Everyone “knows” that German cars are pricey; it’s all that belt-and-suspenders engineering, and then the dollar always seems to be down against the mark or the euro or whatever it is they buy beer and bratwurst with over there. But wait—all German cars? What about Volkswagens?
If you ask the question that way, you’re dating yourself back to when beetles and squarebacks and such really were cheap. Our kids see the brand differently: Volkswagen? Oh, you mean VW! To them, VWs are aspirational cars, a big step up from Mom’s or Dad’s tired hand-me-down that they went off to school in. VWs aren’t necessarily that cheap, either. (Even as Volkswagens they weren’t cheap; inexpensive, yes, but neither shoddy nor crude.) Today, a hybrid Touareg SUV starts at 65 grand and cult cars like the Golf GTI and the Jetta Sportwagen diesel can hit 30, easy.
As it happens, $30,000, give or take, is the price of the average new car sold in America today. So by definition, a “cheap” car is one that costs less than that.
A Jetta, VW’s smaller sedan, front-wheel-drive, can be had for less than that—much less. The one we’re driving lists at $22,885, and that’s for a mid-level SE /w Connectivity & Sunroof model, with a toy chest that’s far from empty. Not only that, but this year the Jetta got some worthy improvements that didn’t bleed through onto the car’s price tag.
Back in 2011, the Jetta had been enlarged somewhat and “de-contented”—some said dumbed down—for the American market to make it cheaper to produce and sell. The tactic of bigger car for less money paid off in sales, which apparently earned the ’14 Jetta its new independent rear suspension, in place of the previous relatively crude beam-type rear axle. (And last year, our Jetta moved back up to disc brakes instead of drums at the back.) It’s hard to nail down the improvement without an older car for comparison, but the new Jetta’s solid handling lives up to German-car expectations.
Also gone is the previous cast-iron, 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine. This new turbocharged 1.8-liter alloy Four is lighter, smoother and quieter, and it delivers the same 170 horsepower as the Five, but more torque (184 lb-ft) and better fuel economy.
Jettas come with a 6-speed automatic transmission or a manual gearbox with that funny third pedal. The manual is a 5-speed—something of a rare bird these days—that shifts precisely and easily, but it wants at least one more cog. The Jetta often feels slightly breathless and needs a quick downshift. Clearly, the car is geared for fuel efficiency; in a 70/30 mix of highway and local driving, we averaged 33 miles per gallon of regular gas.
Despite the extra inches it gained in 2011, the Jetta still feels small on the outside and big inside, where two adults can sit comfortably and tall even in the back seats. The light interior—VW calls it Cornsilk Leatherette—contrasts nicely with the pebble-grained dashboard and other dark plastics, and the sunroof helps the cabin feel airy and uncramped.
The SE w/Connectivity & Sunroof Jetta comes with a “media device interface,” which includes a Bluetooth phone hookup and an iPod cable. The touchscreen serves the AM/FM/Sirius radio and CD player; satnav and rear-view vision can be added. Other toys include pushbutton ignition, a leather-wrapped steering wheel that adjusts up and down, in and out, and has radio controls built in, and slightly up-sized (16-inch) alloy wheels. The heated front seats have power-reclining backs, but fore-and-aft adjustment is manual. The wing mirrors and the windshield-washer nozzles are heated, a welcome detail up here in the frozen north.
VW began parading its 2015 Jetta at the auto shows this spring, but the new new car won’t be in stores until the end of September. Those changes are mostly cosmetic: The front was squished into a wedge, so it looks more like its bigger brother the Passat, and the slipperier new nose earns one more MPG on the car’s EPA rating. The more important upgrades, to the engine and suspension, took place from 2013 to 2014.