Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Engine: 1.4L turbo 4-cylinder
Output: 147 hp, 184 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual / 8-speed auto
US Fuel Economy (MPG): 30 city, 40 highway, 34 combined
CAN Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 7.9 city, 5.9 highway, 7.0 combined
CAN Price: $22,640
US Price: Starts at $19,395
(Prices include destination)
Witness the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, the brand’s best-selling vehicle in North America, which has just been completely redesigned to feature an all-new architecture — and yet doesn’t strive to push the limits on where the compact sedan already stood in the minds of budget-conscious buyers.
While it’s true that the 2019 edition of the Jetta does deliver incremental improvements in fuel economy, interior room, features availability, and safety gear, the overall concept behind the vehicle is very nearly a dead ringer for what was available the year before. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how enamored you were of what Volkswagen’s popular small car already had to offer (and if you’re comfortable with a little less choice under the hood).
MQB for You and Me
Moving the Jetta to Volkswagen’s modular MQB platform was always in the cards, as it allows for the automaker to save serious coin when it comes to manufacturing as well as share common components across a wide variety of different vehicles. It also explains why the car is somewhat larger than it was the year before, growing more than an inch in wheelbase and slightly less than that in terms of overall length and width — figures that translate into improved passenger accommodations front and rear in what was already a spacious and comfortable cabin for its class (with the puzzling exception of leg room, which actually shrinks slightly regardless of where you might be sitting).
Despite its new underpinnings, the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta doesn’t visually stray too far from the design cues laid down by its predecessor. Fans of the brand will notice more exaggerated creases running down each side of the car, a larger grille with more prominent lighting, and additional character lines carved into the front bumper, but aside from that, it’s a mild evolution of a design that was already working well for the sedan.
Another same, but different aspect of the 2019 Jetta has to do with its drivetrain. Yes, that’s singular, because Volkswagen has elected to make a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder the only engine available in non-performance models (with a larger-displacement Jetta GLI to drop later this year). The motor is good for 147 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, numbers that are almost identical to what they were in 2018.
The decision to eliminate the 1.8-liter turbo as an option with the compact isn’t difficult to understand. Although that unit provided an extra 20 or so horsepower, it also cut fuel mileage by four miles per gallon and served as an intermediary step between frugality and performance in a lineup where the GLI was the clear choice for fans of the latter.
The good news for 2019 buyers is that the 1.4-liter turbo has seen its own efficiency boosted to the 40-mpg mark on the highway (5.9 L/100 km), regardless of whether its six-speed manual or new eight-speed automatic gearbox is ordered. That three-pedal setup is restricted to entry-level Jetta models in the U.S., but in Canada, it can be installed across the board.
While on paper the 2019 Volkswagen Jetta’s 147 horsepower don’t exactly leap off of the page, in actual practice, the engine’s torque-friendly delivery makes for a competent drive in almost every situation. In particular, I was impressed by how readily the Jetta’s automatic transmission selected the right gear for highway passing, executing leap-frog maneuvers with little drama.
On the secondary roads surrounding Durham, North Carolina, the Jetta’s chassis proved to be a comfortable if conservative companion, in many ways similar to the personality of the outgoing model. It’s also a quiet ride, at least until you get up past legal speed limits, upon which the wind begins to intrude into through the door seals.
Despite its bulk, as compared to several of its smaller compact sedan rivals, the Jetta never felt ponderous or plus-sized even on narrow asphalt. I also appreciated that Volkswagen has drawn the line at 17-inch rims being the upper limit on the car, helping balance driving dynamics with bump-absorbing sidewall in a segment when 18-inch wheels have become the norm. The SE model I drove — which Volkswagen projects to be the volume seller — lacked the Sport driving mode offered on other versions of the car, but I didn’t miss it, as I never felt compelled to hustle the Jetta past the point of a brisk commute.
Much like its exterior, the new Jetta’s passenger compartment hasn’t undergone a sweeping rethink in terms of look and feel. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, with the most notable being the inclusion of the Digital Cockpit gauge cluster display, a trick setup whose 10.25 inches of LCD real estate mounted directly in front of the driver look gorgeous and can be configured in a number of useful ways. It’s a piece of tech borrowed from corporate stablemate Audi, and it’s something no other car in the Jetta’s class can match.
Most other features inside the 2019 Jetta are par for the course, with Volkswagen shuffling gear around to reduce pricing almost across the board. The entry-level S starts at an MSRP of $18,545 (Comfortline, $20,995 CAD), while the SEL Premium tops out at roughly $28k with both the Driver Assistance package (automatic braking, blind spot monitoring) and Cold Weather package added (Execline, $30k CAD with similar features).
A quick glance through the equipment list reveals that Volkswagen is once again relying on comfort and convenience to triumph over all-out driving dynamics in a bid to secure buyers, which is a smart strategy in a segment where the majority of customers are looking for a commuter, rather than a racer. Even the R-Line trim is an appearance, rather than performance package (with the exception of the Canadian market, where checking that box allows for a 15-mm suspension drop). The sweet spot for Jetta ownership most likely falls somewhere below the SEL Premium’s loaded leather-lined interior, whether that be the sporty look of the R-Line or the well-equipped SEL, but even the $22k SE is a decent choice for thrifty shoppers.
The Verdict: 2019 Volkswagen Jetta Review
Despite being offered essentially a clean slate with the move to MQB, Volkswagen was smart not to mess too much with what has historically been a key contributor to its bottom line in the U.S. and Canada. The brand’s engineering smarts have instead been directed at bolstering, rather than diverting, the Jetta’s mission statement. The 2019 model manages to stay relevant in terms of tech both inside the car and under the skin, adds a respectable fuel mileage bump, and continues to deliver on its promise of being a spacious, relaxed daily driver.
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