Auto review: A change in personality for the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 30, 2018

         

The redesigned 2019 Volkswagen Jetta is now very much at home among mainstream American-market compact sedans.

DURHAM, N.C. ó When it comes to personality, traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism are defined by how we were raised as children. A similar principle applies to cars, with traits such as spaciousness, comfort, handling, power and safety all affected by how the car was designed in the first place. And just as a personís personality can change over time with much effort, so too can a carís, although itís far easier.

The thought occurred to me after traveling to Durham, N.C., to drive the redesigned 2019 Volkswagen Jetta. The town is going through a remarkable metamorphosis from sleepy hamlet to trendy small city, as is the car that I drove there.

The seventh generation of the Volkswagen Jetta isnít the nimble, inexpensive little German sports sedan that won the hearts of consumers looking for something unique. Instead, Volkswagen has accelerated what it initially tried with the last version of the Jetta: making the car feel more like other mainstream American-market compact sedans.

The 2019 Jetta is nearly two inches longer and an inch wider than the current model, which lends the cabin a remarkably roomy feel. Most impressive is backseat space, with good room even for those more than six feet tall. Base S models get cloth seats, while SE, R-Line and SEL trims get leatherette seats. Top-of-the-line SEL Premium gets leather seats. The driving position is high and comfortable, although the driverís knee rubs against the center console. The seat seems designed for the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese. They are wide and welcoming, but lack the side bolstering needed during cornering.

The instrument panel is clean, simple and easy to use, and is anchored by a standard 6.5-inch or optional 8-inch touch screen. The infotainment system is responsive and includes standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The audio system is disappointing, however. The test vehicle lacked the newly optional 400-watt 8-speaker Beats audio system. Instead, the mid-level R-Line had the standard 4-speaker audio system that sounded strangely muffled. And what modern car, especially one aimed at younger buyers, makes do with a solitary USB port? If you want a second one, itís optional.

Interior storage is impressive, with a sizeable center console bin and door map pockets shaped to hold beverage bottles. Best of all, the Jetta tradition of offering massive trunk space continues with a 14 cubic-foot capacity.

As for comfort and convenience features, youíll find them optional on mid-level trims, and standard on the SEL Premium, including remote start, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated and ventilated seats, heated steering wheel, dual automatic climate control, electronic instrument cluster, ambient light, driverís seat memory and automatic headlights.

While buyers get a choice of five trim levels, they all come with the same engine: a revised version of last yearís turbocharged and intercooled 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 147 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque. Itís mated to a new eight-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are standard.

Thereís decent power off the line, with little evidence of turbo lag. It feels sprightly thanks to the automatic transmission that shifts promptly and unobtrusively. Fuel economy is impressive, returning 32.5 mpg in mixed driving.

Far less impressive was the driving experience, which is reminiscent of the Passat. The steering has lots of play on center; twitch it and nothing happens. Road feel is nonexistent. Tire squeal came on quickly in the R-line test model, a disappointment given older modelsí renowned athleticism. It makes for a very unexciting driving experience, one exacerbated by the rear torsion beam suspension. You can improve things somewhat by getting Driving Mode Selection, which offers four driving modes. Itís standard on SEL models and optional on others. The test car did not have it, revealing this rideís true colors. On the flip side, this is among the quietest compacts Iíve experienced, with negligible road, wind and tire noise.

Safety gear includes a standard rear view camera. Forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind spot monitor, and rear cross traffic alert are standard on all but base S models. SEL models also get adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist and automatic high beams.

Clearly Volkswagen thinks the road to higher U.S. Jetta sales is to build cars that focus on features, space and comfort, rather than the sporty European persona that once defined this carís appeal to so many buyers.

In a culture that rewards unique personalities, a trait that built Volkswagenís brand in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the 2019 Jettaís uninspired competence seems an odd choice.

Stats

Base prices: $18,545-$26,945

Engines: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder

Horsepower: 147

Torque: 187 pound-feet

Fuel type: Regular

EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 30/40

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches

Length: 185.1 inches

Cargo capacity: 14.1 cubic feet

Curb weight: 2,888-2,970 pounds