Even in the crossover-crazed U.S. market, the humble little Jetta sedan is Volkswagen’s best-seller. In fact, it has been for 30-plus years. The Microbus and Dasher outsold the compact sedan in 1980, and VW’s pickup edged it in ’81, but the Jetta has been on top every year since, with VW selling 3 million in the U.S. since 1978. Now comes the seventh generation, and this time it’s unique to North America. The car has been dropped completely in Europe, where hatchbacks and wagons are more popular, and China gets its own version.
The 2019 Jetta now rides on VW Group’s outstanding, flexible MQB platform, also underpinning the Audi A3 and TT, VW’s Golf/GTI, Atlas and Tiguan SUVs, the upcoming Arteon and various Seats and Skodas we don’t get here. Compared to the 2018 version, the new car is about an inch longer and slightly wider and lower and has shorter overhangs. The new shape is about as conservative as they come, even with the redesigned front fascia and standard LED lighting. The roof slopes back faster, giving it a more coupe-like profile; VW says an emphasis on tuning the aero makes for a 0.27 Cd, a 10 percent improvement. Still, a dramatic change it ain’t.
The 1.4-liter turbo-four making 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque carries over from outgoing car, and is the only engine available, paired with a new six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic, the latter also new and a VW Group first. Thanks to those transmissions and the improved aerodynamics, the EPA says both can now get 40 mpg on the highway.
The S model’s $19,345 base price is about $300 less than the outgoing base model and includes aluminum-alloy wheels, VW's App Connect software and full LED lighting standard. The manual is only available on the S. SEL Premium is the priciest ($26,945) of the five trim lines and includes just about everything standard including heated/vented leather seats, a rockin’ Beats stereo and VW’s cool Digital Cockpit, the 12.3-inch high-resolution thin-film transistor (TFT) customizable display. SE, SEL and R Line fall in between with various equipment levels.
The comfy, roomy interior is a big step forward compared to the old Jetta, with more soft-touch materials around the cockpit and darn fine build quality for a sub $20,000 car.
Last December digital editor Andrew Stoy drove a camo’d Jetta prototype at VW’s Arizona proving grounds. He found it as solid as the other MQB-based cars if sprung a bit softer than a Golf or GTI. Still, he said it was “far more playful” than the outgoing car even though VW replaced the old car’s multi link rear suspension with a torsion beam (the front suspension remains struts and coil springs). A GLI is coming in about a year with the VW Group's 2.0-liter turbo four and independent rear suspension.
After spending most of a day driving a production version in and around Raleigh, N.C. I concur: The new car rides very nicely compared to others in the class (MQB really works!) and body control and handling are well above average -– the car happily squirts through corners while managing body roll well without a stiff ride.
I drove an SE model, one step up from the base S. The SE’s $22,155 sticker is 90 bucks less than the old car, and I picked the SE because VW figures it’s going to be the volume model and seems to me a sweet spot between a long standard-equipment list and a good price.
The standard eight-speed automatic is smooth and shifts quickly. It keeps the turbo four in its happy place, and by “happy place” I mean keeping the tach north of 2,500 rpm. Holding the transmission in second or third gear seems to work best on all but the freeway. Do that and the new Jetta is a sweet driving, reasonably quick compact sedan.
To really test ride quality I need to get a Jetta here in Detroit but for now I’d say VW’s best seller has better driving dynamics than most of the competition -– the Mazda 3 could be the lone exception. We’ll see if tuning the car toward enthusiasts’ tastes is enough to keep it atop VW’s sales charts, but the value for the money should help too.
On Sale: May
Base Price: $19,345
Powertrain: 1.4-liter turbo four, 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic, FWD
Output: 147 hp, 185 lb-ft
Curb Weight: 2,888 lbs (manual), 3,031 lbs (automatic)
Fuel Economy: 30/40/34 mpg (EPA City/Hwy/Combined) (EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Well equipped for the money; more fun to drive
Cons: Conservative redesign, no manual offered in upper trim levels