The Volkswagen Jetta is a compact car offered in a variety of models and body styles. The sedan received a controversial redesign for 2011 that included cheaper interior materials, less sophisticated technologies, and a lower starting price. It adds a sportier turbocharged GLI model for 2012 that reclaims some of that lost content. The wagon soldiers on with the previous design, though ironically that offers some advantages.
The base price is a mere $16,495 MSRP for the 2012 Jetta S, using a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 115 horsepower, with a 5-speed manual transmission standard and an optional 6-speed automatic. That engine is somewhat archaic, however.
A better value is the 2012 Jetta SE for $18,495, which brings the five-cylinder 2.5-liter engine making 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, while getting almost the same fuel economy.
The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine is a Volkswagen stalwart, providing good power for the Jetta's needs. It accelerates from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic, and powers the Jetta to a top speed of 127 mph, so there's plenty in reserve. It's EPA rated at a Combined 26 mpg, and we got between 23 and 28 mpg during our two-day test drive of nearly 500 miles in two Jetta SEL models, one with each transmission. We prefer the automatic, because the transmission is so good.
The sport mode for the optional 6-speed automatic transmission is sharp and effective. We used it in city driving, where it responded crisply on San Francisco's hills, and in slow-and-go freeway traffic, where it kept the transmission in third gear rather than upshifting and downshifting all the time. Manual mode can be used for spirited driving times, when you want to do the shifting yourself. It can only be shifted through the gearshift; paddle shifters are neither available nor necessary. In manual mode, the transmission is programmed well, responsive and obedient.
The 2012 Jetta TDI sedan, $22,595, and SportWagen, $25,260, use the latest turbodiesel direct-injected engine, making 140 horsepower with a useful 236 pound-feet of torque, while getting an impressive 30/42 mpg.
To get the price down, Volkswagen reverted to some less expensive engineering, such as a rear torsion beam suspension and drum brakes in Jetta S and SE models. The vast majority of drivers will never miss the multi-link suspension and rear discs. Other cost-cutting measures involve interior materials, and these are more evident. The Jetta has always been known for high interior quality, and that's no longer the case. On the other hand, the styling is still quite attractive and interior room is improved.
The sedan's interior is clean, stylish and comfortable, while being smart, accommodating, and functional. The trim is tasteful, and the standard cloth seats fit well, while the optional V-Tex leatherette upholstery passes easily for real leather. Headroom and rear legroom are outstanding, nearly as roomy as a BMW 7 Series, and VW makes smart use of cupholders and little storage cubbies. The instruments are handsome, with clean white-on-black numbering.
Buyers may have some complaints about the quality of the materials, which are mostly hard plastics that can creak and rattle later in life. Still, build quality is impressive. The Jetta is quiet at speed and feels solid.
The new GLI model reclaims some of the Jetta sedan's lost interior quality. The dashboard is made of a soft-touch material, and VW adds accent stitching to the shifter, seats and steering wheel.
The Jetta GLI features a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo engine, accelerating from zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds using the magical DSG twin-clutch automated manual transmission. It offers a relaxed, refined sportiness that makes it the most satisfying Jetta to drive.
As a previous-generation model, the SportWagen has the features the current Jetta has lost, including a nicer interior, an independent rear suspension, and a higher price. It also rides a shorter wheelbase, so it has less rear seat room. With the cargo room of an SUV and the popular TDI option, the Jetta SportWagen can be a great alternative to a crossover or SUV while offering outstanding fuel economy.