The Volkswagen Jetta has a big boot, pleasant dynamics and good pricing, but is a bit dull

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The new Volkswagen Jetta could be on the back foot before it even arrives. British buyers don’t usually go for small saloons, so its ilk is largely seen as a filler between the bigger-selling C-segment and D-segment models. 

Don’t discount it, though. This is no longer simply a Volkswagen Golf with a boot. Volkswagen has endowed its perennially forgettable small saloon with some individuality, so it now has a look and possibly a purpose all of its own.

The industry might focus on hatchbacks in the C-segment, but there are plenty who like the executive look of a saloon

Substantial boot space and an exterior now suggestive of a small but well formed Volkswagen Passat give much more on-paper appeal than the Jetta enjoyed before. With a range starting at £19,580, it’s also very competitively priced. The best seller in the line-up is likely to be the 148bhp 2.0 TDI in base SE trim, which comes in at £23,205.

Other engines from Volkswagen’s familiar line-up include 123bhp and 148bhp versions of the 1.4 TFSI petrol, while the diesel range is made up of a 108bhp and 148bhp variants of the 2.0 TDI.

The Jetta is still a car pieced together from familiar parts, but its fresh looks and enticing price tag could make it one of VW’s top all-rounders. The best bits of the Volkswagen Passat and Volkswagen Golf in a well priced package? Or a model that exists only to mask the white noise between the other models that bookend it in the VW range? We’re here to find out.

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Volkswagen Jetta rear

The latest-generation Jetta was unveiled at the New York auto show in 2010, and Volkswagen is careful to say that every “visible” panel is new (which we’ll come to in a moment) compared with the model it replaces.

The styling was led by the manufacturer’s head of design, Klaus Bischoff, and is said to be inspired by the NCC (New Compact Coupé) of early 2010. However, there’s little on the Jetta that you wouldn’t expect to find on a latest-generation Volkswagen.

The Jetta looks very much like a smaller Passat

It follows the lineage and cues of the new Polo, Passat and Sharan. It’s a clean shape and not an unhandsome one, either. If you’re looking for novelty and flair, you’ll be as disappointed as you would be with any current car from this marque. But clean and classy – and that’s the definition given by most commentators during our test car’s time with us – is no shabby substitute.

You could be forgiven for mistaking the Jetta for a Passat — particularly the grille and headlight layout, although in fact they’re unique to the Jetta. Horizontal grille dividers help to make the Jetta look wider; at 1778mm across, it’s actually narrower than a five-door Volkswagen Golf. Elsewhere at the front, a subtle front spoiler contributes to a decent drag coefficient of 0.30.

Tapered rear lights seem noticeably Audi-like, and look good in the well proportioned boot of the Jetta. The trailing edge of the bootlid has been sculpted to be as aerodynamic as possible, reducing drag and improving the car’s efficiency through the air.

Volkswagen claims there are some coupé-like elements to the Jetta’s rear window and C-pillars. We can’t see them, but the proportions are nice and also allow for good visibility.


Volkswagen Jetta interior

Although we would be the first to applaud a car manufacturer who made its interiors novel and interesting, we find it hard to criticise Volkswagen for seemingly wilfully doing precisely the opposite. Everything about the Jetta’s interior – not unlike those of its Volkswagen Passat and Volkswagen Golf sister models – exudes functionality.

Take a pew in the Jetta’s newly designed, relatively flat and firm driver’s seat and you’ll see why. The driving position feels perfectly straight, the pedals are well spaced, the gearlever is in a just-so position and the wheel and seat have ample adjustment. If you can’t get comfortable sitting in this car, we’d suggest you can get comfortable pretty much nowhere.

The rear seat release catches are located just under the boot’s rim - very practical

The rest of the layout is about as nonsense-free as they come. The centre console switchgear for the stereo/navigation and climate systems are angled slightly towards the driver, but not to the extent that you’d notice particularly, unless you were told. 

The switches are large, clear and sensibly located, while all the dials are straightforward and easy to read.

The quality of the interior materials is mixed, however. On the upper surfaces the additional thought given to European versions of the Jetta is evident; there are the soft-touch, heavily rubberised plastics and chromed dials that car makers can’t afford not to have on a vehicle in this class. Look lower down the cabin, though, and there are obvious signs of cost-shaving brittle plastics. This is still an above-average-feeling cockpit for this class, but then it’s not a massively distinguished category.

Also above average – well above it – for the class is the interior accommodation in the rear seats and the boot. The Jetta is a 4.6-metre-long car, which would have put it well inside the D segment before the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia and current Volkswagen Passat grew by another 20cm. As a result, there’s plenty of rear cabin space for adults, in addition to a 60/40 split/fold rear seat and 510 litres of luggage volume.

There are three trim levels to choose from - S, SE and GT. Entry-level models get 16in steel wheels, hill-hold assist, a post-collision braking system, electric windows, and electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors as standard, while inside there is air conditioning and Volkswagen's infotainment system complete with a 5.0in touchscreen display, DAB radio and SD car reader. 

Upgrade to the mid-range SE trim and you'll find 16in alloy wheels, cruise control, lumbar support, and a 6.5in touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, while the range-topping GT model adds 17in alloy wheels, sports seats, tinted rear windows, sports-tuned suspension, and automatic lights and wipers.


Volkswagen Jetta engine bay

The most popular 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel motor is a familiar staple of the Volkswagen line-up, yet it continues to impress in every installation. A low-powered 2.0 TDI unit is the only other diesel option for the Jetta and remains the economy champion, but the 148bhp version is still the choice for people who want a slightly more rewarding drive as well as diesel economy.

