher gears too long when you ask for more juice, resulting in either a delayed, sloppy downshift or an unpleasant engine lug accompanied by noticeable vibration through the steering wheel.
MQB has, nevertheless, turned the Jetta into a competent driver’s car that feels as maneuverable around the city as it does relaxing for extended highway cruises. Pushed hard through corners, the Jetta serves up nothing in the way of steering feedback but feels reasonably athletic, if not as nimble as the Golf, Mazda3, or Honda Civic.
Until the 2.0-liter GLI arrives, the sportiest Jetta of the bunch is the new R-Line ($23,845), which aside from 17-inch wheels and a trim-specific brake-based torque vectoring system consists of entirely aesthetic upgrades. Most welcome is the R-Line’s leather-wrapped steering wheel and two-tone seating surfaces; most insulting is the fake trapezoidal dual exhaust ports that don’t even do a respectable job of concealing the mufflers.
Not often enough to people acknowledge extreme difficulty of building a quality, mainstream compact car, but in the Jetta we finally catch a whiff of what the Golf’s been cooking since 2015. And if VW can imbue its next generation of cars with the same secret sauce, Americans might yet get a taste for the People’s Car.