Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Jetta

In 1993, Bill Clinton was President of the United States, Kurt Cobain was alive, hockey (somehow) was not yet recognized as a national sport in Canada, and Volkswagen's Jetta compact was powered by a 2.0L four-cylinder that made 115 hp and 122 lb-ft of torque.

150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque vault the Jetta squarely into the mix among compact cars, never mind the subcompacts the base model is priced to compete with.

Twenty-two years later, one of those things had not changed — at least not until late summer 2015, when Volkswagen announced that a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder would replace the two-point-slow (as it's known both affectionately and otherwise) as the Jetta's base engine.

This new-to-North America motor (it's been available in Europe for some time already) comes at just the right time for Volkswagen's marketing and PR folks, who are no doubt glad for a distraction from endless questions about faked diesel emissions ratings. As running changes go (the Jetta was designed into this current, seventh generation in 2011), this is a big one.

For its two litres of displacement, the outgoing engine was both weak and thirsty, its output outshone by motors like the Honda Fit's 1.5L, with its 130 hp/114 lb-ft, and fuel consumption more in line with bigger, stronger four-cylinders found in mid-size sedans.

The new 1.4 TSI motor swings those needles in the other direction: 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque vault the Jetta squarely into the mix among compact cars, never mind the subcompacts the base model is priced to compete with, at $15,995 in Trendline trim ($17,395 with automatic transmission). VW says that's within $120 of the Jetta's base price in 2011, but it's a more significant $1,005 jump over the equivalent 2015 model, and includes a backup camera, four-wheel disc brakes, trip computer, and touchscreen infotainment system as standard kit.

A Trendline+ model adds a front centre armrest, heated front seats and windshield washer nozzles, air conditioning, heated and power-adjustable side mirrors, keyless entry, USB input, and upgraded interior trim, for $18,795 with the five-speed stick, or $20,195 in automatic form. Another $400 adds a larger touchscreen to access the "App Connect" system that incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. (More on that later.)

Comfortline trim is as high as you can go with the 1.4 TSI (Highline is reserved for 1.8 TSI and 2.0 TDI models), which brings 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights and climate control, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers and App Connect for $22,595 or $23,995, depending on transmission choice.

Those transmission choices are a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic, both carried over from the 2.0L car. As Volkswagen expects most 1.4 TSI Jettas to be Trendline+ models with automatic, that's what they brought along for this media preview.

As you drive away, the new motor's generous torque (184 lb-ft, starting at 1,500 rpm) makes the first positive impression. That number is notable for matching the torque output of the larger 1.8 TSI engine, and gives the car solid punch off the line. Gearing helps, too: the automatic's six ratios are better spaced than the five in the stick-shift used in 1.8 TSI cars, so there's less of that powertrain's tendency to fall out of the powerband with every shift. 

But, much like the 1.8, this little turbo mill runs out of steam toward the high end of its speed range, so there's not much to encourage full-throttle runs every time the light turns green. Instead, this engine shines in highway driving, where in spite of a sixth gear that keeps revs below 2,000 rpm, there's useful passing power available after just one downshift into fifth.

Fuel consumption in automatic cars is rated 8.5/6.0 L/100 km (city/highway); our test car averaged 6.1 on a highway route that included both secondary two-lane roads and four-lane highway driving. (That average is according to the onboard computer, so assume some optimism on its part. For the record, stick-shift cars are a touch more efficient by government test standards, at 8.3/5.9 L/100 km.)

Aside from the new infotainment setup (it was included in the cars VW brought along for this event), the Jetta's interior includes no surprises compared to 2015 models. Unfortunately, that means a dash composed almost exclusively of hard, black plastic, and little to lift it above its entry-level pay grade.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, as their names suggest, bits of software that allow smartphone integration with the car's entertainment and communication systems. Plug your device in and the car essentially takes over your phone so that you control it through the car. It renders your device inert, and while certain apps won't work through the car, you can still make calls using voice commands. It's not a new concept, but one that often isn't available to Android users, and certainly not always on offer in budget-priced cars. Perhaps most notably, Volkswagen has done away with its proprietary iPod connector, switching to a simple USB plug.

These days, buyers spending the $20,195 VW wants for a Trendline+ with automatic might expect a little more touchy-feely goodness, but the Jetta offsets that demerit with an interior that's larger than most at this price point, not to mention an engine that out-powers many available in the compact class, where the cars we drove would represent a solid, if not outstanding, value for just over twenty grand. Significantly, VW Canada's PR rep, Thomas Tetzlaff, indicated in not-so-many words that the 1.4 TSI motor would migrate to the Golf line, too.

Like other Jettas lined up below the sporty GLI, the base model is utterly unexciting, but the 1.4 TSI engine brings a tangible improvement in everyday drivability and, if our time in the car was any indication, fuel economy. Finally, here's a motor with staying power – but we doubt it will earn as catchy a nickname as its predecessor.