Test Drive

2019 Volkswagen Jetta Test Drive Review: Catching Up

The 2019 Jetta doesn’t look drastically different, but Volkswagen has brought its bestselling car up to date with competitive tech and efficiency.

With Volkswagen finally getting its crossover lineup up to date, it was time to give its perennial bestseller some attention. The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta has moved to a completely new platform: Volkswagen’s MQB wunder-platform that has already been deployed for various Golf hatchback and wagon models, the Tiguan and Atlas crossovers, and even small Audi products like the A3, TT, and upcoming Q3. While it’s a drastic change under the skin from an aging platform, the Jetta remains familiar in its exterior and interior design.

The 2019 Jetta grows over an inch in length and wheelbase and almost an inch in width, but that doesn’t actually translate into more interior space. While headroom has grown slightly, legroom shrinks in front and back. Then again, the Jetta was positively roomy before, and it remains spacious, with plenty of leg and headroom even for adults in the rear seat. Parents of young children will appreciate the easily accessed LATCH anchors, and the wide, tall door opening makes it easier installing child seats and getting the kids into them.

If you’re looking for maximum practicality in your compact sedan, its chief rivals, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, offer more legroom, but the Jetta is tops for headroom, and the Civic beats the Jetta for cargo volume with 15.1 cubic feet to the Jetta’s 14.1. The differences are all slim, however, and the Jetta’s trunk is more than generous for everyday family life. Although a sedan is not as practical as a hatchback or wagon, the 60/40 split rear seats can be dropped right from the trunk if you need to slide in longer cargo.

While Honda and Toyota are experimenting with bold and adventurous exterior designs, the Jetta remains conservative inside and out, but the interior is futuristic thanks to two large digital screens and colourful night-time illumination. SEL and SEL Premium models feature an 8.0-inch touchscreen in the centre stack controlling all infotainment functions, plus a customizable 10.25-inch “Digital Cockpit” gauge cluster that can display audio, communication, navigation and more. Lower trims, starting with the $18,545 S (tack on $850 for Destination charges and $800 for an automatic transmission, for a more realistic starting price of $21,145), have a conventional gauge cluster, but even base models feature a 6.5-inch touchscreen (up from 5-inch screens on 2018 models), backup camera, steering wheel controls and standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/MirrorLink.

Step up to the $22,155 SE (+$850 for Destination) and you get panoramic sunroof, dual zone auto climate, leather steering wheel, leatherette seats instead of cloth, heated front seats, blind spot monitoring, and forward collision alert with auto-emergency braking. If you want just those last two safety features you can get them along with rear cross-traffic alert and heated side mirrors in a Driver-Assistance Package on the S for $450.

Those that still remember the Drivers Wanted days of Volkswagen will head straight for the $22,995 R-Line trim, which is good value with all the features of the SE, plus a bump in wheel size to 17-inch alloys, body kit, black exterior and interior trim, fog lights, sport steering wheel and two-tone seats with contrast stitching. The only exclusive performance feature aside from the larger wheels (which are matched by SEL trims) is the XDS electronic differential that uses wheel braking to reduce understeer when pushing hard through the corners. This is no GLI, and it sticks with the Jetta’s torsion-beam rear suspension, so you’re still better off in a Golf or GTI for your lightly sporty VW until the GLI does drop sometime later this year.

The SEL and SEL Premium trims really step up with feature content without getting too far away from the value expected in this segment, the $24,415 SEL comparable to a fully loaded Corolla XSE and the $26,945 Premium matching the Civic Touring. SEL highlights include 10-color interior ambient lighting, 400-watt, 8-speaker Beats Audio, that Digital Cockpit and 8-inch touchscreen, plus satellite radio and adaptive cruise with lane-keeping assist.

SEL Premium adds real leather throughout, “Sport Comfort” front seats that are also ventilated with three-position memory for the driver, and navigation, which can be linked up to SiriusXM for traffic and more if you shell out for a subscription after the three-month trial. No matter how automotive companies package these things, though, it all seems redundant to your smartphone’s capability, and rarely matches those devices’ familiarity and user-friendliness.

We drove the fully loaded SEL Premium model, and although impressively modern, the quality of the materials was fairly basic beyond the main touch points and there was a piece of insulation sticking out of the edge of the dash. That kind of thing is easily forgiven when the leather seats themselves were of a good quality, supportive, comfortable, and heated and cooled for year-round comfort. Even the rear seats were quite comfortable, except for the middle position, of course.

No matter which trim you choose, your Jetta will be powered by a teeny-tiny 1.4-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged to a pretty impressive 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque powering the front wheels. While Volkswagen does keep a manual transmission on offer, it can only be had with the base S model, and the automatic has the advantage of two more gears, levelling the playing field when it comes to efficiency. For an engine that small, it’s no slouch, the full 184 lb-ft available from 1,400 rpm, puling the 2,970-lb Jetta up to speed with good jump when called upon, further enabled by Sport mode for throttle and transmission.

While Sport mode certainly helps the car move quicker, the transmission gets a little more jerky than it needs to in this setting, and even in normal and Eco modes, you’ll feel the shifting more often than necessary. Granted, some people do appreciate the distinct gears of stepped transmissions, but I for one have come to appreciate the incredibly smooth behavior of many CVTs and even automatics – this one just felt a bit crude at times. Likewise, the ride was mostly comfortable on a wide variety of surfaces, but a couple of rough bumps delivered alarming clunks that disrupted the quiet ride.

It may not be the smoothest in the segment, but it is one of the most efficient, the available Eco mode and low 0.27 coefficient of drag contributing to its 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 34 mpg EPA ratings. That's better than the less powerful Corolla, but short of the excellent mileage delivered by the Civic’s 1.5L turbo and CVT. On my watch, the Jetta managed a respectable 28.7 mpg in mostly city driving.

For those that also want the reassurance of a good warranty, and to reassure customers wary of Volkswagen’s traditionally suspect reliability, the Jetta comes with a 6-year/72,000 bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranty. That’s double the basic coverage from Honda and Toyota and more than Hyundai and Kia’s basic coverage, although Hyundai and Kia powertrain warranties now stretch to 10 years and 100,000 miles.

Although the Jetta is Volkswagen’s entry level economy car and therefore prioritizes comfort, it still retains a vestige of that driver-friendly personality. Up to the limits of its comfort-oriented tires, it handles with confidence, the steering light but accurate and the brakes much improved for feel and response over the previous generation, which were a sore spot for the previous generation. While it manages respectably in corners, there’s no question that it is best suited for a lot of highway driving, feeling like a larger car as it eats up the miles, and it’s a shame that the effective adaptive cruise is only available on higher trims. Adaptive cruise and a whole safety suite is standard on the Corolla and can be had for less than $21,000 on the Civic LX.

Aside from the price point of desirable driving safety features, the Jetta hits its mark of an practical, economical, and high-tech compact car. Although it doesn’t recapture the old aura of class-above quality and sporty driving manners, it does drive well and provides a classy if unadventurous design inside and out that should be agreeable to many customers just looking for an everyday car. I can’t say I was blown away by any one thing in the 2019 Jetta, but it was easy to live with in every respect and it’s a car I can see owners being satisfied with for many years.

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Volkswagen Jetta Sedan
Starting MSRP
$17,895
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