Turn the key in the Volkswagen Jetta S, SE, or SEL sedan and you're greeted by the raspy growl of a five-cylinder engine. Although VW's powertrain engineers have made recent modifications to reduce vibration, it's still a little more audible than many small car engines, an in-your-ear sound that will find favor with those who appreciate mechanical sounds. We like it, but it might be annoying to drivers who'd rather talk on the phone.
The 2.5-liter reaches 0-60 mph in about 8.5 seconds (the manual is quicker) and records EPA figures of 21/29 mpg. Jettas with the gasoline two-liter turbo cut 1-1.5 seconds off acceleration time and the DSG automatic is the quicker of the two; EPA ratings are virtually identical to the 2.5 liter. The new 2-liter turbodiesel will take longer to reach 60, in the nine second range, about what you'd expect from a car this size with these EPA figures: 29-30 city/40-41 highway.
There has been some controversy about the diesel's EPA ratings. In third-party testing AMCI produced results of 38/44 mpg and in a December 2006 study the EPA concluded their miles-per-gallon labels underestimated diesel mileage by double digits and overestimated gasoline and hybrid-electric figures. From early drives we anticipate the Jetta TDI capable of mid-30 to mid-40 mileage. It should also be noted that the Jetta TDI does not need fuel additives at refueling or maintenance intervals that some diesels require, and IRS tax credits offset its extra cost.
As soon as the Jetta pulls away from the curb, there's a feel of solidity, and a sense of high quality. Volkswagen invested in structural rigidity, and it paid off in ride quality and handling.
The five-cylinder engine is tuned for instant gratification, and we like it. It is all about usable midrange power here, with a relatively low 5800 rpm redline and no need to explore it. Stand start throttle tip-in is aggressive, especially when the automatic transmission is in Sport mode so you may want to avoid it for commuting. The engine provides little compression braking while driving downhill, however, and we'd prefer that it did for the control it provides.
Regardless of gearbox, the 2.5-liter never felt underpowered in a week of testing on freeways, over mountain passes and around town. Its rasp can be a bit strident when the accelerator is fully applied, but it's more a syncopated growl of power than a whine of discontent. We can attest that the Jetta will cruise all day long at 90 mph and, given an autobahn or race track to explore, will reach almost 130 mph at its top end. The 2.5 is a very flexible engine, and it delivers power when needed, no matter the gear.
Raw speed is not what this five-cylinder does best, however. If speed is the objective, the 2-liter turbo, which powered our Wolfsburg Edition test car, is a much better bet.
The six-speed automatic with Tiptronic does just about everything an automatic transmission should do. In full automatic mode, the transitions between gears are quick and slip-free. Slam the gas pedal down and downshifts are crisp, and the transmission holds the chosen gear until redline before swiftly shifting up to the next gear. Switch to the manual mode by moving the shift lever into a gate to the right. Pushing the lever forward in the manual mode chooses a higher gear, while pulling back selects a lower one.
Handling is rewarding, inspiring confidence on curving mountain roads. The Jetta carves through a corner with precision, and body roll is well controlled. It's more apparent in the base models, but regardless of trim level and suspension tuning the car's responses are precise and wholly predictable.
Entering a corner too quickly is easily corrected with the excellent four-wheel disc brakes. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control while braking, while Brake Assist ensures maximum brake force during emergency stops. Get everything wrong and stability control will do better than most drivers at returning to normal operation. The Jetta's high-tech traction aids provide a greater envelope of safety yet do little to diminish the driving experience.
We think this is one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars Volkswagen has produced. The lighter Golf is perhaps more tossable, particularly the GTI version, but American buyers still seem to prefer a formal sedan to a hatchback. The Jetta benefits from its multi-link rear suspension, instead of VW/Audi's traditional twist beam, along with a carefully designed MacPherson strut front suspension. Sedan or wagon, it's a well-balanced car, with little or no sense that the front end is doing the work of both pulling and steering the car.
The steering is sharp and communicative. It not only adjusts to speed, providing more assist at low speeds and higher effort on the open road, but through electronic control of the steering column it automatically corrects the car's direction when such external forces as crosswinds threaten to move it off track. It's a bit disconcerting at first for the car to do something a driver expects he or she will have to do, but in short order the self-correction becomes a welcome improvement.
For slippery conditions, Jetta's anti-slip regulation (ASR) and electronic differential control (EDL) team up to make the best of available traction; with a good set of winter tires all-wheel drive is not needed.
Although the sporty GLI model has been dropped, the Wolfsburg Edition, equipped with the four-cylinder turbo, delivers similar performance. The 2-liter four-cylinder is smaller in displacement than the standard five-cylinder, but it's turbocharged and develops a flat curve of usable torque, with 207 pound-feet available from 1800 to 5000 rpm. This means good response on the highway and around town. Step on the pedal and it goes not matter what. Yet this engine will gleefully rev to 6000 rpm in pursuit of its 200 peak horsepower. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.7 seconds. We easily reached the electronically limited top speed of 130 mph on some deserted roads in New Mexico, where the roar of the wind clawing its way past the car was the sole intrusion on the peace inside the cabin. The same engine powers the SEL SportWagen.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and VW's terrific dual-clutch DSG auto-manual transmission make a sweet combination. It really makes two cars in one: smooth cruiser and performance bruiser. On a long trip, the DSG six-speed automatic exploits the economies of its fifth and sixth gears. Yet a dash across town perks it up, and it stays in lower gears longer for better acceleration. It downshifts directly from fifth or sixth gear to third if passing power is needed right now, skipping the gears in between. The driver can shift manually by sliding the gear lever into the DSG slot, which initiates touch-shifts through the gear lever itself; or via steering-wheel-mounted paddles on the Wolfsburg Edition. It's a brilliant system, crisp and smooth, and operation is direct and intuitive, as well as quicker in manual operation than a standard transmission.
TDI marks the return of Volkswagen diesels to the U.S. and this 2-liter four-cylinder is a derivative of the best-selling diesel in Volkswagens and Audis sold in Germany where they demand performance and fuel economy. It delivers 140 hp but the horsepower lost to the 2.5 and 2.0T (30 and 60, respectively) is made up for by the diesel's superior torque of 236 lb-ft from just 1,750 rpm. That grunt makes itself know in the form of a well of elastic urge, so relaxed you often find yourself cruising along at speeds more appropriate for Germany than the Interstate. Beyond ultra low sulfur diesel fuel (stations are plentiful and you'll get 400-500 miles from a tank) the TDI makes no special requests; it starts quickly even if cold, is frequently quieter than the 2.5, disappears into the background at speed and most of your passengers will never know if you don't tell them.