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2019 Volkswagen Jetta: Lucky Seven?

CSABA CSERE

The current Volkswagen Jetta, the sixth generation since the Golf with a trunk was introduced in 1979, arrived for the 2011 model year as VW grudgingly acknowledged that its brand was not seen in America as the gateway to the German luxury-car makers, but rather as just an alternative to the traditional midbrow carmakers—Ford, Honda, and Toyota. As a result, the Jetta was thrifted both mechanically and visually to facilitate a lower sticker price.

The strategy failed to bolster sales, however, and many of the mechanical downgrades were ameliorated during the car’s seven-year run. In 2011, Volkswagen sold 177,360 Jettas in America—almost 63,000 fewer cars than Toyota sold Corollas and good for fifth place in the segment. This year, VW is on track to sell about 120,000 Jettas and is mired in eighth place in the segment, while the class-leading Honda Civic will sell some 375,000 examples.

Aimed at America

With the upcoming, seventh-generation Jetta, which will debut at the Detroit auto show in January and go on sale in the second quarter of 2018 as a 2019 model, VW is continuing the strategy of pricing the Jetta competitively against its key competitors. But the company is hoping to make it more appealing to Americans by tailoring it more closely to North American tastes, an effort made possible by a reorganization of its product-development structure that gives more autonomy to the individual regions.

We got an early taste of the new Jetta at VW’s top-secret Arizona Proving Grounds—it was established in 1992, but most of us had never heard of it. The cars were preproduction models, camouflaged with black-and-white zig-zag contact paper on the outside and dashboards draped with sheets of neoprene with slots for the shifter to poke through. So we can’t comment on the fine details of the new version, but here’s what we did learn.

The new model finally moves to Volkswagen’s versatile MQB platform, which underpins products from the Golf all the way up to the new Atlas three-row SUV. This switch brings with it access to the latest driver-assistance systems and digital cockpit options, for which the electronic support is baked into the platform.

The 2019 Jetta is slightly larger than the current one, growing almost two inches in length and about an inch in width, which makes it two to three inches longer than the Civic and the Corolla although otherwise similar in size. Inside, these dimensions should translate into slightly more rear-seat space, which will keep the Jetta at the roomier end of the class.

Under the hood, you’ll find the same turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four used in the current car. It generates 150 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque and will be coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Matthias Erb, who heads VW product development in the North American region, believes that Americans don’t much like dual-clutch automatic transmissions, so he has stayed with the conventional automatic—albeit with two more ratios than before. There also will be a six-speed manual option, replacing the previous five-speed. However, to simplify the product lineup, the turbocharged 1.8-liter engine is being dropped. But it offered only 20 more horsepower, no more torque, and considerably lower EPA fuel economy than the 1.4-liter engine.

We received no information about the new model’s underpinnings, but peaking underneath the car revealed a conventional strut suspension in front, with the usual widely spaced control arm at the bottom to provide a good mix of lateral stiffness for cornering precision and longitudinal compliance to improve ride. In the rear, we saw a trailing torsion-beam axle, which was one of the cost-cutting changes, later reversed, that were applied to the sixth-gen car. Now it’s back, and it reflects Erb’s opinion that American buyers of cars like the Jetta won’t pay for sophisticated suspensions and the handling benefits they can provide, although we’ve found the torsion beam’s biggest disadvantage to be in the ride department. It perhaps also reflects VW’s higher cost of production—despite the Jetta’s origins in the Puebla, Mexico, plant—because Honda and Mazda manage to provide multilink rear suspensions at the Jetta’s price point. At least the torsion-beam axle is fitted with hydraulic bushings where it mounts to the structure to provide a better mix of precision and compliance.

There are disc brakes all around—unlike at the debut of the sixth-gen Jetta—and VW continues with electrically assisted power steering of the dual-pinion type. That’s a rack-mounted system, but it’s not as expensive as the technology used in some Audis and other higher-end cars. However, such dual-pinion systems generally offer more feel than the column-mounted electric power steering fitted to other cars in the class.

We had only a limited opportunity to drive the new Jetta, within the sterile confines of the proving ground. On the 4.6-mile, high-speed oval, the powertrain felt strong and smooth at full throttle, although, as with many turbocharged engines, the sound was less than stirring. But acceleration felt decent and the car pulled easily to its governed 127-mph top speed—that’s according to GPS, as we couldn’t see the instrument cluster.

Acceleration from a stop was fine unless you suddenly floored the throttle, and then you had to wait a beat or two before the turbo spooled and the engine mustered full thrust. All small-displacement turbocharged engines suffer from this phenomenon, but at least you can brake-torque the engine when a swift blast-off is required.

At 80 mph or so, the cabin was quiet, with minimal wind, road, and engine noise, and the ride was very good, although the pavement collaborated by being near perfect. Steering feel was precise on-center and the car changed lanes smartly and predictably, but we might have wanted a bit more weight at that speed. The base car has no driving-mode programs, but such options are available in the higher trim levels.

On a tight handling course, we did learn that the new Jetta feels lively, rotates slightly at the limit when you ease off the accelerator, and lets you shift its transmission manually using the shift lever. Brake feel is smooth and progressive, but travel is a bit longer than we’d like. The car at the handling track did have driving modes, and switching to Sport brought a welcome increase in steering effort, along with a more aggressive throttle calibration and shift schedule, neither of which were very apparent. Unusual among such affordable cars, there also was a custom mode allowing the driver to mix and match among the various settings.

The only downside was that the stability control engaged prematurely. The engagement wasn’t abrupt, but we felt torque reductions as we were approaching the car’s limits. Overall, however, the Jetta’s liveliness and willingness to do other than simply understeer is welcome in this class of car. And a few months after the base Jetta is introduced, VW will deliver a GLI version with more power and all of the handling goodness available from the parts shelves.

With the camouflage, it’s hard to draw any conclusions about the styling of the new Jetta, but based on the contours, we expect no startling or swooping lines but rather the tasteful and conservative look that typifies current VWs. Inside, we briefly lifted the neoprene curtains and saw a layout, center stack, and switchgear that is very similar to that of the new Tiguan. The base cars will come with an analog instrument cluster and a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system in the middle of the dashboard, while upmarket versions will offer an 8.0-inch touchscreen as well as Volkswagen’s 12.3-inch Digital Cockpit electronic instrument cluster. (That electronic cluster also is available in the e-Golf, Golf R, and high-end versions of the Atlas and the Tiguan.)

It must be a source of frustration to Volkswagen management that the company in 2016 sold more cars in the world than anyone else yet continued to struggle in the American market. With its latest models, VW has recognized that it must price its products competitively and pay attention to the local markets, rather than taking the Wolfsburg-knows-best approach that has dominated for the past three-plus decades. We look forward to evaluating this new Jetta once we can live with a production model in our backyard.

Specifications >

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 85 cu in, 1395 cc
Power: 150 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm

TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

DIMENSIONS:
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Length: 185.1 in
Width: 70.8 in Height: 57.4 in
Curb weight (C/D est): 3100 lb

PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 8.0–8.3 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 21.2–22.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.1–16.2 sec
Top speed: 127 mph

EPA FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
Combined/city/highway: 33/28/40 mpg