The 2019 Jetta is a car Volkswagen really needs to get right. Last year, it was VW’s best-selling model in America by a wide margin. And although the new Tiguan and Atlas have been propelled ahead so far this year by America’s crossover obsession, the Jetta is still VW’s best-selling car, beating the Passat and the Golf. Put simply, the new Jetta has got to be good.
Exterior and Interior
The little VW does make a good first impression. Not that it was a difficult task, but the new Jetta is far more interesting to look at than the old model. But it’s a handsome and interesting enough car even when compared with its contemporaries. The hexagonal grille is unique to VW and is a welcome break from the boring rectangle of the outgoing model. The headlights get special attention in both basic reflector LED style and projector LED style. The reflector units have geometric lenses and the projectors have a sleek daytime-running-light design. The hood, flanks and tail all have sharp creases that add visual interest to the otherwise conventional body style.
The interior is also a big improvement over the drab old Jetta. Gone is the flat dash with rectangular vents and zero design inspiration. Instead, the new Jetta gets a geometric design, themed around hexagons and octagons. One large geometric shape envelopes the dash from the left-side driver’s vent to the infotainment system. Everything in this section is canted toward the driver for a neat cockpit feel. The downside, though, is that the infotainment controls are a bit hard to reach for the passenger.
The interior benefits from a more diverse mix of plastics with better grains and feel. There are still a few cheap-feeling plastics to be found, but they’re kept as far out of the way of hands and eyes as possible. The instrument cluster gets a nice update with more detailed analog dials on base models, and the VW Digital Cockpit screen comes on top-level models. The infotainment is just as easy to use as in any other VW with a responsive touchscreen and easy-to-tap virtual buttons. The climate control relies on simple dials and buttons, whether it’s a manual or dual-zone automatic system.
The Jetta’s interior isn’t perfect, though. One particular disappointment is that, despite the car being longer, wider and taller than the old model, it actually lost a bit of space inside. Leg room is tighter front and rear, and there’s less headroom in the back. The trunk is 1.6 cubic feet smaller, too. There is more shoulder room front and rear, though, and the interior specs are still very close to those of one of the key segment leaders, the Honda Civic. One other gripe: the seats are on the flat side, lacking much lumbar support or bolstering, and the leatherette found in everything but the base S trim isn’t the greatest.
Engine and Transmission
A sharp new wrapper doesn’t necessarily make a good car. It needs a solid powertrain and suspension to bring everything together. In the Jetta’s case, its mechanical bits are average at best. For 2019, VW reduced the Jetta’s engine options to a single turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder producing 147 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The horsepower level is only on par with entry-level compacts, but the torque matches compacts with larger optional engines. The feel of the powerplant backs up that odd duality. It feels plenty perky in town with all of that down-low grunt. But when hustling up on-ramps and trying to pass, the Jetta feels sluggish.
That sluggish feeling isn’t helped by the engine’s raucous, angry buzzing at high rpm. We also detected a whining noise at high rpm, but we suspect the noise is from the transmission, since the manual prototype we drove didn’t exhibit the noise. It’s much happier, and actually rather quiet, trundling along at low rpm. Of course, on the highway at cruising speeds, the quieted engine gives way to quite a bit of wind noise around the A-pillars, keeping the car from feeling particularly refined at any speed. At least it does return very good fuel economy at 30 miles per gallon city, 40 highway and 34 combined, tying the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla for second-best fuel economy in the segment, and coming up just shy of the Civic.
Most Jettas will be coupled to an 8-speed automatic, and it is indeed a traditional automatic with a torque converter. It’s a perfectly serviceable transmission. It shifts smoothly, which, since it sometimes does a couple of shifts to find the right gear, is much appreciated. Putting it in Sport mode makes it more willing to hold gears and rev almost to redline. The Manual mode works very nicely, too. It’s not lightning-fast like a VW DSG gearbox, but it shifts promptly and smoothly. It’s a shame that there’s no Jetta available with shift paddles, because manually shifting the 8-speed is the most enjoyable way to drive the Jetta.
Surprisingly, Volkswagen will continue offering the Jetta with a manual transmission, albeit on the base S trim level. We did have the opportunity to drive a preproduction model with the transmission, and it really feels like an afterthought. The shifter action is long, rubbery and a bit notchy. The clutch is light but with reasonable feedback.
What really kills the fun with the manual is the way the revs hang up between shifts. We’re not sure if it’s the result of a really heavy flywheel or some computer programming, but seconds pass before the rpms start falling after pushing in the clutch. The gearbox and its programming seem designed to make the car forgiving for slow-shifting drivers, not for those who are out for some fun. Further evidence that VW’s heart isn’t really in the manual for the normal Jettas (one will be available on the upcoming GLI, and we expect it to be much better) is the fact that it’s not even available on the Jetta R-Line, the ostensibly sportiest model currently available with more aggressive bodywork and brake-based limited-slip technology.
Ride and Handling
Also a bit middle-of-the-road is the Jetta’s ride and handling. VW previously revealed to us that it was tuning the Jetta’s suspension to be softer based on customer feedback. And the Jetta does feel pretty soft. The result is a comfortable ride over most minor bumps, undulations and other imperfections. Unfortunately, VW may have gone too far. Over larger bumps, such as railroad crossings, the Jetta gets crashy, landing with a heavy thud followed by a bit of float as it returns to its natural state. Some added damping would do the Jetta good.
VW’s compact sedan isn’t a particularly great handler, either. It is certainly secure and predictable, but it has a fair amount of body roll, and it feels as if its limits are very low before descending into understeer. On the plus side, the steering is pretty good. It’s weighted well and is actually quite quick and responsive. Volkswagen’s move to ditch the more modern multilink independent rear suspension for a solid torsion beam in the back doesn’t really affect the car in a negative way. It doesn’t feel unsettled in bumpy curves, and the car feels solid, planted and shimmy-free elsewhere. Certainly average Jetta buyers won’t notice or care.
Pricing and Features
The Jetta is relatively well-equipped and priced. It starts at a competitive $19,395 for an S model with a manual transmission, and $20,195 with an automatic. For that price, the Jetta comes with alloy wheels, power mirrors, automatic lights, a touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth and, for just $450 more, you can get automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring. That package is available for the manual-transmission model, too.
The SE starts at $23,005 and sweetens the deal with a sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry and the S trim’s optional safety package as standard. Pricing tops out at about $27,795 for the SEL Premium, which has no options. It adds features such as ambient lighting, the Digital Cockpit, a bigger touchscreen, real leather seats, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control and a 400-watt Beats sound system. Put in perspective, these prices and feature sets are right in line with the Honda Civic, and only a little more expensive than the Mazda3. But competitors such as the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus all come in at quite a bit less.
As a package, the Jetta feels only a little bit above average. It’s finally shed its relentlessly boring trappings to become attractive, and it offers good fuel economy and a nice set of features. What hurts the Jetta is its middling ride and handling and uninspiring powertrain. If you don’t care about having a particularly engaging car, the latest Jetta will serve you just fine. But if you want a bit more soul in your commute, you’d be much better off with a Civic, a Mazda3 or even the Jetta’s own cousin, the Golf.