Remember when compact cars were called "economy cars"? Small, cheap and efficient was the name of the game, and in that market the VW Jetta made a splash by being better to drive and using nicer materials than its competition.
The economy car market has become significantly more sophisticated in the intervening decades, to the point where the outgoing generation of Jetta has simply found itself outclassed both in the areas that were once its defining strengths and in terms of the technology on offer.
The 2019 Volkswagen Jetta is almost completely new, and it's better in every way than the outgoing model. It takes a different approach than the Jetta of yore, but VW is betting there's more than one path to Americans' hearts.
As we mentioned in our First Look, the 2019 Jetta has grown in every dimension. The wheelbase is longer, and the car is also taller, longer and wider overall. These increases generally translate into more interior room, bringing the Jetta's cabin in line with today's much less economy-size compact cars.
From the front seat, you definitely notice the additional kneeroom and shoulder room. Rear legroom has shrunk somewhat, but headroom expands a tiny amount despite the presence of a more aggressive roofline. Increasing the car's dimensions allowed Volkswagen to provide a sleeker look without excessively hurting interior space.
That space has also gotten more comfortable and quieter. The front seats are a major improvement over the outgoing Jetta's, and the seating position is better, too. A low-hanging steering column may impinge on the knee space of taller drivers, but most won't experience this problem.
Interior storage for small items has also improved, but trunk space hasn't. The size of the last Jetta's trunk surpassed those of other compact sedans, but the new model has decreased the trunk to a midpack 14.1 cubic feet. Still, it's a usable space with a wide and flat floor.
There are fewer changes under the hood. The previous generation's 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder carries over with a little less power but stronger fuel efficiency thanks to its new transmissions. The base six-speed manual and available eight-speed automatic both have more gear ratios than the gearboxes they replace, helping the 2019 Jetta achieve 34 mpg combined (30 city/40 highway). With the automatic, the new Jetta feels zippier than its 147 horsepower suggests, and most drivers should be satisfied with the passing power.
The six-speed manual is a likable enough transmission, with a very light clutch that has good uptake feel, but the automatic seems better suited to this engine. The 1.4-liter doesn't do much of anything below about 2,500 rpm, and this is especially apparent at low engine speeds with the manual. Aside from the automatic being able to shift more quickly, its additional gears provide more opportunities for the engine to work
Another carryover from the previous generation is rear torsion-beam suspension. Most competitors have moved away from this setup because, while inexpensive to build, it comes with some ride and handling penalties. I didn't have much opportunity to explore the limits of either, but in normal driving, the Jetta felt comfortable and stable enough that some drivers and passengers may not be able to tell the difference. Buyers hoping for more engaging engine and suspension upgrades will have to wait for an upcoming GLI variant, which will have a multilink rear suspension.
Das Technology Features
The new Jetta isn't meant to stand out for its driving dynamics. Rather, extensive features and the unique-to-the-class technology options make this car attractive. The SEL and the SEL Premium trim levels come with a 10.3-inch digital gauge cluster that Volkswagen calls the Digital Cockpit. The screen can be configured for different views and information, including a map on Jettas equipped with navigation.
Entertainment on the top trim levels is handled by a crisp 8-inch touchscreen that has a few neat tricks up its sleeve, such as its ability to sense when you're reaching for it as well as pop-up virtual buttons for easier access. This screen works well with the digital gauge cluster. Both look exceedingly sharp, respond quickly and are easy to operate. A lot of thought has gone into the Jetta's technology features, and it shows in the logical menus and useful physical buttons that allow for quick access to certain functions.
Volkswagen is also proud of the 400-watt Beats-branded stereo in the Jetta's top trims. With its dedicated subwoofer, it certainly produces a lot of bass response. For the class, it's a strong offering. Lower trim-level cars are equipped with a very usable 6.5-inch touchscreen and a traditional analog gauge cluster, along with a less inspiring and unbranded four-speaker stereo. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard across the range, as are automatic LED lights and alloy wheels.
Every trim level but the base S gets standard active safety features such as forward collision warning with automatic braking and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. (These features are available for the base model in an option package.) The SEL and the SEL Premium also provide adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist.
A manual-transmission 2019 Volkswagen Jetta starts at $19,395, including destination fees. The SEL, with all its excellent features, comes in at $25,265, which is less expensive than last year's model. That's a lot of technology for the price, giving the 2019 VW Jetta the strong value it needs to match the best of its competitors.