Marc Stengel, Wed, 7 Sep 2005 08:00:00 PDT
I've loved the Jetta for years. I'm a former racer-guy, and I think of it as sporty and fun. With the optional TDI diesel, it has also been one of the most economical, fuel-stingy cars on the road for years. But here's the thing. I've got three daughters; and to a one, they've always thought of the Jetta as cute, kicky and cuddly. I don't get it, but more power to Volkswagen for coming up with the magic that endears one car to two diametrically opposed personality types.
When my sophomore collegian planned to come home from Texas for spring break recently, I promised to pick her up at the airport in the new 2005 Jetta that had just arrived. Over the phone, she "oooed" in anticipation. At curbside with her roller-bag in tow, "ooo" transposed into "ee-e-w"; and I stroked my chin, thinking "ah." From a single phoneme, I could tell VW had botched the new Jetta's styling.
Not to my eyes, mind you. The new Jetta is no longer angular and vaguely Mondrian, but it is sleek and suggestive of the sport-touring capability that has been Jetta's benchmark for years. The lines of the rear deck look a bit anonymous, and a gleaming swath of chrome across the front bumper jars my introvert predilections. Nevertheless, Jetta conveys a distinct sense of prestige and sophistication that bespeaks growing maturity. You'd think that an "all-grown-up" image would resonate with a 20-year-old collegian. Then, again, with taxes and time clocks just around the corner, perhaps it's reasonable for her to protest instead, "Don't rush me. I've still got two more years before I hit the streets."
I wonder, too, if the new Jetta's look sends a strongly subliminal-and, it turns out, accurate-message to twenty-somethings that this is no longer a strictly entry-level econocar. Most Jettas today wear window stickers priced north of the symbolic $20,000 frost line. The Jetta 2.5 tested here cost $20,390, base, and $24,040 as-tested, after adding $1,075 for a six-speed auto transmission and $1,960 for leather, premium audio and 16-inch wheels. There are less expensive Jettas available; but $18-grand, without options, is about as low as it's gonna go.
Jetta remains a driver's car-if anything, it becomes even more of one. A new 2.5-liter inline-5 bumps horsepower up to 150; better yet, torque is a gutsy 170 foot-pounds. The six-speed auto with Tiptronic clutchless manual shifting is smoothness in action; and fully independent suspension combines with four-wheel ABS disc brakes to tame the tightest twisties. Improved chassis rigidity and an upscale, leathery interior invoke quiet and calm in luxurious proportions.
To a college-tuition-payer, Jetta looks like an awful lot of bang for the buck. To a mid-college tuition-beneficiary, on the other hand, Jetta's grown-up refinements may be prompting something of an "'I'm not ready for prime-time' backlash."
5-pass., 4-door; FWD; 2.5-liter DOHC inline-5, 6-sp. auto w/ Tiptronic; 150 hp/170 ft.-lbs.; 22 mpg/City, 30 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; passenger volume: 91 cu. ft.; trunk: 16 cu. ft.; as-tested, w/ dual-zone HVAC, leather, AM/FM/6-CD/MP3, 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 6 std. airbags: $24,040