We have not driven the latest Jetta S model with the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine, but we remember it from several years ago and it's not an impressive piece of engineering. It's been around since 1993, and it accelerates from zero to 60 in 10 seconds with manual gearbox. That's slow. It performs the same feat in an anemic 11 seconds with 6-speed automatic. Worse yet, fuel economy is no better than the next option.
We recommend stepping up to the Jetta SE or SEL, which are equipped with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. For another $2,200 you not only get the good 2.5-liter engine, but features like cruise control and the V-Tex leatherette that looks like leather. For about $20,000 you've got a roomy, elegant, and beautifully engineered compact car that gets 26 mpg with a 6-speed automatic.
The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine that comes on is a Volkswagen stalwart, and it provides good power for the needs of the car. The Jetta SE and SEL can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic, and powers the Jetta to a top speed of 127 mph. It feels even stronger than the 8.5 second number would indicate and is enough for most any need.
We drove a silver Jetta SEL with the 6-speed automatic transmission and a black SEL with the 5-speed manual. We think the automatic is an excellent transmission. The Sport mode is sharp and effective. We used it in city driving, where it responded crisply to the San Francisco hills; and in slow-and-go freeway traffic, up-and-down 15 to 30 mph, where it kept the transmission in third gear rather than upshifting/downshifting all the time. In other words, Sport mode actually made a positive difference that could be felt, even or maybe especially in non-sport conditions. Manual mode can be used for those super-sporty opportunities, such as when canyon driving. It lets you do the shifting yourself through the gearshift; paddle shifters are not available and not really necessary in base models. We found it to be obedient, downshifting responsively when needed.
The 5-speed manual gearbox is numb, with long throws, and overly light clutch pedal pressure. Neither of the two gas engines has enough torque to accelerate quickly without downshifting, especially in the tall overdrive fifth gear, so you'll have to be on the ball when driving the manual.
The Jetta TDI comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct injection (TDI) Clean Diesel engine that makes 140 horsepower and a more impressive 236 lb-ft of torque. It feels strong from a stop, yielding the torque of a sports car. The engine only revs to about 4500 rpm, however, and isn't as strong as speed and revs increase, though, which explains the 8.7-second 0-60 mph time despite the willing low-speed torque. We think owners will like the strong torque feel down low, and the fact that the diesel runs as quietly as a gasoline engine. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 42 mpg Highway, making the TDI the next best thing to a hybrid. Diesel fuel can be expensive, however.
The sedan's rear suspension has been changed from the last generation, backtracked from the previous multi-link independent setup to a torsion beam geometry. But again, even if the technology has gone rearward, we didn't notice. In its attempt to make the Jetta affordable, Volkswagen felt the multi-link could be sacrificed. The more expensive multi-link design is considered better for handling and ride quality.
We found the sedan's suspension has just the right amount of firmness, and is pretty responsive when driven in a sporty manner. Buyers in areas with bad roads might notice that the torsion bar transfers the effects of bumps from one side of the car to the other, making the ride busier and bumpier.
There's little if any functional loss with rear drum brakes rather than discs in the S and Jetta SE models. They work just as well on the lightweight Jetta; the front brakes do most of the work, after all. Our Jetta SEL had the disc brakes. They felt good, as we used them hard over the winding roads of highway 101 north of San Francisco.
We never got less than 23 mpg, and we got 28.5 mpg on our final combined run of about 140 miles, including a mad dash to the airport.
The Jetta GLI returns for 2012, and it's the clear choice if you want a sportier model. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine makes 200 hp, accelerating from 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds with the DSG twin-clutch transmission. That's pretty quick and it's quite satisfying. The 6-speed manual transmission is a pleasure to operate in the Jetta GLI. The DSG is quite good, too. It shifts smoothly when used as an automatic. The Sport mode is very sporty, holding gears longer and feeling a little bit high strung. It's the choice for performance driving, but Drive works best for everyday commuting. When equipped with the DSG, the GLI adds steering wheel shift paddles, which are well placed, easy to use and appropriate for a car with the GLI's sporty character.
The GLI features an independent multi-link suspension that the other models have given up, as well as sportier suspension settings. The suspension isn't too firm, and isn't overly sporty. VW refers to the GLI as the GTI of the Jetta lineup. That's true, but the GLI is softer and more reserved than the pleasingly sporty GTI. Serious driving enthusiasts will likely find the GTI more fun. The nicer interior and better suspension geometry make the GLI the most refined Jetta, with the bonus of added power.
Buyers can also get the independent rear suspension in the SportWagen. It adds a bit of ride refinement. The car weighs about 100 pounds more than its sedan counterpart, so it's not sportier. Instead, it's a very pleasant compact wagon with a smooth ride and lots of utility.