In spite of a recent hiccup in sales that’s led to the departure of Volkswagen of America CEO Jonathan Browning, the brand behind Das Auto says its metrics have improved everywhere else. According to the charts we were shown during a recent drive of the brand’s lineup, its US sales have doubled in four years, the dealer network is growing, VW was ranked the highest non-premium passenger-car brand in JD Power’s APEAL Study, it’s raising its score in JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey, warranty claims have declined by 47 percent since 2010, it has reversed its previously negative conquest/defection ratio and brand loyalty is on the ascent.
Its attention focused on buttressing those gains, VW has eased off large product changes in 2014. That explains the changes to the Jetta, namely its new 1.8-liter engine, which are about making it a better performer in general and a better performer in its segment in particular.
The be-trunked Golf remains VW’s best selling model here, the 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine improving in every way on the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine it replaces. It’s so good, in fact, that it made Ward’s 10 Best Engines List, the magazine’s executive editor calling it “the new benchmark,” saying when judged “on refinement, power, affordability and fuel economy… it becomes clear this engine is second to none.”
Experienced during a day of driving Napa Valley, not only is the engine sweet, the whole package is a potent, lively rebuttal to the competition.
The Jetta’s sheetmetal rolls into 2014 unchanged, the only mutations wrought upon the inside being the transfer of the Media Device Interface (MDI) cable from the glovebox to the center console and the incorporation of VW’s Car-Net suite of apps. The action is under the hood and between the rear wheels.
There are five powertrains available in the range, starting with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the base S trim that’s good for 115 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. Lined up behind that are the SE and SEL trims, carrying the new EA888 Gen 3 turbocharged and direct-injected 1.8-liter engine we mentioned above with 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It has the same horsepower as the 2.5-liter, but now it peaks at 4,800 rpm instead of 5,700 rpm, and seven more pound-feet torque that comes on at 1,500 rpm instead of 4,250 rpm.
When the lab-coat brigade was finished with the engine, they had made it lighter than the 2.5-liter and engineered developments like having exhaust gas ducting and exhaust gas cooling integrated into the cylinder head. On start-up, the exhaust gases being run through the head help heat the engine, the passenger compartment and emissions equipment more quickly. During running, the serpentine mingling of exhaust and coolant ductwork helps cool the gases to maintain optimum operating temperature. Keeping with the theme of compact integration, the ducting for the turbo is also sunk into the cylinder head. Other features include a crankshaft with four counterweights instead of eight inside a thin-wall crankcase, smaller diameter main bearings and roller bearings for the twin balance shafts.
Fuel economy is cited as one of the benefits. The 2.5-liter five-cylinder was good for 24 city miles per gallon and 31 highway mpg when shifting through a six-speed automatic and 23 city mpg/33 highway mpg when using the five-speed manual. The more powerful 1.8-liter returns 25 city and 36 highway mpg if fitted with the auto ‘box, 26 city mpg and 36 highway mpg if equipped with the manual. Not only does it beat its predecessor, the new 1.8T actually gets better gas mileage than the much-less powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the 2014 Jetta base trim: that motor can muster just 24 city and 34 highway mpg. From a standstill, the 1.8T also shaves 0.7 seconds off the 0-to-60 mile per hour time, getting it down to 7.3 seconds.
It only took a few loops through undulating Napa County terrain to know that it’s a good motor. Atoning for the great torsion beam blasphemy of 2011, all Jettas now get a multilink rear suspension and an anti-roll bar, and those who can appreciate it will be rewarded. The only truly weak spot was the electric power-assisted steering, which is standard on all but the base trim – the entry-level model sticks with a hydraulic power-assisted setup. The steering is empty on center, as if it had a linkage that was dipped in soft rubber, and its feedback score is pretty close to zero. It’s direct enough, and accurate, though, so at least it doesn’t distract from the enjoyment of a B-road when the opportunity comes – but it doesn’t add to that enjoyment.
