By Kevin Harrison
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room straight off the bat: Volkswagen is rightfully still reeling from the diesel scandal. If you haven’t read my thoughts on it, click here.
Since news of the disparagement broke, Volkswagen has stopped selling their diesel engines, known as TDI’s. Not only does this significantly cut into profits amongst the potential of millions in fines, but it rather sour’s the public’s already hesitant stance on diesels.
Whether you believe Volkswagen is getting what it deserves or not, there’s no denying that the foreseeable future is rather gloomy for the German automaker who once had dreams of global domination in the automotive world.
But the scandal may actually present an opportunity for the tarnished brand. Since it can no longer sell diesels – at least until they can prove the engines meet the emissions requirements without deceit – there is now the opportunity to showcase Volkswagen’s non-diesel engines; which historically were often overlooked in favour of TDI’s.
And just in time for the revitalization of Volkswagen is a brand new 1.4 litre engine which now finds itself as the base engine for all 2016 model year and newer Jettas.
Does it have what it takes to pull an entire brand out of a major PR nightmare? I drove one for a week to find out.
It’s likely only keen Volkswagen enthusiasts will notice the minor refresh of the Jetta which includes a new tail light design along with a re-worked grille, but that’s about it for exterior changes. That’s a bit of a misstep in my opinion since typical model design cycles are much shorter than they used to be. Now, it’s not enough to do a minor revision here and there to get your product noticed, now you need to do a major redesign every two or three years in order to stay relevant. While I have always preferred the conservative and understated designs of German cars, the Jetta’s current design looks frumpy compared to the sleek and bold designs coming out of Honda, Hyundai, Ford and GM. Even the traditionally bland Toyota Corolla has a more charismatic design. As mentioned, my tester was the base model Jetta which means it also gets rather soft looking steel wheels with hubcaps, which also does it no favours in the styling department, but alloy wheels are available as an option.
Thankfully, Volkswagen put a lot more effort into refreshing the interior design. The new corporate steering wheel looks great but it also surprisingly feels great too considering it’s not leather wrapped. Volkswagen also has added an adequate sized infotainment screen which is also a bit boring in its design, but it is at least straight forward and easy to use. However, if you opt for the $400 connectivity package, you will gain access to, among other things, Apple’s CarPlay which essentially interfaces with your iPhone. It’s really great to see this being offered on the base trim level.
Below the screen are the climate controls which feel as if they were taken from 1999 and the dash is made of hard plastic, but I won’t necessarily fault Volkswagen for that one since most drivers and passengers rarely come into extended contact with the dash.
Interior room is not an issue with the Jetta sporting among the most roomy back seats in the segment with a large trunk to match.
The base model means you do not get keyless start which isn’t a huge issue except for the fact that the panic button on the key fob is located on the side. This means you can sometimes unintentionally set off the panic alarm just by taking the key out of the ignition. This happened to me about four to five times during my week with the Jetta 1.4.
Under the Hood
Base Jettas used to have a standard 2.0 litre four cylinder which was infamously known as the “2.slow”. Not only did it live up to its nickname, but it was also older than Betty White.
Now there’s thankfully a new engine. As mentioned, it’s a 1.4 litre 4-cylinder which produces 150 horsepower and a rather healthy dose of torque coming in at 184 pound feet. You get your choice of a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. The latter is not Volkswagen’s fantastic dual-clutch system unfortunately. My tester had the regular automatic, which isn’t as good as the dual-clutch, but adequate for most I would suspect.
The end result is lots of low end power readily available whenever you need it matched with smooth operation and, while the automatic is not the DSG, the transmission is still fairly decent. Pulling away from a light is a pleasure as is driving on the highway. The engine settles down nicely for cruising but is happy to be woken up to work at the drop of a dime.
Simply put, this is arguably the best base engine available in the class. The only other engine that comes close to its abilities and refinement would be Mazda’s SkyActiv unit found in the Mazda3.
On the Road
The Jetta holds some of its German-esque quality by having a very solid feel in most situations but it lacks the enthusiastic character of its hatched cousin, the Golf, which is really more of a driver’s car. That’s not to say that you can’t have some fun tossing the Jetta in the corners, it’s just that the fun stop earlier on than in the Golf when you have to back off the throttle a bit, or brake earlier while taking corners. If you don’t, understeer while show its ugly head. If you, for some crazy reason, don’t prefer the versatility of a hatchback but still consider yourself a performance enthusiast, the Jetta GLI is still available to take care of your need for speed.
But I suspect most will find the Jetta’s road manners to be absolutely acceptable. That said, other competitors have a bit more of a refined ride. It’s not so much that you feel every bump and pothole in the road, but more that the Jetta doesn’t take the imperfections as smoothly as say a Passat would.
Here’s where things get interesting with this new engine. Officially rated at 8.5 L/100 kms city and 6.0 L/100 kms highway, I saw a real word driving figure of 5.8 L/100 kms in mixed driving. It’s very rare that real world driving so handedly beats one of the official ratings, let along both.
But perhaps even more interesting is that this result is about in line for what you would get in the now-scandalous TDI engine.
And that asks the bigger question. Is it worth even bringing the TDI back when the new 1.4 TSI engine is also plenty torque-y, plenty refined, just as efficient, and way cheaper (the TDI started $2,300 more than the current 1.4 does)? The fact that it uses regular gasoline means you can also fill it at any gas station where the diesel had to pick and choose its watering hole based on availability.
Seemingly, Volkswagen has, intentionally or not, dealt with their TDI issue without even realizing it. Do they even need to work on making the TDI compliant for real this time or can they get by with this new unit? Will people actually buy it considering the deep hole Volkswagen dug their for their reputation?
Only time will tell, but if you take the TDI and the scandal out of the equation and you evaluate the Jetta not on what its parent company did, but what it’s actually capable of, and the answer for me personally would be clear: give me the manual transmission then tell me where to sign.
Base Price: $15,995
Price As Tested (includes fees): $22,300
- Best base engine in the class
- Solid German feel
- Lots of interior and cargo room
- Surpasses fuel consumption expectations
- Frumpy exterior getting old quickly
- Not as fun to drive as the Golf
- A few cheap plastics inside
- VW brand still smeared
- Chevrolet Cruze
- Dodge Dart
- Ford Focus
- Honda Civic
- Hyundai Elantra
- Kia Forte
- Mitsubishi Lancer
- Nissan Sentra
- Subaru Impreza
- Toyota Corolla