With the all-new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, the VW brand takes the compact sedan back to its roots. It’s an upscale, fun-to-drive alternative to the droves of appliance-cars on the road today. This Jetta is longer, sharper, and more refined than the sixth-generation sedan that came before it – and all that extra work adds up to a package that feels much more cohesive and involving. We tested the base S model, and even at the lowest point on the Jetta’s price range, the fit, finish, and performance exceeded our expectations and outclassed key competitors.
The new look for the Jetta is more sharply drawn than the previous version, and the design elevates the formerly sedate styling to the next level. Our S-trim model came with LED running lights and headlights that frame an angular grille. Chrome accents cap off the look up front, which is far fancier-looking than a Jetta has any business being.
The flanks have been carved from wheel to wheel, and the new lines give the car an attractive profile that accentuates the new car’s stretched length. LED taillights frame an otherwise austere back end, and the look works well with the rest of the Jetta’s styling. The biggest gripe with the base Jetta S is with its wheels. They look like replacement hubcaps that can be picked up at Autozone, despite the fact they are genuine alloys.
On the positive side, our test Jetta’s exterior color was also notable. Known as White Silver, it’s a dynamic paint that shifts through white, silver, gray and very pale blue as the angle of the car changes. I didn’t expect such an interesting color on a base model car, and it’s easily one of my favorites from this year’s group of test vehicles. Others might prefer more basic hues.
Inside, the Jetta’s controls and displays have been oriented toward the driver, which makes the driving experience comfortable and ergonomic. My first drive in the Jetta was a two-hour nighttime journey back from an evening event, and even in the dark it was easy to find the buttons and controls I needed. The new interior design is that clean and simple. The dark upholstery combined with the piano black trim in the dash and doors makes for a slight sensation of claustrophobia, where there’s plenty of room but everything feels a little too… close.
While the Jetta won’t be winning drag races anytime soon, it’s more fun to drive than its price tag suggests. The 147-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic are refreshing alternatives to the herd of squishy-shifting CVTs that occupy the undersides of so many current economy cars. The drivetrain is more than potent enough to make the Jetta feel lively, but a bit more sound-deadening material would tame the howling engine sounds that are produced under heavy acceleration.
The Jetta is primarily a people-hauler (though a small one), and the suspension is tuned accordingly. Our test car was comfortable enough for longer drives on less than ideal highway surfaces while retaining enough character to be fun on curvy roads. Higher trims are available with a drive mode select, which tightens up shift points and throttle response, but there is no adaptive or adjustable suspension with the package.
Volkswagen’s infotainment systems have been among the best for years, and the 2019 Jetta proudly carries on that tradition. The standard 6.5-inch touchscreen, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, brings navigation and streaming audio to all trims. The screen is responsive, easily visible, and operation is intuitive and simple.
The SEL and SEL-Premium trims come with the Digital Cockpit feature similar to that in many Audi models. It can project maps and other information into the gauge cluster. This is a great way to center vital information directly in front of the driver, but most people will be satisfied with the speed, MPG, and other vehicle information included in the smaller screen of the less-expensive models.
A small economy car usually doesn’t deliver a comfort-first experience. While that’s still true in the Jetta, there’s more to like here than most will expect. The front seats are deep, well-padded and offer plenty of support and bolstering. The manual position adjustments allow enough precision to suit most peoples’ heights and sizes. At six feet tall, I was easily able to find a low and comfortable driving position, as was my five-foot tall wife on the other end of the spectrum.
The tradeoff here is in legroom, which I suspect will be a major rub for anyone with backseat passengers. With my driver’s seat adjusted properly, I could not comfortably fit behind it in the back, nor could I squeeze in my daughter’s full-size car seat. Our family of four could comfortably use the Jetta but, depending on the driver, we would have to play jigsaw puzzles with car seats and gear. On a rare carpool day for us, I was able to fit three kids across in the back, but only because two of the seats were smaller booster-style rigs. The two five-year-old kids got a kick out of the cramped arrangement, but the novelty would certainly wear off on a longer drive.
Volkswagen knows that it has a solid contender in the 2019 Jetta, and it shows: While most manufacturers will send us test vehicles with their best trims and equipment, the Jetta we tested was the base trim with just a few additions. That demonstrates confidence in the product.
From a strategic industry standpoint, VW couldn’t really have afforded a flop with the Jetta, because so much of their vehicle lineup comes in car form while the market itself continues to move deeper into SUV-first territory. The 2019 Jetta will be plenty of car for many people, families included, as many of the quirks and wrinkles from previous models have been ironed out. What we’re left with is a sedan that, while base in price and name, comes packed with all the things that make a small car great.