Payne: Yankee-fied VW Jetta goes big, stays nimble

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

We Americans are getting so fat that the compact 2019 VW Jetta is bigger than Volkswagen’s 2004 mid-size Passat. And don’t even ask how big the new Passat has become (hint — New Yorkers are using them as apartments).

The all-new, Mark 7 Jetta has more headroom, shoulder-room, belly-room, and leg room than its predecessor. But, I am happy to report, it has lost none of its spunk.

Indeed, despite its girth, the nattering of government mpg nannies, and Americans’ demand for a rolling arcade of electronic gizmos (guilty as charged), the Jetta has not lost its athleticism.

Credit its stiff, new, MQB chassis and a fearsome squadron of competitors that have also upped their game, and — WHUMP! Didn’t see that railroad crossing in Middle-of-Nowhere, North Carolina coming.

Despite my flogging the Jetta at high speed along a hilly country road outside Durham, the V-dub’s new, torsion-beam, rear suspension was barely ruffled by the uneven crossing. A V-dub without an independent rear suspension? Gott in Himmel! Happily, my 6’5” head — and that of my tall driving partner, Seyth Miersma — didn’t pogo-stick into the roof.

Indy-rear compacts are an elite club of which Jetta was once a part (Jetta’s sportier cousin VW Golf is still a member as is the Honda Civic). But in the ferociously competitive, $19,000-$26,000 compact segment every bolt counts and IRS is a luxury. Even the forthcoming, zoom-zoom Mazda 3 will succumb to the cheaper beam to cut costs.

Used to be VW thought it was enough to wave around IRS and German engineering and then have Yanks swoon at their feet in homage. Such arrogance led to woeful sales — and to Dieselgate. Humbled, it is now Volkswagen’s turn to grovel at the feet of us Yanks — and they are doing a fine job of it.

VW these days is talking with a very American accent. A southern, Tennessee drawl.

Ignore the cocktail party talk of an electric future, saving the planet, blah, blah, blah. Herr Volkswagen is leaving the party in a 3.6-liter, gas-powered Atlas SUV. Built in Chattanooga. And he wants to build a two-row Atlas and an Atlas pickup too, ya’ll.

The same XL theme carries over to VW’s compacts. Wolfsburg doesn’t even bother sending us its Up and Polo subcompacts because they know they’d sit on the shelves like a Hillary Clinton campaign tome. Instead, they made a better, bigger, cheaper Jetta. Yes, cheaper (see axing that expensive, multi-link, IRS rear suspension).

Suddenly, über-engineered VW is a value brand in America, the only country where Jetta will be sold.

The volume SE model comes equipped with best-in-class, transferable, bumper-to-bumper warranty of 6 years/72K miles, smartphone app connectivity and blindspot assist, which — at $23,005 — is on par with compact peers.

Take the comparable Mazda 3 Touring — one of my favorite value models — and Jetta goes toe-to-toe on blind spot-assist, torque and handling. The Mazda jumps ahead with sexier looks and auto-headlights (something some luxe brands don’t offer) — only to see the VW claw back with a bigger, quieter interior and smooth-shifting eight-speed tranny (also shaming some premium entries).

Ultimately, cars in this segment must be judged against King Civic, which set a new bar in 2016 for fuel economy, handling, rear legroom and techno-smarts. Jetta doesn’t flinch from the challenge, nearly matching the best-selling, benchmark Honda in all respects.

But it also separates itself in two crucial respects: powertrain and looks. Under the hood, the 1.4-liter turbo-4 never starves for power with a stump-pulling, 183-pound feet of torque compared to the Civic’s 153.

As for curb appeal, the mascara-smeared, boomerang-taillight Civic looks like something on its way to a Mötley Crüe concert. Conservative Jetta can be taken home to mother with its nicely creased flanks and groomed front end. Brahms, anyone?

Actually, the V-dub secretly likes to rock out. Jetta brought Beat reps to its media debut, who had designed an audio system for (upper trim SEL) Jetta in collaboration with rapper and Eminem producer Dr. Dre. That’s right, Dr. Dre rappin’ in a Jetta.

Jetta is a fully Yankee-fied product in other ways, too. It’s made in Mexico just like The Donald’s suits. Its redesigned console sports plenty of cubby space for fries, smartphones and other daily necessities. Its big grille is a dead ringer for a Dodge Charger right down to the C-shaped LED running lights.

The V-dub even adopts the American habit of non-functional design cues tacked on just for show. Think fake engine ports. Or fake hood scoops. The Jetta’s contribution to the wardrobe malfunction club is rear, “floating” dual chrome exhaust tips. Except that there are no exhaust pipes behind them (the actual pipe is hidden behind the left fender). They are, ahem, just for show.

Exhaust tip bling also perfectly illustrates the difference between Jetta and its kissing cousin, Golf.

VW is unusual in splitting its compact models by body style: Jetta sedan and Golf hatch. Other auto models (Civic, Focus, Cruze) are content to change their wardrobe while maintaining the same badge. Readers of this column know I’m a hot hatch hooligan and prefer the Golf GTI to just about everything on the market.

I fit VW’s demographic stereotype perfectly. The $27K GTI embodies the Golf spirit with a different engine (turbocharged 2.0-liter) and accounts for some 50 percent of sales reaching well above 30 grand.

The Jetta, meanwhile, is marketed toward a more budget-conscious, more interior-oriented customer (an IRS-equipped GLI model sharing the GTI engine comes later). So the $20K S and SE models are the volume sellers with top, $27K-trim, SEL and SEL Premium trims getting exclusive touches like 10-inch digital instrument display, moonroof and heated rear seats.

The Jetta-Golf personality split is even evident in Jetta’s “sporty” trim, the R-Line. For just $23,845 its brooding black grille and racy wheels appear ready to rumble. But look closer and R-Line is not available with paddle shifters, or a manual transmission, or even a SPORT drive mode.

That autocross-friendly, limited-slip diff is a tech orphan.

But the Jetta lineup should find plenty of homes. Wolfsburg finally gets it and has produced a sculpted, roomy, techy Teuton aimed squarely at the heart of the American market. Or perhaps I should say, squarely at our big, fat behinds.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact sedan


$19,395 base ($23,845 R-Line and $27,795 SEL Premium as tested)

Power plant

1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-4


147 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque


6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed: 127 mph


2,970 pounds as tested

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 30 city/40 highway/34 combined (automatic as tested)

Report card

Highs: Nimble handling with peppy turbo; roomy interior

Lows: Fake, floating exhaust tips; volume knob mute, please?


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★