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2019 Volkswagen Jetta Isn't as Athletic as the Golf

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 11/14/2018 Jeff Sabatini

Re-Boot: The All-New VW Jetta Plays a Little Golf: The latest VW Jetta falls short of the excellence exhibited by the Golf, though it's a standout in highway fuel economy.© Provided by Hearst Communications, Inc The latest VW Jetta falls short of the excellence exhibited by the Golf, though it's a standout in highway fuel economy. UPDATE: This story now incorporates test results from the six-speed-manual version.

If you observe closely, the new, seventh-generation Volkswagen Jetta has a tell. Ignore the strakes on the hood that make it appear a bit like a shrunken Passat. Don't be fooled by the shiny chrome exhaust tips integrated into the rear-bumper valance-they're fake. Instead, trace the major character line from the little badge on the passenger-side front fender back along its length. There, hiding within the crease in the metal, is the Jetta's fuel-filler door. Look familiar? Of course it does: It's nearly the same shape as on the Golf, once again the Jetta's platform-mate.

For 2019, the Jetta moves to the MQB platform, VW's do-everything, be-everything architecture, which made its U.S. debut in the 2015 Golf (and also underpins the Tiguan and Atlas as well as the Audi A3 and TT). The Jetta now shares many components with the seventh-gen Golf, including its steering and front suspension, crash structures, HVAC, infotainment software, and even its 13.2-gallon gas tank. But no sheetmetal. Certainly the relationship is more complicated than it was in the era when the Jetta was a Rabbit with a trunk grafted to its hindquarters.

But it's from axle to axle and under the hood that the sedan diverges most from the hatch. VW stretches the Jetta's wheelbase to 105.7 inches, nearly two inches longer than the Golf's, and the Jetta's overhangs make it almost a foot and a half longer overall. Yet the sedan is not legitimately cavernous inside. Rear passengers get 1.8 inches more legroom than in the Golf, although they'll sacrifice almost an inch of headroom. And don't plan on seating three adults across the back, as the Jetta's middle seat is cramped. About that trunk: It has shrunk in the new model relative to the previous Jetta, although the Golf's comparatively enormous cargo hold is more a testament to efficient hatchback packaging than any deficiency of the sedan. 

The Jetta's turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four with 147 horsepower carries over from last year and is the only engine available-at least until the arrival of the sporting GLI. For 2019, the Golf ditches its more powerful 1.8-liter in favor of the 1.4 as well, although you can still get the 1.8 in the all-wheel-drive version of the Golf SportWagen and in the Golf Alltrack.

The new Jetta gets upgraded gearboxes: a new automatic with eight gears rather than six, and a slick six-speed manual that replaces the commodity-car five-speed. Fuel economy grows by as much as 7 mpg, with all Jettas now hitting 30 mpg in the city according to the EPA. Sadly, the manual is available only on base S-trim cars, with other trims, including the R-Line, getting the automatic. The manual's 40-mpg EPA highway estimate beats the automatic's by 1 mpg, but we did dramatically better in our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, in which the manual-equipped Jetta delivered a whopping 48 mpg. The automatic car managed 43 mpg in the same test.

a car parked on the side of a building: 2019 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

2019 Volkswagen Jetta SEL
© Chris Doane Automotive

The Jetta feels punchy, with excellent throttle response and virtually no turbo lag. If you boot it off the line, even the automatic-equipped car will squeal its front tires and trip the traction control. However, a clean launch with the eight-speed produces only a 7.7-second zero-to-60-mph time, merely average for the class. We managed to drop a tenth with the six-speed by launching at moderate revs and managing the resultant wheelspin. At 7.7 seconds, the 2018 Golf with the 1.8-liter wasn't any quicker, although it was more fun to explore the upper reaches of its tachometer, where its bigger engine shone. Unsurprisingly, the 2019 Golf with the same 1.4-liter and eight-speed automatic as the Jetta did 7.6 seconds. Revving beyond 5000 in the Jetta yields no reward, aural or otherwise, and the automatic will grab a higher gear by 6000 rpm anyway. Run the manual that high and the little four complains loudly, vibrating the steering column. And although you can shift the eight-speed automatic yourself, this transmission favors smooth over snap.

Indeed, smooth is the Jetta's mien; it's a yacht rocker rather than a hard rocker. It is noticeably and measurably quieter than the Golf. Also softer, with more body roll and less feedback through the steering and chassis. But otherwise the siblings drive and ride similarly, with a light steering weight and good impact absorption. The new Jetta uses the same front struts and steering system as the Golf, although Volkswagen reverted to a rear torsion beam for the Jetta. In a small concession to sportiness, R-Line models get brake-based torque vectoring. Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 Plus tires shunt steering feel but don't keep the Jetta R-Line from matching the Golf's 0.83-g roadholding and the Jetta S from surpassing it with 0.85 g in lateral grip.

The first Jetta we tested did poorly in braking, taking 191 feet to stop from 70 mph, which puts it at the back of the compact segment. But we've tested three more Jettas since then and found that the manual Jetta's 183-foot stop is far more representative of the set. That's better but not great, matching the 2019 Toyota Corolla but behind the 2019 Golf, which wears the same tires as the Jetta but still manages to stop in 177 feet.

The new Jetta leapfrogs its platform-mate in one area: Digital Cockpit. Four years ago, a larger version of this 10.3-inch reconfigurable screen, which replaces the traditional speedometer and tachometer, was auto-show hoopla from Audi. Now Volkswagen offers it as an enticement to spend $25,265 for the SEL trim; it's a feature unavailable on any Golf save for the stratospherically priced $40,000-plus Golf R. Even without it, though, lower-trim Jettas have a great analog cockpit. One pod encircles the main instrument panel and infotainment system, with the touchscreen perched high on the dashboard and canted toward the driver. This seamless control center proclaims the Jetta's driver-centric mission even if it's not actually a driver's car.

The Jetta is good, certainly better than previous generations. The old cut-rate interior is much improved. The Jetta now offers one of the most comprehensive feature sets in its class, and the price even gets an across-the-board trim. You can drive one away for as little as $19,440, which undercuts competitors like the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla by a few hundred dollars. But like most carmakers, Volkswagen reserves the stuff you want-whether it's a bigger touchscreen or an upgraded audio system or adaptive cruise control-for the higher trim levels. The Jetta is less expensive than the Golf, too, by more than $2000. Also, you get what you pay for. The Jetta is not as much fun to drive as the Golf. Its performance attributes are not as well balanced. If you look again at that little rhomboid aperture on the Jetta's flank but this time widen your gaze, you'll notice that it is not the snug-fitting puzzle piece of its twin, the Golf, where its sides run parallel to the fender-panel edges. That's the real tell, a metaphor for all the ways this new Jetta is not as precise, not as perfectly executed, as its exceptional sibling.

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