With all due respect to the Touareg and Phaeton, and even to the upcoming Golf GTI, Volkswagen's fifth-edition Jetta is the best reason to turn our attention back to the cars from Wolfsburg. The completely new sedan is not only for just plain folks who want a high-quality five-passenger sedan for under $20,000, it's also a terrific platform for performance modifications. With a stout, made-for-America-only five-cylinder engine, multi-link rear suspension, and a structure that feels price classes better than its $17,900 base sticker would suggest, Jetta V is nothing less than the greatest generational leap in the car's history.
Add a best-in-class six-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic plus the accoutrements of a luxury-class car, and the Jetta still comes in under $25,000. There simply is no other European car that comes close to the Jetta's return compared to cost.
The engine, a rare five-cylinder in a world of fours, sixes and eights, might recall unhappy memories of other, previous fives, but not to worry. This motor was designed by the same engineer who put together the Lamborghini Gallardo's 500-bhp V10, so it should have something going for it. And it does. Beyond sharing such technical traits as basic dimensions (82.5mm x 92.8mm) and a four-valve cylinder head (identical on both engines), by far the most significant resemblance to the V10 is the 2.5's impressive level of torque.
The new 2.5L puts out just under half the 369 lb-ft of the Lambo's 5.0, spreading 90% of the maximum 170 lb-ft across a broad band from 1750 rpm to 5125 rpm, well toward the 5800-rpm redline. Unfortunately, the 2.5L doesn't deliver half the horsepower of the Gallardo's V10, though it does make good use of the 35-bhp gain over the outgoing 2.0-liter. Despite recording modest times in the standard acceleration tests (zero to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds with the automatic), the 150 bhp feels sufficiently strong because of the muscular yank that distinguishes this from other VW-badged engines.
Until recently, this level of power was available only with the more expensive 1.8T, but now it's the entry point for gas-powered Jettas. At launch, diesel adherents (at least in 45 states) can opt for VW's vaunted 1.9-liter TDI, but speed freaks will have to wait a few months for the GLI and its new 2.0-liter FSI engine. VW also chose to fit the six-speed Tiptronic automatic gearbox in the first run of 2.5Ls, delaying introduction of the lower-priced "Value Edition" Jetta, which comes only with a five-speed manual transmission. It's frustrating to those who want three pedals on the floorboard, but the six-speed is a great transmission and will appeal to buyers who until recently were put off by VW's dismal automatics. For TDI and GLI models, the amazing twin-clutch DSG arrangement first seen on the R32 and Audi TT 3.2 will be a third transmission choice.
Still, as good as the 2.5L seems to be, the biggest improvements were in the areas of body structure and rear suspension. The upgrade to a multi-link rear suspension, adopted from VW 4Motion models, has transformed the Jetta into the best handling front-drive VW we've ever gotten in America. And maybe the best VW of them all, R32 included.
The rear suspension is comprised of telescopic gas-filled shock absorbers, coil springs and a stabilizer bar, supplanting VW's aged solid-beam axle. The result is far less body roll, tires that stay glued to the pavement (no more cocked rear dog leg in the corners), and a more comfortable ride. The geometry even helps packaging: The shocks are angled and combined with oval helper springs for a larger trunk opening.
The front MacPherson strut arrangement (with coil springs, telescopic shocks and a newly designed, integrated hollow stabilizer bar) also received improvements to minimize torque steer (what torque steer?), even when the throttle is maxed out in a corner. This is the most balanced VW ever, both ends of the car doing their share of the chores and alleviating any sense of it being a heavy, torque-rich front driver.
The 3200-pound chassis benefited from a new laser-welding technique developed by Volkswagen. Static rigidity is up by 80%, torsional rigidity by 15%, and flexural rigidity by 35%, which means all the car's subsystems have a solid base from which to operate. It also contributes to a quieter cabin. So far so good.
Standard running gear is 195/65-15 all-season radials on 6x15-inch steel wheels. The 2.5Ls get 16-inch steel wheels as standard, while 16-inch alloys with 205/55 all-season tires are available as part of an option package. A full-sized spare is standard across the line.
Beyond the basic goodness of the new Jetta there's a level of technology generally not found in this class of car. For instance, the standard Servotronic speed-variable power steering now features an electro-mechanical system that automatically adjusts the steering in the event of such outside forces as crosswinds or freeway grooves. As the system senses the car begin to yaw, minute corrections are made to the steering while the driver has nothing more to do than keep the wheel pointed straight. ABS is, of course, standard, but so is EDL, an electrical differential lock that varies power to either front wheel depending on which one has more traction. It applies the front brakes on the wheel with less traction and allows more torque to the other wheel. Also standard is ASR, anti-slip regulation, which reduces engine power to the front wheels if slip is detected. ESP will be standard fare on all Jettas