VERACRUZ, MEXICO When we first saw the row of Volkswagen Jettas parked at the press launch, we thought for a moment that they were Toyotas brought in for comparison purposes. With its rounded shape, high beltline, and blobular head- and taillights, the Jetta is a dead ringer for the stodgy Corolla. Wolfsburg, we have a problem.
You see, despite its many virtues, the Corolla carries none of the cachet with young hipsters that the Jetta has. The Jetta has commanded a premium over other compacts, because Volkswagen buyers valued its European demeanor, classy interior, and distinctive styling. The outgoing car fairly sparkled in the showroom, even if its apparent quality belied often lackluster durability.
Like its predecessor, the new Jetta's trump card is its chic interior, with top-quality materials and fantastic seats. Additionally, the new car is roomier, with nearly as much space inside as a Corolla or a Mazda 3, but it feels more spacious and better made. The seats have expensive-looking stitching and elegantly defined bolsters, and the dash and console wouldn't look out of place in a luxury car.
While the back seat offers only adequate leg- and headroom for adults, it is still comfortable. Equipment levels are generous, as even the base model includes traction control and front-seat side and head curtain air bags as standard. The Jetta also one-ups most of its Japanese competitors with standard active front head restraints and pedals that reposition themselves in a crash. Stability control and rear-seat side air bags are optional.
A second major improvement is in the chassis tuning. Whereas the old Jetta was as soft as a marshmallow, seeming to pitch into early understeer at every turn of the wheel, the new car retains a comfortable ride but has higher limits and less protestation from the front end. That said, it still can't equal the less expensive Mazda 3 or the larger but comparably priced Subaru Legacy for neutrality and body control. Surprisingly, the Jetta's electrically assisted power steering (EPS) is well weighted and communicative; we're heartened finally to experience an EPS system that feels natural and linear.
Unfortunately, despite a switch from four- to five-cylinder power (and a major bump from 115 hp to 150 hp), the base Jetta is still slow. Even with 170 lb-ft of torque, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder is unspectacular off the line and quickly gets breathless as it trudges to its diesel-like 5800-rpm redline. As our Jetta labored up a mountain pass, we wondered if it had a continuously variable transmission, because the engine speed stayed steady as we floored it. But it was simply a lack of acceleration. Once you finally do reach highway speeds, you'll notice wind noise-the whistle from the B-pillar is especially galling.
A fix for the Jetta's lethargy should arrive in May, which is when the European GTI's turbocharged, 2.0-liter, direct-injection (FSI) four, making 197 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, arrives as an option. That engine will be standard in the more tautly suspended Jetta GLI-which promises to be near the top of the compact-sedan class for poise and capability, although it will cost nearly $30,000 fully equipped.
The smooth-shifting six-speed automatic that we experienced is one of no fewer than four transmissions that will be offered. Two months after launch, a five-speed manual will arrive for the five-cylinder and the 1.9-liter turbo-diesel. An Audi-sourced six-speed DSG dual-clutch sequential-manual transmission will be available for either the diesel or the FSI four. The latter also will be offered with a six-speed manual.
The new Jetta is a crucial product as Volkswagen tries to revive its sales momentum in the United States. Although improved, it really doesn't stand out in a class of compelling-and less costly-small cars. Most worrying is that its bland looks are no longer likely to attract the status-conscious twenty-somethings who have made the Jetta the automotive equivalent of the iPod.