I've driven some gorgeous rides and some hideous ones, but this is probably the most boring-looking car that I've reviewed all year. Call it "understated" or "timeless" all that you want, Volkswagen, but even in Tornado Red, the the slab-sided VW Jetta just looks like a lump on wheels with headlamps.
I'm of a similar mind when it comes to this 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE's performance: it's not bad, it's not great. It's just competent. If the SE were a flavor of ice cream, it would be vanilla. Most people don't really get excited about vanilla ice cream, but it's still ice cream, so it's not like anyone complains much, either.
As a lover of both cars and ice cream, I was determined not to judge this scoop by its plain flavor -- after all, vanilla can be downright delicious when done right. However, after living with the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE with Connectivity for a bit, I'm convinced that there are more flavorful trim levels to be found farther up the Jetta's line.
Our SE model doesn't feature navigation or advanced infotainment, just a single-line, monochrome RCD 310 standard audio system. Audio from its six speakers sounded merely OK. A-pillar-mounted tweeters give this system better clarity than the four-speaker rigs that you'll find in many vehicles in this price range, but only just so. If you really care about what the music coming out of the stereo sounds like, you'll want to look upmarket. VW's own amazing Fender audio system, for example, is worth more than a cursory listen.
Audio sources feeding the RCD 310 include AM/FM radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, a 3.5mm analog audio input, a single-slot CD player, and VW's archaic MDI-interface, which uses a proprietary cable to connect to the 30-pin ports in older iPhones and iPods. You'll need an adapter to utilize the newer Lightning connector that Apple has adopted for its most recent portables. You can also plug USB storage devices into the RCD 310 to play back MP3 and WMA files, but the proprietary 30-pin MDI cable must first be swapped out for a USB pigtail. Why that USB port isn't the standard is beyond me.
There's voice command, but only for the standard Bluetooth hands-free calling; you won't be able to call up artists on portable media or change audio sources with voice commands.
Volkswagen's site states that our Jetta SE was equipped with Bluetooth audio streaming, but even after pouring over the interface for a week, I never did figure out how to access it. This meant that I was pretty much stuck listening to audio from my Android handset via the analog auxiliary input.
Spend a few moments clicking around with the RCD 310 stereo and you'll understand how I might have overlooked an entire feature. The whole situation should be simple, given its limited features set, but it turns out that the opposite is true. Rather than giving shortcuts to many of its functions, VW makes you wade through poorly organized menus. Even simple functions like toggling between the SiriusXM station name and the currently playing song requires a trip two levels deep into a settings menu. Accessing the 3.5mm auxiliary input requires jumping through a similar menu with the additional frustration of the system resetting the aux-input option whenever I turned off the car. So, I had to manually re-enable the connection every single time I restarted the car.
It may appear that the equipped RCD 310 is the tech ceiling for the SE trim level, but there is a touchscreen infotainment system that is hidden within the Sunroof package, a $1,645 option. That gets you an easier to understand interface, HD Radio tuning, and keyless entry with push-button start, but no navigation. In order to gain the option for nav, you'll have to step up to the SEL or TDI trim levels where navigation and premium audio are available.
If you only listen to AM or FM radio, you might be happy with this standard stereo, but people who want to plug in an iPhone, stream from an Android device, or even utilize the auxiliary input should steer clear. This is an odd case where fewer features and a limited interface end up making the system more complex than the RNS 310 touch-screen interface available on the Jetta SEL trim level and above.
To be precise, our example is a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE with Connectivity. Now, when I hear "connectivity," my mind wanders to app integration, advanced telematics, and more, but -- as we just discussed -- there's no tech in this Jetta SE. So what does "Connectivity" mean in this case?
Essentially, the Connectivity Package adds Volkswagen's Car-Net telematics service.
Functioning like a sort of OnStar for Volkswagens, Car-Net brings a number of connected features including automatic crash response, roadside assistance (provided by VW partner Allstate), and stolen-vehicle location. Family features include notifications (via e-mail or SMS) for exceeding preset speeds or entering or exiting preset, geofenced zones. Remote services include remote vehicle locking, horn honk, destination download, and a concierge service that lets the driver speak to an operator to search for a destination and have the location downloaded to the navigation system, if equipped. (Ours wasn't.) Finally, Diagnostics tools allow the driver to schedule visits for service and receive vehicle health reports.