09/16/05 — Jetta becomes more sophisticated

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Jetta becomes more sophisticated

Volkswagen Jetta (2006)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Len Hunt was upbeat at a press conference introducing the Volkswagen turbocharged Jetta GLI here.

Hunt, executive vice president for the Volkswagen brand in North America, proclaimed that the German company was finally emerging from the sales abyss it had fallen into in 2004.

Volkswagen Jetta, 2006

And the Jetta, for years the top selling Volkswagen in the U.S., is leading the long-awaited resurgence.

The third model in the all-new Jetta lineup, the 200-horsepower GLI that Hunt says will rival such entry-level luxury models as the Acura TSX and the Volvo S40, is just reaching showrooms as sales of the base 2.5-liter Jetta and the Jetta turbodiesel TDI are showing healthy increases from earlier this year.

We had the opportunity to drive the GLI in mountainous areas of northern New Mexico, and the 5-cylinder 150-horsepower Jetta 2.5 around eastern North Carolina, and found both editions attractive. They will cater to different groups of buyers and should put the Jetta back on track for 10,000 to 11,000 sales a month, Hunt said.

Hunt admitted that the first half of 2005 has been tough. For instance, sales were down 40 percent in May from May 2004. But as the new Jetta ramps up, and the all-new mid-sized Passat begins reaching buyers, sales are rebounding.

Only 4,400 Jettas were sold in April, its first full month on the market. But numbers have increased each month reaching nearly 10,000 in July.

We found the base 5-cylinder Jetta, which will be the sales leader, a pleasant exercise in modern-car design and execution. But its price, which exceeds 20 grand in most guises — it starts at $18,515 in a “value edition”— might turn off some of the younger shoppers.

Our 2.5 Jetta with the $4,660 package 2 — including sunroof, 16-inch alloy wheels, premium sound and leather seating — carried a bottom line of $26,740.

With the new price structure, it’s going to be difficult to sell people who believe the Jetta is still doing battle with the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Mazda3.

Once Volkswagen convinces buyers that the new edition is a bigger and more upscale sedan then its predecessor, sales should pick up even more.

The real value here is the GLI, which features performance that will bring a smile to your face. The GLI begins for under $24,000 with a full compliment of equipment. But it, too, can be pushed with extra amenities into the stratosphere of pricing.

The GLI is a pureblooded German sports sedan, one of the most fun 25 grand cars in America whether it’s on a lazy Sunday drive or carving up some mountain roads at speeds far exceeding the posted limits.

Although the GLI may not be as quick as some would desire at this price, its total performance package — speed, handling, cornering and stopping — is immensely satisfying.

Turbolag with the new direct-injection 4-cylinder is virtually nonexistent. Slam the pedal and the sedan will move with urgency at any speed.

We couldn’t really detect a difference in performance between the excellent six-speed manual and the new six-speed DSG automatic manual that can be shifted with steering-wheel mounted tabs. Both should propel the Jetta from 0 to 60 in around 7 seconds and finish off a quarter mile in a couple ticks over 15 seconds at around 92 miles per hour.

We effortlessly climbed steep mountain grades and then carved up the sweeping curves found in the New Mexico highlands.

The GLI’s firmed-up suspension and 18-inch rubber give it a more planted feel than the standard 2.5 version.

For people wanting a more luxury demeanor, the turbocharged engine can be purchased without the GLI upgrades, which include the tuned suspension and sport seats. The GLI package starts at $25,250 with the manual transmission. Without the GLI extras, the turbocharged edition begins at $23,790.

Onlookers will be able to differentiate the GLI from the 2.5 edition by the GLI badge on the rear and a blacked-out honeycomb grille on the front.

Because of the high ride height of the Jetta, the stunning 18-inch wheels make the GLI look like its on stilts from some angles. Volkswagen needs to think about lowering the GLI to give it the proper sports sedan look.

The dashboard layout is clean and simple, a Volkswagen trait. All the controls are intuitive and within easy reach. All Jettas come with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. And the thick wheel in the GLI is about as close to perfect as any we’ve encountered.

We found the seats in the 2.5 version comfortable, but the sports seats in the GLI take a big step in the direction of perfection.

The upgraded sound system in both editions featured solid bass and bright treble. And the Jetta may be the first brand in America that can be outfitted with either satellite radio system, Sirius or XM. We encountered both systems in several GLI’s we tested.

The Jetta has grown in all directions, giving it a more spacious interior and a trunk that will hold enough golf clubs to outfit three members of a foursome.

The wheelbase has been stretched 2.6 inches, the length has been increased a whopping six inches and the height has been extended an inch.

This exercise in bigger-is-better has created a rear seat comfortable for two adults and has resulted in a spacious 16-cubic-foot trunk. The Jetta has indeed grown into a modern family sedan.

More people will purchase the 5-cylinder model. The engine generates 150 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. You may think this is on the south side of acceptable for a car in this price range, but don’t forget that the base engine in the last-generation Jetta was rated at 115 horsepower.

The new engine is up to the task. We always long for more power — it’s simply in our nature — but we didn’t need more power to accomplish our driving chores. And the 22 mile-per-gallon city rating and 30 highway on regular 87 octane gas makes the 5-cylinder even more attractive.

Note that the turbocharged 2.0-liter sips gas at an even more efficient rate of 24 city and 32 highway, but requires the more expensive premium fuel.

This is by far the best Jetta since its inception in the United States 25 years ago. But will the new stylish sedan catch the imagination of the car-buying public like the previous blocky but handsome iteration?

That’s the question Volkswagen officials desperately need to have answered in the affirmative.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on September 16, 2005 8:47 AM