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2019 VW Jetta Is the Improvement It Needed to Be

2019 VW Jetta Is the Improvement It Needed to Be
2019 Volkswagen Jetta

It's a tough time to be a new compact car with SUVs getting all the love, and it's a tough time to be a car company whose best-seller is a compact car. The Jetta is the former and its maker, Volkswagen, is the latter, which means a lot is riding on the fenders of the redesigned 2019 Jetta rolled out this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Related: More Detroit Auto Show Coverage

The new seventh-generation 2019 Jetta is a much-improved car, starting with much better bones, having moved to the company's new modular MQB platform that now underpins the Golf and various other VW and Audi models. That should ensure drivability, though it's not quite up to the Golf thanks to the shift in the Jetta to a less expensive torsion-beam rear suspension. But the current Jetta already was fun to drive among rival compact sedans, and the base turbo 1.4-liter, which seems to punch above its weight, should only benefit from the 2019 upgrade from six- to eight-speed automatic.

What the current generation did need was a thorough updating of the dated and dowdy look, an upgrade of interior materials, a design that some would say has needed improvement since the current generation's launch in 2010, and infotainment and safety technology up to current standards for the price.

While not making a great leap over the competition on any of these counts, the 2019 Jetta now is a worthy rival on all three. It wears a more sharply creased and interesting look, with actual drama in front thanks to a bigger grille, more sculpting and upscale LED headlights. VW describes the roofline as "coupelike;" I wouldn't go that far, but it slopes elegantly into the trunk. The design energy lags a bit by the time you get to the rear, but it is pleasant enough, and the LED taillights are nicely done. One box checked.

The new interior is pleasing, with a driver-centric dashboard design that is fresh and sleek but also Golf-like. It's better overall, with comfortable seats, and still recognizably Volkswagen, down to the little silver start button. 

The new Jetta also is a little bigger, riding on a 1.3-inch longer wheelbase, which makes for a roomier interior — particularly in the backseat, where the roofline also still leaves plenty of headroom for a tall adult. A longer list of optional amenities also lets you treat yourself if you wish for premium extras such as nicely done 10-color ambient lighting and heated and ventilated seats. This is not a premium sedan though, and cost-cutting shows in cheaper materials when you climb in the backseat. In the car I was in, the rear doors almost looked like they were from a different car. But such party-in-the-front cuts are not notably out of line with what you find in other compacts trying to hit the price targets. Two boxes checked.

Meanwhile, the tech gets the biggest overhaul, with a 6.5-inch base screen that's larger than 2018's 6.3-inch upgrade, and an 8-inch screen is available. Both now sit up high instead of down by the shifter. Apple and Android smartphone integration is standard with both units, and VW's latest-generation infotainment system now ranks with the best. Cost-cutting again shows up in the lack of convenient access to 12-volt or USB power for the rear seat, again not uncommon in this segment.

More importantly on the tech front, the MQB platform brings new driver assist and safety technology. Volkswagen is making a key element — a front collision system with automatic braking, along with blind sport warning and rear cross-traffic alert — available on the base S trim level and standard from the next SE level on up. Additional features available on the top SEL and SEL Premium include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. 

That's the three boxes checked that should put the 2019 Jetta on more compact-sedan shopping lists. Value for the price will be key to staying there, but VW only has said the base 2019 Jetta S will start $100 lower at $19,395, including $850 destination.

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