EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 9, 2014

Volkswagen Jetta straddles two countries

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — My first time driving a Volkswagen Jetta last week, the car could have been completely camouflaged and I still would have picked it out as a VW.

Even if every emblem was removed, its shape disguised and its interior scrubbed of any identifying characteristics, I would have sensed immediately that I was inside a Volkswagen from its fast-acting steering, from the seriously stable balance of its suspension, from the affirmative reaction of its floor pedals, and from the quick precision of the shifter (my test model had a manual transmission).

The car moved with the same, sure certainty and control that has remained a characteristic of Volkswagen models for as long as even us old timers remember.

Other people see the VW distinction too.

“When you take someone out of another car and they get into this one, they see that it’s different than what they’re used to,” explained Charles Daher Jr., sales manager at Commonwealth Motors, Lawrence. “They can tell that it’s a European design. They realize that driving a car can be more fun than what they’re used to.”

The product of German engineering, the Jetta sticks closely to that country’s ideals of motoring precision and active engagement with an automobile. That provides the contrast people notice about this well-sized sedan that is value-priced at $17,715 to start. And at Commonwealth Motors, they find plenty of models to compare to the Jetta. In addition to Volkswagen, the dealership sells Chevrolet, Honda, Kia and Nissan vehicles – cars from companies that wrap the world.

Alongside its distinctly solid and serious road handling, another worthy aspect I noticed about the VW Jetta was its generous interior space – both for people and for things. The model’s wide, deep trunk looked more commodious than the cargo boot of many much larger cars. You can expand it too, by either folding down the split rear seat backs, or using a smaller, center pass-through door for long items like skis.

Volkswagen advertises that Jetta’s trunk is the largest of any model in its class. That didn’t surprise me. But I looked twice when I saw that official measurements place the car in the compact class. The U.S. government groups autos according to the space inside their passenger cabins. It’s a straight measurement of volume, and doesn’t account for how that interior space is apportioned, or how spacious (or cramped!) a car may actually feel to its occupants. When I sat inside the Jetta, it felt so much like a mid-size car – a class up from its compact category – that I simply assumed it was mid-size. That impression was reinforced by the model’s substantial and long-stretching exterior.

“It doesn’t have that compact look. It looks more like a mid-size,” affirmed Daher. “The leg room in the car is unbelievable,” he added.

When shoppers come to Commonwealth to see the Jetta, typically they compare it to other models not in the compact, but in the mid-size class, Daher said. That includes some of the most popular cars purchased today, like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

That’s the way Volkswagen planned it.

This current version of Volkswagen’s top-selling car was introduced three years ago, as a 2011 model. In promotional material, the company says it designed Jetta to have “class-up appeal.” According to VW’s account, it stretched the car longer, and shaped the body to appear well planted to the road.

“The increased dimensions allowed designers to incorporate clear, precise lines and muscular surfaces to impart a timeless elegance, giving the impression that this is a car from a higher class,” VW states in press material.

Daher explained that one of Jetta’s primary aims is to attract new customers to Volkswagen. The car’s “class-up appeal” is part of that effort, drawing in shoppers from the populous, mid-size market. The model’s overall design is another part of the strategy, Daher said. Jetta is styled to appear more mainstream American, rather than distinctly European.

The Euro-flavored design of past Jetta versions was popular with younger drivers. But it didn’t sync as well with more mature motorists, Daher explained. Therefore the current model keeps the dynamic road-handling character that is associated with Volkswagen, but packages it in a body that aims to appeal to a wider audience.

“Now the more experienced and mature drivers look at it because it doesn’t stand out so much,” he said. “It’s kept the younger crew, but it also goes to practical, older people, because it has some size too it. And it has a nice mainstream look.”

For the 2014 model year, VW put a new engine in the mid-level version of Jetta. The base model retains a 115-horsepower, four-cylinder motor, which returns a fuel-economy rating of 24 miles per gallon in city driving, and 34 mpg on the highway. In mid-level, SE and SEL models, the new engine is a smaller four cylinder, but turbocharging boosts its output to 170 horsepower. Even with its greater power, it still does better on gas than the base model’s motor, with a rating of 26 mpg city, 36 mpg highway. Models with the new, more powerful engine start $2,000 higher than the basic Jetta.

At the top end, The Jetta GLI version employs a third engine, a turbocharged four cylinder that puts out 210 horsepower, and still returns a respectable 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway.

As they increase in power, the ascending levels of gasoline-fueled Jettas provide higher doses of driving excitement, Daher pointed out.

“When you go to the GLI, it just screams Volkswagen. It feels very European,” he said.

VW also sells a high-mileage, diesel-powered version of the model, labeled the Jetta TDI. Its list price starts $4,400 higher than a standard Jetta, but the diesel pays off with superior fuel economy. Its rating is 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway.

“It has a good following, and the people who have them, love them,” said Daher of the TDI. “People who drive tons of miles find that they go forever.”

The diesel model, along with the ascending array of gasoline engines, add more distinction to this model that remains so distinctively a Volkswagen.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive midsize sedan Price range: $17,715 to $28,715 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 12 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 3 years/36,000 miles roadside assistance Base engine: 2.0-liter I4 Power: 115 horsepower at 5,200 rpm; 125 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm Base transmission: five-speed manual Fuel economy: 24 mpg city; 34 mpg highway (with AWD) Wheelbase: 104 inches Length: 182 inches Width: 70 inches Height: 57 inches Weight: 2,836 pounds Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons Turning circle: 36.4 feet