A ruck of Napa B-roads allowed were the proof of that. The improved torque response of the 1.8T pulls the 3,021-pound Jetta (3,074 pounds if you get the automatic) gamely up any rolling hill – we never had to wait for power and it didn’t flinch even when we added some corner-exit throttle to the incline. Truth be told, we didn’t find the previous torsion beam anything to howl about considering the Jetta’s audience, but we weren’t shocked by the improved performance of the multilink rear end. Napa’s got smooth roads but tight turns and numerous camber changes, so a tidy back end allows one to keep the focus up front. When probing the reaches of corner-speed in a compact sedan or in corners of advanced difficulty, it could take a moment for the weight to settle, but we encountered no big understeery moments. Get on the Jetta’s last nerve or cross its line, however, and the traction control system will kidnap the power long enough for you to remember it and not want to do it again.
Volkswagen lists the Honda Civic and Ford Focus in the competitive set, and brought one of each to the drive: a 2014 Focus five-door sedan with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, six-speed automatic and an on-the-road price of $18,495, and a 2014 Civic four-door LX retailing for $19,755 all-up with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder shifting through a five-speed automatic. The handling podium went Jetta, Civic, then Focus, even after accounting for the slightly larger 205/55 R16 wheels and tires on the Jetta compared to the 195/65 R15 setups on the other two. You had to wring out the four-pots in the Civic and the Focus just to get them going, their much lower horsepower and torque numbers not achieved until much higher in the rev range. The multilink rear suspension in the Civic at least made the effort worthwhile; it was much more composed than the Focus, which was noodly all through a corner in spirited driving, taking half the turn just to stop jiggling. Driven in standard mode the Jetta still took it, but its Sport mode setting, which neither the Civic nor the Focus have, also gave it a slight advantage with respect to ideal gearing on the go. Elsewhere on the spec sheet, however, the Focus gets fractionally better gas mileage while the Civic improves things by about three mpg in the city and on the highway depending on the choice of transmission.
The $24,315 as-tested price of the Jetta we drove was nearly $5,000 more than that Ford Focus and close to $3,600 more than the Honda Civic at the event, but that’s misleading. Taking the Ford, for instance, stepping up to the Focus SE that comes on 16-inch wheels puts you at $18,950 before any options – and gets you better handling, we’re sure. Heated seats are a $495 option on the Ford, standard on the Jetta. The leather-wrapped steering wheel on the Ford adds another $600 because it requires upgraded wheels. Point being, option them up comparably and they’ll be priced more closely.
Given a choice between the Jetta’s five-speed manual and six-speed auto, and assuming we had the extra $1,100 to spend, we’d take the slushbox even with the one-mpg dip in city fuel economy. As much as we like shifting gears, the six-speed knows where it needs to be 99 percent of the time, and that last one percent is a quick downshift away. Mated to a willing motor with easy power and a Sport button, and keeping in mind that the SE and SEL trims will be urban runabouts, the convenience of the automatic is just too good to pass up. If you can keep your hands away from the option sheet you’ll get out the door for $20,815. Yes, that’s almost $2,300 up on the Ford and more than $1,000 over the Civic, the return being more room and better handling everywhere. Our opinion is that it’s nicer inside, but we’re fans of the Germanic no-nonsense. Consent to shifting for yourself and you can be on the road for $19,715 – true, that’s with 15-inch wheels and without a single option. On the other hand, the options sheet is almost entirely cosmetic; all of the plush features are essentially baked in with the trim.
Admittedly, things can escalate quickly. The no-options price of the base SE trim forsakes the new Car-Net suite of apps – essentially VW’s version of OnStar, with automatic crash notification, roadside assistance, stolen vehicle location assistance, remote vehicle access, boundary and speed alerts and a vehicle health report among its feature set. Get the SE with Connectivity and you’re in for $21,535 before you’ve added any options (not that there are many). Decide you’d like to let the sun shine through the roof and matters rest at $23,215.
Regardless of how those numbers might scramble things up in its competitive set, we’re certain about this: it would be a crime against internal combustion to buy the base Jetta at $17,540 instead of the SE 1.8T at $19,715. You get a better engine, better performance, better gas mileage, better interior appointments and more features – you know an automaker is reaching when it includes “Laser seam welding” in the standard features, as VW does for the Jetta’s base model.
The 1.8T and handling make a stronger case for the 2014 Jetta SE in the debate among its peers, even if it isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk choice. It is, however, the new standout player in the Jetta lineup and the only place you should really be looking for the entry-level model.