On the Road Review: VW Jetta SEL

The significance of the automobile market shift is more apparent when you compare where compact crossovers and compact cars are not only on the sales charts, but what their relative fuel economy numbers have reached for efficiency. Marketing types used to say, quietly, if crossovers could hit 30 mpg on an everyday basis — and many of the current compact and subcompact units are on the cusp of that level of efficiency if not already there — then the small car market (with its diminished profit levels) would be all but toast in America. The stability of fuel prices, continued economic expansion, world peace and other mitigating factors will ultimately play roles as well.

Despite the elevated efficiency of today’s conventional compact cars — most achieving the lofty 40-mpg targets first thought difficult to reach, but realistically doable, as is evident in this new 2019 VW Jetta, as well as our recent Corolla — marketers have to wonder if the compact car will have a larger role yet to play in our driving fleet. Given the demise of many large sedans, and the abandonment of certain car segments by several automakers, those brands that do a better than average job with each iteration of their small cars should realize decent market success. That is certainly the goal for Toyota, as well as the statement that Volkswagen is making with the newest Jetta.

Longer, wider, but actually lighter than its predecessor, the newest Jetta looks more like a Passat, feels like a Passat, and is roomy inside like its larger sibling, leaving one to think that this Jetta is a Passat that trimmed down at the gym. However, the Jetta is not a Passat derivative but a totally new design shared with the latest Golf, Audi A3 and A4 sedans. While styling is always a subjective item, the Jetta looks more streamlined, more polished while apparently appealing to the design emphasis across the compact segment as each new small entry is larger than the unit before it, making many of these cars as large as the former midsize sedans of 15 years ago.

The new Jetta starts at $18,545 with a six-speed manual — one of the few small cars still featuring a three-pedal setup. This is a $650 jump in base price from the 2018 edition, yet buyers gain more fuel economy (30/40 EPA mpg), more standard pieces, more safety as well as the roomier interior.

There are now five trim levels, including a sporty R-line ($22,995) while our SEL trimmed model starts at $24,415. Every version will use the 1.4-liter turbo-four engine, 147 hp, while a new eight-speed automatic will generally be the default transmission for the majority of buyers.

The best part of the new Jetta is that it still drives like a Jetta. Steering feel and handling control remain a step above the majority of its competition, while the cabin is hushed at all speeds. Power is plenty adequate from the smaller motor, with a torquey turbo-push capably managed by the eight-speed automatic so that the car at least feels like it hustles. With negligible engine braking from those multiple overdrive gears, the Jetta rolls along easily over hilly terrain — all of which aids fuel economy. In our hands, the trip computer reported 40-plus mpg for the VW’s visit.

Despite the price increase, the Jetta still hits the segment sweet spot on pricing — right on top of the top-selling Civic and Corolla. At 185.1 inches long, the Jetta is a tick longer than its rivals and very close on wheelbase and weight — meaning all of these compact cars now ride very well and are pretty light on their feet.

VW feels that the SEL trim will appeal to many buyers. It includes: 10-color selectable ambient lighting, Beats Audio system with XM, VW’s new selectable digital dash (think Audi), power sunroof, heated leatherette seats, heated mirrors, Start-stop with push-button ignition and access, adaptive cruise, electric parking brake, auto headlights, lane assist, rear view camera, forward braking assist, rear traffic alert and a split folding rear seatback. Rear seat space is very roomy; heck, the whole cabin is spacious.

The downside — inventory has been slow to reach dealers. Along with few leftover models in showrooms, Jetta sales are down 40 percent YTD, which may mirror some of the Jetta’s more established competitor’s position in this year’s crossover-happy market, but is still a steeper decline than what a new generation model should generate. We’ll check back in a few months and see if the latest Jetta, a better product, is making its case with Joe and Jane Consumer.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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