Review: 2006 Volkswagen Jetta

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The Jetta boasts a comprehensive array of standard safety features, exceeding expectations for its market segment. There are six airbags--front, side, and full-length curtain--as well as crash-active front headrests, which automatically tilt forward in the event of a collision. The Jetta also comes with standard anti-lock disc brakes with brake assist and traction control, while an electronic stability-control system is optional on the Value Edition and standard on the GLI, TDI, and 2.5.

The base Jetta is sold with a new, 20-valve, 2.5-liter, five-cylinder gasoline engine that produces 150 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, a significant step forward from the 2.0-liter/115-horse I-4 that had long provided base power for the previous Jetta. The new model comes with a five-speed stick as standard, but a six-speed Tiptronic transmission (an automatic with clutchless manual shifting) is optional. Having carved a niche with its diesel offerings, Volkswagen continues to offer a 1.9-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel good for 100 horsepower and a usable 177 lb-ft of torque, produced at very low revs. With the current high gas prices, the TDI's combination of low-speed pulling power and excellent fuel economy makes it an interesting option. The diesel engine is mated to a five-speed manual transmission or VW's twin-clutch "DSG" six-speed gearbox, which operates either as an automatic or can be shifted manually via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. A sporty GLI variant will join the range midyear, boasting a 2.0-liter/200-horse turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine.

With an adjustable steering wheel and eight-way driver's seat, it's easy to get comfortable in the Jetta. All major controls are readily accessible, and everything feels very high quality. The sport steering wheel feels good, too, and it comes standard with controls for the cruise and audio systems.

The base 2.5-liter engine is a touch anemic, and its noise is intrusive when you're running it hard. It's no surprise this engine must work hard in the new Jetta, since the car not only weighs more than a like-sized Corolla, but also slightly more than the midsize Toyota Camry. Official VW performance estimates put 0-to-60-mph times with the 2.5L and automatic at a leisurely 9.1 seconds. Both the manual and automatic transmissions are slick and fun to use. The diesel engine is pleasantly surprising in this application, offering ample low-speed passing power and welcomed refinement. The DSG transmission is the best of both worlds, combining smooth automatic shifts and lightning-quick "manual" gear changes.

The GLI version will be the enthusiasts' choice, with a powerful and responsive turbo four that hooks up nicely with both transmissions. It's pretty fleet, too, with a reported 0-to-60-mph time below 7.0 seconds.

All Jettas have fully independent suspension, with a new multi-link rearend and struts at the front. Ride quality is excellent, and the handling is both entertaining and sure-footed. The Jetta has a new electro-mechanical power steering system that's supremely accurate, but lacks appropriate feedback to the driver. The GLI dynamic personality is even better, with a sport-tuned suspension that sharpens the handling while trading off little in ride comfort. The anti-lock braking system works really well, with exemplary straight-line stability, though initial pedal response is a little soft.

Although the Jetta doesn't look sporty, it's far more entertaining to drive than its nearest Japanese rivals, aside from the Mazda3. It also feels very solid and more expensive than most of its main competition--which, in fact, it is.

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