Test Drive

2016 Volkswagen Jetta Review: The E46 BMW 3 Series Is Still Alive

As long as you put blinders on, you won’t spot the difference.

There’s a certain type of buyer that is especially receptive to the types of cars that come out of Germany. This person is of the breed that keeps their sock drawer organized, subscribes to tasteful entertainment magazines that they later use to festoon a coffee table, and do not deviate from their shopping list at the grocery store. No unnecessary cookies will make their way into a cupboard belonging to them, and similarly, they expect everything inside of their cars to make sense.

Usually people with such a mechanistic demeanor do well in society and can afford to buy the quintessential German car, a BMW 3 Series. However, success is a process that takes time, and sometimes a filler car is required in the meantime to make sure that cupboard is properly filled week in and week out. For the aspiring 3 Series owner on a budget, we have found your replacement and it’s got Volkswagen badges on it. As with any car, there is one main caveat to the Jetta, and that’s its looks. The car is damn ugly both inside and out. Despite trying to cover it up with chrome exterior accents and stitched leatherette seats, the monotonous black interior and dull Platinum Metallic Grey paint job only highlighted how unenthusiastic the design is.

The interior is the only place where it looks like VW tried and don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort on Volkswagen’s part, but every passenger I drove around only echoed my opinions as soon as they sat inside. Like a bullied child, I had to fend for the Volkswagen by reiterating just how good of a driver’s car it was and as much as I hate to admit it, the Jetta is only enjoyable when sitting behind the wheel. It turns out all those sorority girls that buy Jettas (or so the stereotype goes) are onto something because I was shot back in time as soon as I started the 1.8-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. They say that the human mind makes sense of the world around it by comparing it to the things it already knows.

By that token, the driving experience on the Jetta is equivalent to an E46 BMW 3 Series because that’s the only comparison that my clawing mind was able to snag up from the recesses of my memory. Weight and horsepower figures were similar to my 323i with both engines making 170 horsepower and the Jetta weighing 3,079 pounds to the E46’s 3,014 pounds. Still, the similarities were odd since the two are separated by a number of decades, technological features, and drive wheels. Consistent with my Deja vu, the Jetta seamlessly switched from comfortable driving to an engaging and playful car depending on the mood of the driver. The electric steering doesn’t divulge information about the road, but it’s as precise as a marine sniper.

Even the lightweight chassis makes it feel like the car is adapting to the driver, not the other way around as is typical in most cars in this price range. The confidence that the car’s agility inspires makes testing the limits a must. Power is sent to the front wheels through a telepathic six-speed automatic transmission, but the car behaves as if it had rear-drive manners. That’s why when it came time to push the Jetta past the DMZ that lies between German cornering prowess and physics, it was the rear tires that misbehaved first. Like the E46, the loss of control happened progressively and is easy to rebound from. Okay so European cars can take a corner, big whoop. But what was equally pleasing is the way that the powertrain complements this ability.

Turbo lag is present, but only when pulling off rude and instant overtakes in traffic. The transmission is seemingly always in the right gear, and in the rare case that it isn’t, the slush box changes gears with minimal hesitation. Unlike diesel variants, the turbocharged engine stuck close to its EPA emissions estimates because I averaged 25 mpg in the city. The cumulative effect of these emotions make the Jetta a genuinely fun car to drive, and the ergonomic interior only helps back this up. The infotainment system is one of the more responsive and helpful, even listing the prices of gas at nearby stations. The button layout just makes sense in a German kind of way, and that’s more than most cars can claim today.

Despite the tight, playful, and precise nature of the car, I couldn’t rid my nose of the stench of economy. Even filled to the brim with toys like radar-based adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, a back-up camera, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers, and xenon lights, the Jetta just feels like what would result if a BMW got the Ikea treatment. The doors rattled when shut and any seat other than the driver’s was left barren for visual candy, technological distraction, or comfort-oriented afterthoughts. As a 3 Series alternative, this is what brings the Volkswagen Jetta down, but those seeking the driving experience won't be disappointed. My 1.8-liter Turbo SEL Premium had a sticker price of $28,145.

To get there, start with a $25,380 base price and tack on a $820, $995, and $950 for the destination charge, lighting package, and driver assistance package respectively. A similarly optioned BMW 3 Series comes in at $38,640. Ultimately, that extra $10,000 is the difference between a well-tuned no-frills transportation device and a benchmark sedan with some prestige behind its name. For our hypothetical German car lover, the Jetta is perfect. Everything is in its place and the driving sensation is as well thought out as their 401K while the lack of pleasing aesthetics provides the perfect amount of self-chastising needed to get motivated for a 3 Series pay grade. Until that day comes, we'll settle for a fun ride over good looks.

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