DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: If you want to get into the Volkswagen world on the (relatively speaking) cheap, the Jetta SE gives you a lot of what drivers want -- just note that it has very little else. What you get is good interior room, excellent sightlines and a lovely, sewing-machine powertrain, along with the superb handling and steering feel for which VW has been known. There's a big, flat-floored trunk that'll hold tons of cargo, and clean sedan lines; so clean, in fact, that only the badge conscious will have the slightest idea what you're driving. To illustrate the point, I walked right by the Jetta in our parking deck thinking it was a Passat, and I'm a car reviewer who owns a Jetta Sportwagen. If you're looking to get noticed, this probably isn't your ride.
Behind the wheel it's much of the same -- no flash, but nice power delivery from the little turbo four. It's a far more entertaining small-car engine than the naturally aspirated engines in the Ford Focus and Honda Civic, and has more push than the smaller turbo in a Chevy Cruze. The gearbox only has five speeds, but it's geared well for taking advantage of the turbo torque.
The missing sixth gear sort of symbolizes the Jetta SE experience, though. This is not a particularly well-equipped car. Sure, it's got air conditioning and power windows and all that, and the price is in line with competitors at this level, but Volkswagen doesn't offer the ability to add desirable options to its lower trim levels. For example, to get things like automatic climate control, power seats and a rearview camera you have to opt for the next step up -- the Jetta SEL -- for a massive $5,000 bump in MSRP…not to mention that a manual transmission is no longer available at that trim level. Cars like the Focus let you spec out a nice mid-level trim with sporty options for significantly less.
Still, this is a nice platform with good dynamics, and option packages are something that can be adjusted relatively quickly. The Jetta has great bones, so if the company's new North American CEO can add some equipment without destroying the bottom line the math could change rapidly. It's going to have to: Outstanding small cars like the new Mazda 3 have raised the bar yet again, and VW has to adapt or die.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: Yep, the Jetta now looks exactly like the Passat. The key fob also needs to be almost under the hood to connect, so you'll have fun looking for your car in the parking lot all day long!
On the other hand, sure it's boring, but it honestly offers nearly everything you need in a small car. Fun to drive? Check. Good on gas? Check. Will fit four adults comfortably for a short period of time? Check. And that's a darn good price, too.
I'm not a fan of the cheaper seats in these VWs. They always seem too hard to me. The radio already had the iPhone 4 connector, so I had to use the aux cable for my 5. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but you have to go into the menu and initialize the connection to make it work -- sometimes more than once. Just put a USB in there please.
Otherwise, it's a Jetta. Like Andy says, it has direct steering, brakes are just right and it had no problem bounding over the bits of snow that are still left on the ground.
The price is great, but would I buy one? Not anymore. There are too many good cars at this price, or less, that are nearly as fun and way less boring. Everyone has caught up, now it's the Jetta's turn to take another step forward.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: I'm struggling to think of things to say about the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE. That isn't necessarily a bad thing (I could be taking cruel below-the-belt shots at it, after all), but a car has to be more than perfectly adequate to stand above the competition today, and the two cars I drove right before my turn in the Jetta -- a loaded Mazda 3 five-door and a fairly basic Ford Focus sedan -- didn't do the VW product any favors. Those other cars seemed to have a lot more character on the road and overall style (especially the Mazda).
But let's see what you get with the Jetta, which VW is hoping will get buyers on track to eventual Passat ownership. Styling is…mature, I guess. It's not a bad looking car; the similarities to its bigger brother have already been noted. Where most automakers seem to at least try to have a little fun with the lines of their less-expensive offerings, the Jetta remains restrained (some might say boring) inside and out.
On the road it's not bad. No annoying turbo lag to speak of. Sure, it could have used a sixth gear, but it wasn't crying out for one at speed like, say, a Ford Fiesta. I'd have liked to have had more time to evaluate the handling, which seems to be a strong point on these cars. I want a meatier steering wheel; there's something about VW's wheels and shifters -- that is, the parts of the car I'm most directly in contact with while driving -- that always strikes me as delicate, even if I can't quite nail it down.
But that wheel is (to me) one of the most attractively designed on the market -- simple, elegant, devoid of clutter. It can afford to be, because the Jetta SE trim doesn't offer many of the technological features found on other cars in its price range…you may find that a feature rather than a bug.
Overall, the Jetta struck me as a buttoned-down car for a buttoned-down lifestyle. That's what some people want, I guess. But it must be noted again that potential Jetta buyers have a lot of options now. The Jetta GLI is a lot more fun on the road, has a sixth gear and costs around $24,000. The one we tested was just under $27,000. If you care enough about being in a Jetta that you're willing to spend the extra money, that's the car to get.
Otherwise, look to the other worthy options in this field -- or hold on and hope that VW responds to its competitors with more features or a slightly lower price, or figures out how to offer optional features for less.
2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE with Connectivity
Base Price: $21,240
As-Tested Price: $21,240
Drivetrain: 1.8-liter turbocharged I4; FWD, five-speed manual
Output: 170 hp @ 4,800 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,750 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,021 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 26/36/30 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 25.6 mpg
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