While we had few problems keeping up with the faster traffic on the freeways, cutting through urban traffic, or negotiating mountain turns, the Jetta's five-cylinder engine didn't give us the efficiency we expected. The EPA rates it at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, but our observed average for the entire time we had the car was an unimpressive 20.8 mpg.
In the cabin
We haven't been very impressed with Volkswagen's standard navigation system, which we last saw in the Touareg 2. It renders maps so slowly that the actual position of the car can be significantly ahead of where it shows on the navigation system, making missed turns a common problem. Fortunately, that option is only available at the top-end SEL trim level. The cabin of our SE trim Jetta was very nice, with Volkswagen concentrating on the basic amenities and leaving out the luxury touches. The options that we had standard in this model were comfortable leatherette heated seats, a telescoping and height adjustable steering wheel, and automatic power windows. What we didn't have were automatic headlights or an electrochromic rearview mirror.
With no navigation or Bluetooth hands-free cell phone system available, the only cabin tech feature was the stereo. At the SE and SEL trim levels, the Jetta gets a free upgrade to a premium audio system that includes an in-dash six-disc changer. The changer can read MP3 CDs, but doesn't show ID3 track information, it shows only file and folder names. Navigating folders on an MP3 CD is also a bit tedious--as there is no list view, you have to step through each folder one at a time. Satellite radio is an option on the Jetta and an auxiliary jack comes standard. Unfortunately, we had the iPod integration option, which replaces the auxiliary input jack. The Jetta uses a very simplistic form of iPod integration, which doesn't show any track information on the radio display. The stereo lets you select the first five playlists on the iPod with five of the six CD or preset buttons. The sixth button plays all tracks and lets you select songs with the tuning knob. However, as it only shows a number for each track, you have no idea which songs you are selecting. The only good thing we can say about this integration is that the dock, located in the console, is conveniently placed.
Although we didn't care for the iPod integration, the sound quality was excellent, and we were particularly impressed that this 10-speaker system comes standard in the SE and SEL versions of the Jetta. Along with mids and woofers in the front doors and tweeters in the A pillars, there are also woofers and tweeters in the rear doors. The amp is mild, neither overpowering nor weak, allowing for strong bass that doesn't rattle the speakers. The highs come through very clearly and there is good separation all around. It's not the best system we've heard, but it is far above average and a nice addition in a good commute car.
Under the hood
We covered the engine performance in our tech test, above. As a further note and a particular high point for the Jetta, those sold in California, the seven states that follow California's emissions rules, and nine states contiguous to these states, get a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle emissions rating. This means the car only produces a pound of hydrocarbons during more than 150,000 miles of driving and has zero evaporative emissions. We only wonder why Volkswagen doesn't sell the PZEV version in all 50 states.
As for handling, the steering is nice and responsive, but the Jetta isn't a car we want to thrash around corners. The suspension is built for comfort rather than sport driving, and the medium height roofline lets the car body roll in fast turns. We had the optional Tiptronic automatic transmission in our car, which shifts smoothly and without fuss. Its Sport mode gives it a little more responsiveness, but it won't downshift aggressively. The manual mode gives more latitude in choosing gears, but for most driving situations suitable for the Jetta, the automatic modes work just fine.
The Jetta comes with quite a bit of road-holding tech, including traction control, a stability program, and antilock brakes. Volkswagen even gives it an electronic differential lock and electric power steering, some impressive platform gear for a car in this price range.
The 2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE goes for a base price of $19,760, a pretty good value considering all the standard gear. As we point out above, the navigation option isn't available on the SE, only on the SEL trim level. Our car came with only two options, the Tiptronic automatic transmission for $1,075 and iPod integration for $199. With its $640 destination charge, the total for our review car was $21,674. We would have been just as happy with the car if we didn't have either option, and the total price would have been just above $20,000.
In our ratings for the Jetta, the quality of the audio system is the only thing that saves it in the cabin tech category. We give it a little credit for having navigation available at the SEL trim level, but not much as it is such a poor system. But we're giving the Jetta high marks on performance for its incredibly low emissions and its engine, which handled everything we threw at it. We would have liked better fuel economy, but a more conservative driving style would undoubtedly improve it. As for design, the car also earns high marks. The exterior looks good while cabin provides plenty of usable space.