Auto review: 2019 Jetta is Volkswagen’s best compact sedan

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 16, 2018

      

The 2019 Jetta is the company's best compact sedan by far, a car that should make VW a must-have for the average American buyer.

Volkswagen is the world’s largest automaker, rich and powerful beyond the dreams of avarice, but the German powerhouse’s execs could be excused if they sometimes feel like a cartoon character about to get an anvil dropped on its head.

The 2019 Jetta is the company’s best compact sedan by far, a car that should make VW a must-have for the average American buyer. It’s a perfect vehicle to help rehabilitate VW’s image after the self-inflicted wound of rigging a half-million diesel engines to cheat U.S. emissions law.

Except. The mostly marvelous new Jetta arrives at the exact moment when U.S. car shoppers have turned their backs on compact sedans, abandoning what used to be a massive market segment in favor of taller, hipper small SUVs.

Don’t cry for VW. It also builds small SUVs so it’s not shut out of the boom, but the Jetta is the car the company had been promising for decades: a good value with Germanic handling and a handsome new design.

Behind the Wheel

2019 Volkswagen Jetta SE

Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price as tested: $22,155 (excluding destination charge)

Rating: Three out of four stars

Reasons to buy: Value; fuel economy; easy-to-use controls; fun to drive

Shortcomings: Poor audio for hands-free phone calls; antiquated displays for touch screen and trip computer; engine vibration

How much?

The Jetta is entirely new for 2019. Like the Golf hatchback, it rides on VW’s MQB platform, an elaborate set of parts and systems that will eventually underpin a wide variety of compact and midsize cars and SUVs.

The Jetta competes with compact cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla.

Prices for the new Jetta start at $18,545 with a six-speed manual transmission, $19,345 with an eight-speed automatic.

All Jettas come with a 147-hp 1.4-liter turbocharged engine. The very good eight-speed automatic is standard automatic on all models above the base S.

I tested an SE, the second step in the model lineup. It stickered at $22,155 and came with features including a touch screen; Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink; front collision warning and automatic braking; Bluetooth compatibility; heated seats; four-speaker audio; 16-in. gloss black alloy wheels; LED headlights, taillights and running lights; backup camera; blind spot alert; cruise control; power sun roof and more.

It stickered at $22,155.

The top Jetta loads on features like Beats audio, satellite radio and leather seats.

Jetta prices compare well to similarly equipped competitors.

Competitive base prices

(Excluding destination charges)

VW Jetta SE: $22,155

Chevrolet Cruze LT sedan: $21,520

Ford Focus SEL sedan: $21,870

Honda Civic EX-T: $22,500

Hyundai Elantra SEL: $19,850

Kia Forte EX: $21,700

Mazda 3 Touring sedan: $21,140

Nissan Sentra SR CVT: $20,500

Subaru Impreza Premium sedan: $21,295

Toyota Corolla XLE CVT: $22,135

Source: Autotrader

Outstanding features

The Jetta’s fuel economy in real-world driving is very good. I averaged 37.3 mpg on a long drive that included hot, heavy air, constant air conditioner use, hilly countryside, traffic jams and long highway runs with the cruise control set near the 70-mph speed limit.

The new sedan is quiet and comfortable on the highway, with little road noise, comfortable seats and plenty of storage bins. The controls are very easy to use, with a touch screen, Apple CarPlay and dials and buttons for oft-used functions like volume, tuning fan and temperature.

Passenger and luggage room are good, and there are plenty of cubbies and bins for cups, glasses and the like.

The small engine delivers good acceleration around town, thank to 184 lb-ft of torque available from just 1,400 rpm and quick upshifts from VW’s smooth eight-speed transmission.

The Jetta’s steering is firm and precise, perfectly in tune with a suspension that combines a smooth ride with responsive handling.

The 2019 Jetta is longer, wider and much better looking than its predecessors. The exterior has a fast-sloping rear window, crisp character lines and a wide chrome grille that sweeps dramatically into the headlights for a striking departure from VW’s usual restrained styling.

The downside

The Jetta’s good fuel economy comes in part at the cost of noticeable engine vibration, as the transmission holds higher gears at low rpm to squeeze maximum distance from every gallon of gasoline. The tendency to hold high gears also shows up in lagging downshifts that delay throttle response for passing at highway speeds.

The audio quality of hands-free phone calls is very poor. Every person I called complained and asked me to switch to the handset. I did that in jurisdictions that allow hand-held calls while driving, but I lost access to my phone everywhere else.

The touch screen’s display mirrors an iPhone’s vivid colors when you’re using CarPlay, but reverts to a grainy B&W display like a 1980s video-game when controlling the car’s built-in functions. It’s enough to make you fear a message saying "You have died of dysentery" around every corner.

The trunk is roomy, but the hinges are weak. The lid rebounded down every time I flipped it open, giving me a colorful scalp wound on one occasion.

Specifications as tested

Engine: 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder.

Power: 147 @ 5,000 rpm; 184 lb-ft of torque @ 1,400 rpm

Transmission: eight-speed automatic reducer

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches

Length: 185.1 inches

Width: 70.8 inches

Height: 57.4 inches

Curb Weight: 2,959 lbs.

Where assembled: Puebla, Mexico

Facts and figures

The little 1.4L turbo four-cylinder engine develops its rated 147 hp and 184 lb-ft with regular gasoline, a major improvement over VW’s long habit of making its owners pay for premium to get the advertised power and fuel economy.

The Jetta’s EPA rating of 30 mpg in the city, 40 on the highway and 34 combined makes it one of the most efficient compact sedans. The key 34-mpg combined rating beats all the competitors I’ve named except the Civic, which scored 36 mpg.

Competitive EPA fuel economy ratings

(Automatic transmission models. Front-wheel drive where available.)

VW Jetta SE: 30 city/40 highway/34 combined. Regular gasoline

Chevrolet Cruze LT sedan: 29/40/33. Regular.

Ford Focus SEL sedan: 26/38/32/. Regular

Honda Civic EX-T: 32/42/36. Regular.

Hyundai Elantra SEL: 28/37/32. Regular.

Kia Forte EX: 29/37/32. Regular

Mazda 3 Touring sedan: 27/36/30. Regular.

Nissan Sentra SR CVT: 29/37/32. Regular.

Subaru Impreza Premium sedan: 28/38/23. Regular.

Toyota Corolla XLE CVT: 28/26/32. Regular.

Source: www.fueleconomy.gov

The verdict

If this were a cartoon, a giant anvil would fall from the sky, crushing the truck delivering new Jettas. But this is the real world, and 2019 Jettas are arriving at VW dealers now. Stop by and see for yourself why they give America’s favorite small cars a run for their money.

But keep an eye on the sky. You can’t be too careful when you’re standing next to an anvil magnet.

Key features on vehicle tested

Standard equipment: Antilock brakes; stability control; forward collision warning; automatic emergency braking; front seat side air bags; curtain air bags; backup camera; LED headlights, taillights and daytime running lights; blind spot and cross traffic alert; touch screen; USB port; voice recognition; Bluetooth compatibility; power sunroof; AM/FM radio; four speakers; cruise control; 16-in. alloy wheels; leatherette upholstery; dual zone climate control; push button start; power locks, windows and mirrors.

Options: None.———