$18,000 - $23,000 Front-Wheel Drive Compact Sport Sedan
Who should buy this car:
A person looking for a European sport sedan with style.
Comparable cars in this class:
Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Mazda3, Mazda6, Toyota Corolla
The message from Volkswagen seems clearer with the introduction of each new model. The company which hit pay dirt as the peoples car more than 60 years ago has packed its bags and is moving uptown.
The first hard evidence that it was serious about shedding its inner-city roots came with the recent introduction of the Phaeton, the full-size, world-class luxury sedan that is attempting to muscle itself into a parking space next to such vaunted nameplates as the Mercedes-Benz S class, BMW 7 series and even its own cousin, the Audi A8.
So far, not many wealthy buyers have been able to embrace the idea of a premium vehicle with the VW name, but there is no question that the car itself is in the same league as the big boys.
Volkswagen also tried briefly to move its current mid-size Passat up a notch with a V-8 powered model equipped with standard all-wheel drive and a full complement of Volkswagen luxury equipment.
That effort fell flat, but the word is already out that the next-generation Passat, due out later this year, expects to do battle with the mid-size entries of the Phaeton foes in price as well as product.
This brings us to the new Jetta, which is based on the VW Golf already on sale in Europe. It is being introduced to United States buyers with an advertising campaign that it hopes will convince its youthful loyalists to pilot the slightly larger, more expensive Jetta as they travel along their personal roads to adulthood and success.
In actuality, the 2005 Jetta has moved up about a half size, positioning itself in between, say, the compact Toyota Corolla/ Honda Civic compacts and the Toyota Camry/ Honda Accord mid-size sedans. Its wheelbase has grown 2.6 inches, to 101.5; its overall length has grown 7 inches, to179.3; the width has expanded to 69.3 inches, up one; and its height now reaches 57.5 inches, up .44.
The result is a fifth generation Jetta which is bigger on the outside and heavier by about 300 pounds than the fourth generation model. Interior space has grown, but not by a whole lot.
The front is genuinely comfortable for two adults, and the rear bench seat will hold two more. The back seat buddies will have three more cubic feet of space than before, but the taller and wider among us still wont be comfortable over the long haul. The trunk, however, is huge, offering 16 cubic feet of space with the foldable rear seatback up and a whole lot more with it folded down.
The change in dimensions comes with a major change in styling. The car is now softer looking, reminding some of a down-sized Phaeton and others of a Toyota Corolla. From my perspective, the shape is pleasant, if not particularly memorable.
With the extra size and weight it was obvious that the Jetta needed an upgrade in the engine compartment, too. This was accomplished with an all-new 20-valve, five-cylinder engine that generates 150 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, trumping the anemic four-cylinder, 115-horsepower engine that was the standard fare in the fourth generation.
In size, the twin-cam powerplant is essentially half of the mighty 493-horsepower V-10 engine in the Lamborghini Gallardo, but, obviously that is where the similarity ends.
Mated to Volkswagens new six-speed automatic transmission the combination VW believes will be its big seller _ the engine pulls smoothly and adequately in normal around-town driving conditions.
Drivers in a hurry can get from a stop to 60 mph in about 9 seconds, but the engine/transmission limitations become apparent in tight, two-lane passing situations and in hill country. The transmissions manual override feature helps because it allows the driver to hold whichever gear can provide maximum thrust.
Buyers concerned with spiraling fuel costs will be glad to know the new engine will run happily on regular unleaded fuel. The EPA estimates consumption at 22 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. The consumption I observed was in the 18-28 range.
With the exception of the engine, the driving dynamics are superb. A stiffer body, combined with a new front and rear independent suspension, offers sharp, precise responses to driver inputs. The also-new electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering offers excellent road feel and the four-wheel disc brakes are firm and responsive.
The handling competence, however, is actually overshadowed by the comfortable, controlled ride. On the open road the new Jetta is pretty much a mini-luxury sedan, easily able to sustain 80-mph cruising speeds without ruffling or tiring the passengers inside.
Inside, the Jetta is also a class act. The front bucket seats are supportive and comfortable for the long haul and the upholstery, switch gear, gauges and fit and finish are all first-rate.
Safety features are a big priority, too. In addition to traction control and antilock brakes, the Jetta comes with six airbags, front and rear crumple zones and anti-whiplash headrests.
While Volkswagen is hoping its new Jetta will meet the future needs of current Jetta owners, it is not abandoning the entry-level market. A value edition with a five-speed manual transmission will be on the market soon for under $20,000, and it will offer single-zone climate control, CD sound system, cruise control, power windows and outside mirrors, tilt/telescoping steering column and outside-temperature display.
The car I drove, which had a base price of $20,390, added the automatic transmission ($1,075): leatherette seating, sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels and premium sound system ($1,960); and delivery charge ($615). Bottom line: $24,040.
Soon, the Jetta will be offered in the United States with a 1.9-liter turbodiesel engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmission, including the companys unique Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which functions as a pure six-speed automatic or, if the driver wants control, a six-speed manual.
The enthusiasts choice, with a price tag near $30,000 will arrive later this year. It will feature a buttoned-down suspension and the the two-liter, 200-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that is the base powerplant in the Audi A4.
All Jettas worldwide will be manufactured in Volkswagens new, state-of-the-art plant in Puebla, Mexico.
As it enters its 25th year in the United States, the Jetta retains its title as the least expensive authentic German sports sedan on the market.