July 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Volkswagen Jetta GTI: a fine example of European engineering

2014 Volkswagen Jetta GLI (VW)

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s Volkswagen literally owned the import car market. Yearly sales of the VW Beetle topped 500,000, eclipsing every other foreign car brand by many thousands. Then came a surprise: the Japanese began gaining traction. Their cars were still funny-looking beasts to American eyes but advanced technology made up for it. Suddenly VW, like a badly-beaten prizefighter, was on the ropes. Sales plummeted, then leveled off years later with the introduction of the Rabbit and Golf. When the Jetta and GLI arrived, sales numbers began climbing. This week’s test car is the Jetta GLI, a fine example of European engineering. It’s not the best in class by objective measure but it’s a pleasure to drive.

Outside, the GLI is sleek, but doesn’t stand apart style-wise from its many rivals. Inside, there’s lots of room with the cloth driver and passenger bucket seats divided by a small console containing non-adjustable cupholders. In back, the 60/40 split bench has a trunk pass-through. There’s plenty of room there for vacation luggage.

Looking around from the driver’s seat thankfully you won’t see a plethora of electronic controls. Not everything operates by dials and switches but there are enough of them so that the electronics won’t drive one to distraction.

The front-drive GLI is loaded with features for its base price of $26,455. They include traction and stability control, electro-mechanical power steering, anti-slip regulation, antilock brakes, air conditioning, power mirrors, a trip computer, airbags everywhere, tilt/telescope steering, cruise control, keyfob entry, power windows and locks, a temporary spare plus VW’s version of General Motor’s OnStar Safety System.

Floor mats are standard too, as is a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The sound system consisted of an AM/FM/six CD/HD/Satellite unit (a three month trial). Its fidelity was somewhat better than average. The unit is also Bluetooth and phone ready along with a plug-in for music players.

Driving the 3,158-pound VW is a pleasure. It handles with the best in class even though it wears skinny all-season tires at all four corners. Stopping from 60-0 takes a l-o-n-g 134 feet. Going from 0 to 60 takes 7.2 seconds, a decent figure for a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine rated at just 210 HP. Beware: there’s lots of turbo lag. The U-turn circle is 36 feet, one of the better figures for a family car.

The engine was mated to a six-speed “DSG” automatic transmission with manual shift paddles, a standard feature. The transmission shifted down comparatively slowly when the engine was called on for power, a real annoyance, but otherwise worked well. A six-speed manual is available ... and recommended.

Fuel mileage, unfortunately, was dismal for both engine size and power. The EPA claims 24 city miles per gallon on recommended high-test gas and 32 on the highway. Observed were 20 city and 28 highway.

What’s wrong with the German-made Jetta? Only a steady drone that, at 70 miles per hour and above, permeates the cabin. Though many of the remainder of the Jetta’s problems can be generously overlooked, primarily due to impeccable road manners and fine, almost flat handling through corners, the drone is inexcusable.

Warranty-wise the Jetta has the usual three year, 36,000 mile guarantee and five years, 60,000 miles on the powertrain. Free maintenance is also offered for three years or 36,000 miles.

When offered an extended warranty (as you surely will) read carefully for deductibles and exclusions. Many such warranties have huge holes which can cost real money for “warranty” repairs. Check carefully before buying, especially considering VW’s repair record.

It would be easy to dismiss the Jetta on the basis of objective performance. This can’t be done as it’s a real pleasure to drive, a relatively low-priced car with European “feel.” This “feel” is absolutely real and not an invention of bored auto writers. It’s real as can be and something all cars should have. The Jetta, despite its flaws, is well worth testing when seeking a family car. It’s an impressive vehicle.