So while you get the benefit of impressive economy, the Jetta 2.0 TDI doesn’t feel like it’s sacrificing performance in the name of saving fuel. More than speed, it’s in-gear flexibility that’s required, and this powertrain provides a suitable spread of torque (the 236lb ft peak is from 1750-2500rpm) to deliver the necessary urge when it’s required. 

Performance is on par with the Golf

It’s on the motorway, where Jetta buyers will most likely cover the majority of their miles, that the 2.0 TDI 150 comes into its own. Revving at just over 2300rpm at 70mph, it’s a settled and calm cruiser that can also offer very respectable overtaking potential should it be wanted, although a downshift through the solid-feeling six-speed gearbox may be necessary. This sort of accessibility is far more important than standing-start acceleration, which is average for the class at 9.7sec to 60mph.

Refinement is also very decent, with engine noise being well suppressed and the cabin remaining hushed enough to allow occupants to chat with ease. A reading of 65dB in the cabin at 50mph is acceptable (if again average). For some perspective, consider that the Bentley Continental GT recorded 63dB at the same speed.

Overall, the Jetta 2.0 TDI 150 offers very competitive performance in all the key areas, and it’s a pleasant motor to use as well.


Volkswagen Jetta cornering

If you want nothing more from the Volkswagen Jetta than for it to be relaxing without being sloppy, then it exceeds those basic essentials, achieving a reassuringly stable, unflustered and well rounded compromise between body control and bump absorption. 

Secondary ride is particularly good, with the dampers soaking up bigger undulations and small, sharp creases very well, whether at motorway or town speeds. There’s some slightly messy body control when cornering forces are involved over uneven surfaces at higher speeds, but this is a minor and infrequent niggle.

There’s lots to be said for the ease of use of a simple, round, unsculpted steering wheel rim

The real success is that it doesn’t simply feel soft. There’s a noticeable control to the compression and rebound damping that makes the Jetta feel quite unflappable in the way it handles, yet it’s also appropriately pliant and comfortable.

Unflappable handling could also equate to dull handling, of course, and you get the impression that Volkswagen doesn’t really bother to avoid such criticism. It’s a shame, because a car doesn’t need to be overtly sporting at all to benefit from a little verve. Glimmers of sensation and enjoyment are rare at the wheel of the Jetta, however.

Still, there is pleasure to be had in threading it down the road and enjoying the decent grip, composed handling and nicely weighted steering. Between this and all the well balanced control weights, the Jetta is a remarkably easy car to drive smoothly.

It may be a bit bland, but it does everything it needs to with more polish than you might expect – to the point where it actually provides as good a driving experience as the Volkswagen Passat.

For those wondering whether the financial incentives that the Jetta offers over its bigger sibling are enough to warrant the compromises, you’re safe to assume that there is no compromise in this area. 


Volkswagen Jetta

Curiously, the Jetta’s biggest rivals come from elsewhere within the Volkswagen Group. The meat of the line-up is pitched in the £18,000 to £20,000 zone, which makes it pricier than a Chevrolet Cruze (which it betters) and its cousins the Seat Toledo and Skoda Octavia.

Volvo’s Volvo S60 is at the more premium end of the price scale but offers fewer reasons to spend more than the price a Jetta demands.

Although we understand the reasons why they’re often not fitted, we’re pleased to find that the Jetta has a full-size spare wheel

Running costs are generally par for the class, except when it comes to fuel economy, where our test 2.0 TDI Jetta was nothing short of remarkable. On our touring route we returned 66.5mpg, with an average of 51.2mpg.

We even returned a figure near the 70s when the car was driven with a more eco-minded approach over a long journey. And CO2 emissions of 126g/km for the 2.0 TDI are also suitably tempting for company car owners, who will account for 55 percent of prospective buyers.

Elsewhere in the line-up, the base 1.4 TSI offers 45.6mpg economy and 144g/km CO2 emissions. The more powerful 1.4 TSI offers only slightly worse economy and emissions – 44.8mpg and 145g/km – for an extra 38bhp. 



Volkswagen Jetta rear quarter

Many manufacturers strive to attain a theme for their cars, a dynamic and tactile DNA that runs throughout the range. Volkswagen has achieved this with the Jetta, one suspects, without actually trying.

In making its cars simple to use and straightforward in their ergonomic and driving characteristics, it has created cars that are as relaxing as they are practical.

Almost painfully fit for purpose. Pleasant, inoffensive and useful

The Jetta's drivetrain is easy, its seating position first class and its controls light and progressive. That there’s nothing here for the enthusiast is a matter of note, rather than concern. The car is pleasing enough to drive but lacks the involvement you might find in a Ford Focus, for example.

That can make the Jetta slightly forgettable, but that’s not its biggest problem, which is that Skoda’s Skoda Octavia does much the same thing for less money.

Its increased length of new car has caused it to lose some of its compact appeal, but the boot and cabin space is excellent as a result. Generally, the British market prefers hatchbacks to saloons at this size and price, which makes the Volkswagen Golf a better proposition again. The Golf is a more dynamic steer, too. But if you fancy a saloon, and one that’s refined and frugal at that, the Jetta makes a convincing case.

It’s not quite a Skoda Superb with a VW badge on the nose, but it has a little of the Skoda’s magic ingredient: it just seems to deliver more than expected for your money.


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Volkswagen Jetta 2010-2018 First drives