In Europe, the Golf is King. Not just for Volkswagen, but as the best selling vehicle across a number of markets, a position it has occupied for many years. VW sell approximately 20 Golfs for every Jetta. In America, things are very different, as in the nation that still really does not “get” the hatchback, the Jetta is by some margin Volkswagen’s best selling vehicle. Although the American market cars look outwardly the same as the ones we see – or rather, given the low sales volumes, that we don’t see! – in Europe, the specifications are very different. US cars are made in Mexico, and the entry level cars are fitted with a 2.5 litre 5 cylinder engine. Top of the range models get the 2.0T motor, and recently these were joined by a rather tentative offer of the TDi engine. Tentative as this is market that is vehement in is antipathy towards the diesel powered car, based on some very poor quality products that were offered 30 years ago and a perception that the pollution levels are indescribably bad. All very different from Europe, where the diesels outsell the petrol models by a large margin, and the petrol engines start at 1.4 litres and stop before you add a fifth cylinder or exceed 2 litres. The first Jettas appeared in Hertz’ US rental fleet a couple of years ago, when they were an occasional sighting at larger facilities, but latterly, they have become numerically significant on the fleet, rated as a “mid-size”, Group C car, so up against everything from the Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra, through to the Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler Sebring, Kia Forte and even the odd Subaru Impreza. I managed to source one so I could find out whether Europe has got it all wrong in ignoring the Jetta and how this car stacks up as a moderately sized family sedan.
Fire up the 170 bhp engine and you can immediately tell that this is not a four cylinder unit. Whilst it certainly does not have the really distinctive of Volvos and Audis of yore, it does sound different, in a slightly muted way. It is a noise I like, which is just as well, as to get the best out of the Jetta you do have to drive it quite hard. The engine is smooth and refined, though, and if you are in the mood for ambling along, will serve you well, too. The test car had the optional six speed automatic gearbox, which offers two modes and has the ability for you to push the lever over to the right so you can flick up and down the gears yourself. When left to select the ratios itself, it did so very smoothly, with just a slight change in engine note to tell you that you were in a different gear. The fuel gauge barely moved for quite a while after I started driving the car, and at the end of the test, having driven over 300 miles, it still showed over 1/3 of a tank remaining, so I guessed that fuel consumption was quite good. However, when I stabbed at the calculator, it came out with 25.52 mpg (US, which equates to 30.4 mpg Imperial, which is not particularly impressive. Perhaps I was enjoying the driving on swooping roads in the mountains north of Phoenix that bit too much? Certainly, the steering and handling whilst not Euro-Focus like are good. This car is a close relative of the deeply impressive Golf GTi, after all. The steering is perfectly weighted and has more feel than the cars I have been driving immediately before getting into this one, and the handling is tidy. The brakes need quite a good shove but otherwise work well. The Jetta rides well and it is generally quite refined when cruising. I did note than when crossing ridges in the freeway that it seemed to transmit more noise into the car as well as feeling the surface interruptions even more than I was expecting. After the challenges of seeing out of the Traverse, there were no issues with all round visibility in this VW, and as it is quite a small car, by American standards, it was easy to place and manoeuvre.
The inside of the Jetta just shrieks “Volkswagen” at you, with a corporate style that permeates all its cars. That even extends to the continued deployment of an organ style accelerator pedal. The dash layout is same as you would have found on Golf Mark V, and everything is neatly presented, and clearly made of quality materials. There are just two main dials, with small insets in the bottom of each for fuel level and water temperature. No trip computer on this model means that you get a static display of odometer and trip set between the speedo and rev counter. VW corporate column stalks on either side of the wheel do the wipers and indicators, with the lights operated by a rotary dial to the left of the column. The audio unit is mounted up high and proved easy to operate. Below this are three rotary dials and a series of buttons for the climate conditioning. The markings around the edge of these were small and quite difficult to read. The entire ensemble is relieved of the feeling of sombreness by a select few inserts of metal effect in the dash and on the audio unit. The seats are trimmed in black, with a black-based pattern, so the interior is not as bright, nor, thankfully, as garish as you find on many cars. I was happy with it, but some might find it a little too funereal.
Classed as a “mid size”, you would not expect there to be huge amounts of space in the Jetta, and indeed there is not. Two adults could sit comfortably in the rear seat, and whilst leg room was not an issue, especially when sitting “behind” myself, the headroom is tight. My head was not quite on the roof/rear window, but it was jolly close. The boot is spacious, though not quite the commodious cavern that was a feature of the first three generations of the booted Golf, and the rear seat backrest can be folded forward for extra capacity if required. Inside the car, a glove box, door bins and central cubby area in front of the gearlever are augmented by a small space under the central armrest, and there are twin cup-holders in the centre console as well, which definitely look they are designed for European sized drinks. Doubtless this would have occasioned unfavourable complaint in the JD Power survey just as it did for the Passat a couple of years ago! Things are good for the driver. The steering wheel has a huge range of adjustment both in/out as well as up/down, and once you have adjusted the seats using a mixture of the loop-ended slider under the seat for fore/aft, the ratchet lever for up/down and the electric motor for backrest angle, you can enjoy the perfect driving position in the wrap around seats that proved supremely comfortable.
Five trim levels are offered in the US market: S, Limited, SE, SEL and Wolfsburg Edition. The test car was the lowest of these, and it is visually rather obvious from the plastic wheel covers and the grey lower trim on the rear bumper. Look inside, and you will struggle to find much in the way of luxury, either, with a plastic moulded steering wheel, and a row of blank switches alongside the traction control button in front of the gearlever. You do get climate control, though, with heated seats, and a perfectly acceptable audio unit. The Limited adds a leather wrapped wheel and alloy wheels. Upgrade to the SE and you get a sun roof, split folding rear seat and a 6 disc CD audio unit with satellite radio. Even the more costly SEL model is not overloaded with gizmos, though you do get a further upgrade to the audio system with steering wheel mounted controls and 17″ alloys. What you do get on all models are VW standards of design and build quality, which certainly feel like a cut above most other (US) cars in this class. You only have to open the central armrest, for instance, to feel how nicely damped the action is. Surprisingly, though, having complained about the dire quality of the sun visors in the Civic, those in the Jetta are also evidence of cost-cutting, feeling very hard and unpleasant to touch.
The answers to my opening questions are now clear. As a medium sized family saloon, the Jetta scores highly. Of course, most of Europe simply does not want cars like this, preferring the extra versatility of a hatchback or estate model, so on that basis, it is unlikely that the Jetta will ever hit the sales Big League. In America, though, customer preferences are different, and I commented to the rental agent when I handed the test car back, that this seemed to me indeed to be the best car in the Hertz mid-size class. His reply was that, to his surprise as well, lots of people still prefer the Toyota Corolla. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why. The Jetta’s biggest drawback, as a retail proposition, would seem to be its relatively high purchase price, but as a rental car, it costs exactly the same per day as its rivals. Proof, should any be needed, that pleasing all of the people all of the time truly is mission impossible.