2019 Volkswagen Jetta First Drive: Still a Golf with a Trunk

During the Chicago auto show in February, VW design boss Klaus Bischoff fell all over himself pointing out how different the new  Jetta is from its Golf MQB-platform sibling. Indeed the two share absolutely no exterior panels or glass, and very few other visible parts, save for the steering wheel, shifter, and some controls. For contrast, he even parked a first-gen Jetta in the foyer—a car that quite obviously WAS a Golf (Rabbit) with a trunk. Well, we’ve just experienced the finished 2019 Jetta and it drives like a slightly bigger, heavier Golf with a trunk.

That’s reasonably high praise, as the Golf impressed us enough to take home our Car of the Year calipers in 2015. For the new Jetta to make a similarly positive impression after three years of continuous vehicular improvement suggests that Volkswagen has done more than simply strap a Golf to the MQB stretching rack, rearrange all the crisp sheetmetal creases and graft on that trunk.

It’s useful to remind ourselves that MQB isn’t a “platform” the way Chrysler’s K-Car was a platform. Rather, it’s building blocks. Each MQB variant is a unique application of those building blocks, with those around the front axle/powertrain and the rear axle fairly fixed, and all blocks in between tailored to each vehicle and its market segment. Going forward, the Jetta’s market (and hence tailoring) will be very different from the Golf’s. The Golf sells globally while the new Jetta will sell primarily in the Americas and China. Many of its blocks are new—for example, the digital instrument cluster screen is a brighter, higher-resolution upgrade from that of the Golf, Tiguan, and Atlas; the infotainment system represents an upgrade, supporting all popular smartphone screen-mirroring applications, and a new BeatsAudio sound system makes its VW premiere as an option on top-trim Jettas.

Let’s talk about how it drives. For now the only engine is a 1.4-liter turbo-four good for 147 hp at 5,000 rpm and 187 lb-ft of torque at 1,400 rpm. That’s down from the 1.8-liter Golf’s 170 hp and 184 or 199 lb-ft (manual or automatic), but the 2019 Jetta’s transmissions get upgraded from six to eight ratios in the automatic and from five to six in the manual. Closer gear spacing and, especially comparing old and new Jettas, improved leverage in the lower gears makes the 2019 Jetta feel sprightlier than its numbers suggest. A 2.0-liter with higher output than that of the Golf GTI will arrive in the Jetta GLI in about a year; the 1.8T is gone.

Driven with just two adults onboard, passing performance feels acceptable and the acceleration rate at medium and wide throttle openings seemed more linear than we’ve experienced with other engines with tiny turbos. Only in certain low-speed situations rolling onto the throttle was there an occasional hint of turbo lag. The new transmission reacts swiftly to throttle inputs, especially in its S mode. There are no shift paddles, but a sport gate allows for single-gear up and down shifts via the lever. And a very slightly taller top gear ratio (3.2 percent) helps deliver the impressive 30/40/34 mpg EPA city/highway/combined fuel economy.

VW has made the increasingly rare choice to offer a manual transmission, and it’s a pretty decent one. Clutch take-up is linear and near the middle of the pedal travel, and the stick provides nice crisp detents. Curiously the six gears all yield shorter overall ratios than those of the old five-speed, with first providing 9.3 percent more launching leverage, and sixth penciling out 1.6 percent shorter than the old fifth. Oh well, these ratios still manage to deliver EPA numbers matching the automatic’s. Our primary disappointment with the manual is that VW only offers it on the base S trim, which gets pretty austere looking cloth seat upholstery. We have to wonder how many more manuals VW might move if it offered them on the sporty R-Line trim with snazzier two-tone V-Tex pleather, 17-inch rolling stock, and sporty black exterior trim.

Through the helm and the seat of one’s pants, it’s still possible to detect this chassis’ German DNA despite its made-for-America (and China) tuning. Wise choice, as this is probably what’s made Jetta the best-selling German-brand car in the U.S. for years. Many have fretted that the switch from multi-link to a trailing twist-beam rear suspension would neuter the road dynamics, and it’s quite possible that when we flog this Jetta on a handling track we may declare it less adroit than the Golf (and the aforementioned GLI that will get a multi-link rear). But on public roads at speeds that don’t represent a public menace, it corners flatly without tire-squealing histrionics, it reacts accurately to steering wheel inputs, and it absorbs what few bumps the roads in and around North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham region can offer with suppleness—on both the base 205/60R16-inch and the up-level 205/55R17-inch tires.

Other general observations: We continue to be greatly annoyed at VW’s insistence that we stop the car to adjust the equalizer settings on the stereo, although it must be noted that the spectacular 400-watt, eight-channel, seven-speaker BeatsAudio system (standard on the top SEL trim levels and not available on lesser Jettas) sounds sublime with the EQ settings in their default centered position. The apparent spatial separation of the instruments is as impressive as the lack of distortion at too-high volume levels and the absence of overpowering subwoofer thump-thump. We only hope the interior trim attachment hardware is sufficiently stout to resist rattling after a few years of vibratory punishment.

Finally, because VW is in the unenviable position of trying to win back the public’s confidence and because its best-selling car is grossly overdue for replacement, VW has sweetened the 2019 Jetta’s value proposition considerably. The starting price of $19,395 is $100 less than in 2018, but by VW’s equipment-valuation calculators, it comes with $1,105 worth of additional stuff. Roughly the same goes for the volume SE trim level, while the SEL price drops by $1,830 and the equipment value goes up by a claimed $1,380. Factor in the unknown future-cost savings represented by VW’s six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and the Jetta starts to look almost as compelling as that Jetta-minus-a-trunk that won Car of the Year for 2015.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta
BASE PRICE $19,395-$25,265
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 1.4L/147-hp)/184-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 2,900-3,000 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 105.7 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 185.1 x 70.8 x 57.4 in
0-60 MPH 8.3-8.6 sec (MT est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 112/84 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.57 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently

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