Telling the readership of european car about the Volkswagen Jetta is a bit like teaching efficiency to the Germans. In the 25 years since its introduction as a Rabbit with a trunk in 1980, Jettas have played a major role in Volkswagen's success in the U.S. It is the company's most popular seller and is the most successful European car sold in the States with more than 2.2 million sold here and more than 6.2 million sold worldwide. The funny thing is, as popular as the Jetta is here, in the rest of the world it is a slow seller.
Here, the Jetta is thought of as a car for young professionals, those with flair and a sense of fun. In the U.S., Jettas outsell Golfs by a ratio of four to one. In Germany, the Jetta is dismissed as a car for old people, suitable for granddad to drive to dinner on Sunday afternoon. The European's like hatchbacks and the Golf is the runaway success story. What this means is the U.S. market is all-important to Volkswagen when it comes time to create a new Jetta. It should come as no surprise therefore that everything about the fifth generation of the car has been designed specifically with U.S. buyers in mind.
From the Outside
There is no getting around it. The first thing that strikes you when you see the new Jetta is that big shiny chrome grille. After years of trying to convince the world that monochromatic treatments and body-colored bumpers and grilles spoke of quality and refinement, carmakers have suddenly rediscovered the joys of chrome. This is dangerous territory as it is way too easy to go overboard.
In the Jetta's case, and despite what you might think from looking at photographs, in person the chrome grille and bumper insert come right up to that edge without crossing over. This is a good thing. The rest of the nose of the car, with its black, straked lower air intakes looks purposeful without crossing into the realm of overly busy. The huge VW badge on the nose has its own circular cutout into the hood, which looks a lot better than it sounds.
If the grille dominates the design, the rest of the body is pleasant in the thoroughly modern idiom. There are slight bulges at each of the fenders and a gentle rise to the rear, resulting in a huge amount of trunk space. The twin-round rear tail lamps give the Jetta a look that it shares with the ueber-class Volkswagen Phaeton. A crease line runs from the front to the rear fenders, lending some character, although the flanks of the vehicle appear as though they might be vulnerable to parking-lot dings. Although the silhouette remains recognizable as a Jetta, the car looks bigger and more similar to competitors' car lines.
Volkswagen put a huge effort into greater chassis strength, with static torsional rigidity up 60% and flexure resistance up 35%. Stronger cars are better cars, but the big news for long-time Jetta fans is the car has grown larger. It is 1 in. wider, 0.6 in. taller and a bit more than 7 in. longer. That might not sound like much until you learn much of that length translates into more rear-seat legroom, long a complaint of the previous-generation Jettas.
The interior of the new Jetta works best in the two-tone version that comes with a beige interior. The upper surface of the dash is gray and, when combined with the beige lower panels and seats, results in a sophisticated appearance. With the gray interior, however, the effect isn't nearly so striking and seems a bit somber. The controls are all refreshingly logical and large knobs and buttons need no explanation, nor instruction from a video tape or dealer salesperson.
The seats adjust in a variety of ways and the seats push far enough back to easily accommodate drivers who are well over 6-ft tall. Leather upholstery is optional. Even the standard version of the Jetta comes with six airbags (including head airbags and head side-curtain airbag protection), air conditioning, power windows, anti-lock brakes and an alarm system. The AM/FM sound system with CD has 10 speakers, but sounded tinny. This may not be a problem as many young Jetta owners probably have a replacement sound system already in mind, but is surprising given the quality of the rest of the interior.
Volkswagen's R5 engine for the Jetta is completely new. It was designed specifically for the U.S. market and it is an inline five-cylinder design with twin camshafts and four valves-per-cylinder. The choice of a five-cylinder is an interesting solution to a problem most competitors solve by offering both four- and six-cylinder engines in their lines. VW knew the base Jetta would be too slow with a four-cylinder engine, but too expensive with a V6. Turbocharging a four was also deemed too expensive for the entry-level Jetta (see "What's Coming" below).
The engine is a straightforward normally aspirated 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder that will outperform the competition's four-cylinder engines, while not being too embarrassed against the competition when it is optioned with more expensive V6 engines. The engine produces 150 bhp at 5000 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 3700 rpm. That's not a huge amount for a 2.5-liter engine in this class of automobile, but VW insists the engine is designed with excellent torque for everyday use.
There have been other five-cylinder engines before, notably from Audi, and vibration is always a concern with an odd number of cylinders. According to Professor Dr. Wilfried Bockelmann, the member of the Volkswagen board of management responsible for technical development, there are some interesting characteristics to a five-cylinder engine. He said that even numbers of cylinders (two, four, six, eight and 10) result in an unpleasant harmonic peak in engine vibration (for a four-cylinder engine, that peak is at around 3000 rpm). But with an odd number of cylinders, like the VW R5, the harmonic does not exist and the noise energy from vibration increases at a constant rate with increasing engine speed.
The Jetta comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission and an optional six-speed automatic. The automatic is well matched to the Jetta's five-cylinder engine and shift quality is very good. The automatic transmission has Tiptronic capability for those who wish to shift for themselves and also has a "sport" mode. This mode locks out the use of sixth gear and results in much more aggressive shift patterns for the transmission. The "sport" mode is the one to use in all but long-distance travel on the open highway.
Suspension and Steering
After 2 1/2 decades of using a fairly rudimentary rear suspension on the Jetta, Volkswagen has finally done a proper independent rear suspension for the car. The multi-link rear suspension separates longitudinal and lateral wheel location for good isolation and enhanced ride comfort, while providing lateral rigidity for maximum cornering. Coil springs, gas shocks and an anti-roll bar are nicely packaged to minimize intrusion into the trunk's luggage space. In the front, the Jetta retains its traditional coil springs over MacPherson struts with an anti-roll bar that have served it so well in the past.
Almost bigger news than the new rear suspension is an electro-mechanical power steering system. An electric motor is used to add power assist to the steering only when needed. The system is speed sensitive and also corrects automatically for crosswinds or road camber by reducing the steering effort needed to keep the car tracking straight in these specific conditions. The electrically operated system also improves fuel economy.