I have a weird history with the Volkswagen Jetta. The only time I get in one is right after it’s release as a low mile rental car. Back in 2011, I had one on a trip that ended up being a precursor to my move to the Bay Area. That sixth generation car has a pretty basic S-model specification but even then, taking it around the Bay Area roads really made it shine as a “this is better than your average commuter” car. In fact, despite the prevailing thought that the 5th to 6th generation move was play to move it downmarket, the 6th generation Jetta still maintained a lot of what made it feel German.
This 7th generation car, however, is a revelation.
Everything that was learned in the 6th generation car has been reapplied with such flagrant disregard for good taste, that the 7th generation reminds me of 3rd generation Chevy Cavalier. In fact, even some of it’s handling characteristics are straight out of 1990s General Motors. Allow me to unpack this a little.
The Jetta I received from the rental car counter had just 7 miles on it. Normally when you rent a car and get to take some of the plastic off yourself, it’s a wonderful day. Even at 1am, having spent 3.5 hours on a plane, I still had that moment of joy when I realized the keys I was being handed were to a fresh-as-a-baby’s-bottom 2019 and not a left over previous generation car. When I opened the door, I took the supreme joy of taking the plastic protector off the driver’s floor mat. Then something awful happened.
I tossed the key into the cup holder and looked for the start button. “Odd” I thought, as there wasn’t a start button. You see, the base Jetta still comes with a good old fashioned flip out key. In fact, it’s the same chunky flip out key design as it has 8 years ago. Then you feel around the cabin - hard plastics everywhere. That’s not very German of them, but it’s not an expensive car and you would be forgiven for assuming (like I did) that they put the money into the driving characteristics.
So I set off on my way to my AirBNB. It was 1:30AM and I didn’t need to take the highway to save time. Along the way, I play with the different modes (Eco, Normal, Sport) and mash the throttle a bit from the stop lights. That’s when I was in for my next surprise. On bone dry pavement, the car fights for traction pulling away from a stop light the same way my 1994 Cavalier did. I haven’t spun the front tires on a sub 200hp car like in my life.
How bad is the front wheel spin? Bad enough that from a stop light, it not only spins the the tires from a stop, but also spins them during the shift from 1st to 2nd. In today’s day and age, you have to go out of your way to find a tire so bad that it breaks traction in a 147hp car in the 1st to 2nd shift. It’s so bad that it’s actually dangerously slow taking a right turn on red. Things are even worse when you’re asking those wheels to turn AND go. According to testing by real journalists, the Jetta is about 2.5 seconds faster to 60mph than my 1991 Miata. Today I made a right on red in the Jetta that the Miata would have made just fine. In the Jetta, I got beeped at as I was a hot mess of wheelspin and slowness.
But once you get going, everything is fine, right? Well, not exactly. 184 ft-lb isn’t a ton, but I guess it’s basically a million if your front suspension design is made out of softened butter. I can’t name a non-performance car in the last 10 years where you could actually use the torque steer in 2nd gear to move the car between lanes. Sure, a Mazdaspeed3 was always going to rip you around, but this is a getarounder for young professionals. So again, not so German.
So let’s talk about the tech. What tech? There’s a USB port so you “BYON” (bring your own nav) with Android Auto. This car was fitted with optional Driver Assistance package with includes forward collision alerting / “autonomous braking”, blind spot monitoring, and heated mirrors. As an aside, calling something “autonomous braking” just so that you can use the word “autonomous” is like calling the “Popcorn” button on my microwave “Artificial Intelligence”. All four windows have full auto up/down (that’s actually quite good). The gauge cluster looks a decade old with a black and white screen in the middle. The climate control blows hot or cold air - usually.
Let’s talk a bit more on that climate control because it interacts with a piece of technology that’s getting more an popular as we try to save the polar bears from the evil humans. This car comes standard with automatic start/stop. It’s very popular in Europe, but not that popular in the US yet. Mainly because, frankly, it sucks in automatic cars. It makes sense in a manual to restart the motor as you push the clutch back in. In an automatic, they trigger on you pulling your foot off the brake and restart the engine. Today, I’m in Texas where it was about 82 degrees at 3pm this afternoon. Stuck in a bit of Austin traffic, I put my foot on the brake at a red light and sat, enjoying the sights, waiting for the longest red light in the universe to turn green. Suddenly, I realized it was getting quite warm and that my air conditioning was blowing 80 degree air at me. So it turned the AC down. Still hot. I turn off the auto start/stop and the air conditioning comes right back. So I turned it back on again and did the same thing at the next light. I’ll be damned, this is a terrible car for Texas. And so far as I can tell, the auto stop/start is turned on by default every time you restart the car.
Okay, the last part is looks & functionality. It looks okay. In fact, it’s kind of handsome and the tail lights are somewhat interesting to look at. The wheels are alloys, but so poorly designed that I had to pull on them to make sure they weren’t hubcaps. The trunk is huge, so I guess that makes it practical.
In total, this lump of coal will set you back almost $21k. For the same price, you can have a gently used 2017 BMW 320i. If you insist on having new car smell, you can get brand new Hyundai Sonata for $3k less that has more standard features and a better interior. It’s not the best looking car out there, but buy a Civic! I beg you, please don’t buy a base Jetta. You’re better than this. Everyone should be better than this.