By Jim Bray
Volkswagen's Jetta was a terrific car before the 2016 model year, but the addition of a brand new engine creates an even more powerful reason to give the car a look if you're shopping in this market niche.
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The engine is a 1.4 litre turbocharged four cylinder unit that replaces the two litre power plant that populated VW's before. It's a peach, too, upping the engine output ante from the old unit's 115 horsepower to a much more interesting 150 horses - and an even more interesting 184 lb.-ft. of torque (compared to the old engine's 125) that comes on at a low 1400 rpm.
The new engine doesn't really make the Jetta feel like a GTI, or even a Jetta GLI, but it isn't meant to. Rather, it's a modern take on the entry level engine species and as such it's a real joy. The engine is not only smaller, lighter and more efficient (which means better fuel mileage) than the outgoing two litre unit, which should help make it appeal to entry level buyers, it adds enough fun to the mix that enthusiasts on a budget should find it more than adequate. That performance versus price and economy question creates an interesting tight rope walk and Volkswagen has hoofed that hawser handsomely.
And that's only the first of the wonderful changes to the Jetta for 2016. The car, which is pretty much like a Golf with a bum, now comes standard with a rear-view camera and touchscreen infotainment system, both of which are welcome features.
The inclusion of the camera means that, at a starting price of $15,999 CAD, Volkswagen is offering an important safety feature that some manufacturers of luxury cars don't even include as standard equipment on some of their $40,000 units! Is this a way to help people forget the diesel kerfuffle of last year? Beats me - but so what if it is? It's a great addition; heck, I think every car should have a backup camera these days (along with automatic headlights and Bluetooth connectivity) - so Volkswagen is on the leading edge here as far as I'm concerned. Heck, to get a backup camera on a Kia Forte or Toyota Corolla, you have to spend at least 20 grand.
It's only a two thirds victory, however. To get automatic headlights, you have to go up to the $28,000 Highline trim level, so owners of the Trendline and Comfortline trim levels will still have to keep their wits about them and realize that those daytime running lights illuminating your path at night aren't lighting up the car's bum.
Or do they? When I contacted Volkswagen Canada to ask if the DRL light up the Jetta's posterior as well - most cars don't, but a few do - their spokeman, Thomas Tetzlaff, said "the short answer is no, the rear lights don't work as DRL." That wasn't the whole story, however, and in fact Tetzlaff told me that VW has a pretty nifty way of helping ensure oafish or just plain oblivious drivers don't sally forth with only their front ends (well, their cars') illuminated. "Our cars are equipped with (a photo diode sensor) in the (instrument) cluster that will watch the light inside the vehicle (and) this will let the car know when the light is getting low. From this, the light in the cluster will dim and then turn off so that the driver will have to turn on the lights to see the information in the cluster. This then will have the driver turn on the lights and thus have rear light illumination."
That's a pretty neat solution, though automatic headlights would be even easier for the car owner. Still, it shows the folks at "Folksvagen" are thinking. I don't know of any other carmakers that solve this problem this way, though to be fair, I haven't really checked - but it's something to keep in mind when you go shopping.
So even though you don't get auto lights, for that 16 grand base price of a Jetta, you still get a long list of stuff, including:
VW Canada's sample Jetta 1.4 TSI was one trim level higher than the base model (it's referred to as "Trendline+"), and that adds an alarm, front centre armrest, front seat heating (and heated windshield washer nozzles), manual climate control, power/heated outside mirrors, remote locking and USB audio input. That model starts at a still inexpensive $18,795 and VW's sample also added the optional ($1,400) six speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic.
I was hoping for the six speed manual, but the Tiptronic automatic is a very good one, though the dual clutch DSG (which would be available on the GLI and the diesel models if the diesel were in fact available right now) is even better. Still, the Tiptronic offers very quick and clean shifts - though no paddles were on the sample car and that's a shame.
You can option the Jetta up from there, including stuff like adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights, Blind Spot Detection with rear Traffic Alert, and an infotainment system with a 6.33 inch colour touchscreen that provides high resolution graphics and integrates with App-Connect.
Driving the Jetta, like driving any Volkswagen, is a joyful experience. The new engine revs well, with almost no turbo lag, and it's a very compelling drive. The suspension feels Goldilocks perfect, neither jarring nor somnambulistic (there's a new, independent rear end to the lower end Jetta this year, which undoubtedly helps). Handling is just fine, as is the steering and brake feel. In short, this is a car that feels quite sporty despite its entry level price.
It's also a comfortable car to be in, unless you're the third person in the back seat (a common malady in small cars), and it offers a trunk large enough for Mafiosi to store at least a couple of the folks they off. I'm guesstimating here, of course; no family or neighbours were harmed in the writing of this column (though a few might have been annoyed).
I couldn't try the Android app mirroring because my supposedly brand new phone is too old to offer the feature, but VW's LCD interfaces have for the past several years (at least) been among the most well thought out of all the car brands I've driven, even without that feature. The new look has slipped a bit, with smaller virtual buttons that add the "flash" of radio station logos, etc. to the screen instead of larger virtual buttons, but it's hardly a deal breaker: VW still is among the best - though I hope they're looking over their shoulders at what the South Koreans are doing right now (thanks undoubtedly in no small part to the Asian companies' brilliant hiring of a former Audi designer a few years back).
Since I began reviewing cars professionally (I've always been opinionated about them, but not paid to opine, necessarily…), Volkswagen has been consistently one of my favourite brands. I love how they look, I love how they drive, I love their interiors (even though they can appear a tad Spartan depending on trim level - and this isn't just a VW thing of course), and I love how intuitive they are to operate.
It should be no surprise, then, that I have a soft spot for this new Jetta - though if I were buying I'd go for the Golf Sportwagon (because I like wagons), and I'm dying to try its new, all-wheel drive version (All-Track) when it's available because it reminds me of a "poor man's Audi A4 Avant/Allroad", a vehicle that just happens to be my personal car.
But if you aren't a wagon person and are looking for a beautifully designed and built small car that's as fun to drive as it is to "passenge" in, put this one near the top of your list.
There's plenty of competition from all over: Ford Focus, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Kia Forte and the new for 2017 Hyundai Elantra (which is exquisite - watch for my review soon). The Jetta can go head to head with any of them, even in this entry level livery, and if you opt to go higher up the trim levels, things get even better.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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