After reviewing the pricey Volkswagen Touareg 2, we were happy to see a more likely people's car in the form of the humble 2008 Volkswagen Jetta. While you have to pony up about $20,000 to get one, the Jetta is definitely on the affordable end of the scale, especially when you take into account its standard features that are sure to make any commute safe and comfortable. The Jetta offers a good value proposition in no-frills style.
It's also the first car we've seen where we were happy it didn't include a navigation system. The standard Volkswagen navigation system is slow, making it easy to miss turns when you are using route guidance, and it forces some bad compromises in cabin tech. Instead, we got a standard stereo head unit with an in-dash six-disc changer. As a pleasant surprise, we found that our SE trim level car gets a premium audio system standard. Too bad the aux jack was missing in favor of the iPod integration option, something else that Volkswagen doesn't do well.
Test the tech: Five cylinders of fury
For 2008, the Volkswagen Jetta comes in one of three trims: S, SE, and SEL. Our test car was the middle-road SE, but all Jettas are powered by the same 170 horsepower five-cylinder engine. We put the car, and its engine, to the test by filling all four seats and driving it over a variety of roads, including a dense urban area, a high-speed freeway, and on a winding mountain road. Would the engine give enough power to perform adequately over these roads while carrying four bodies?
Starting out in San Francisco, we dealt with moderately heavy traffic. This involved cars stopping in front of us and buses suddenly pulling into our lane, all of which we had to be on the watch for and ready to change lanes at a moments notice. Our Jetta came with a secret weapon in the form of its six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. Putting it in Sport mode in the city gave us more immediate acceleration, which helped us out in quick maneuvers.
For most of this driving, we were counting on the engine's 177 foot-pounds of torque to make those quick lane changes. In general, the Jetta impressed us. It wasn't going to floor us with its acceleration, but it didn't hesitate and was easy to get a quick burst of speed when needed. It really didn't feel much different carrying one or four people. Although the car is front-wheel drive, we didn't feel appreciable torque steer from it. While in the city, we went up one serious incline--Gough Street, between Lombard and Washington streets--if you ever want to give your hill start skills a try. On the incline, the Jetta was prone to rolling back, but with the automatic transmission, it was easy to get the car going in the right direction.
On the freeway, we had to contend with cars traveling about 75 mph. We kept pace with the faster traffic, passing cars in the slow lane and getting out of the way of people who really wanted to tear it up. The engine had no problem keeping the car moving at these speeds, and the transmission's sixth gear meant the rpms could hold between 2,500 and 3,000. There were a few grades we had to climb, and on these the Jetta took some urging, but we were able to maintain speed well with a deliberate application of the gas pedal. However, we weren't able to jump into the fast lane and pass everyone else at high speed.
For our final road type, we took the Jetta down a winding mountain highway, with plenty of turns rated at 30 mph to 45 mph. As we practiced setting up for and attacking the turns at moderate speeds, we played with the transmission's manual mode, selecting gears that would help us get power through the corners. The Jetta is far from a sports car--with front-wheel drive and a suspension designed for comfort we would get body roll and all sorts of other ill behavior if we pushed it more than moderately hard--but it did reasonably well even with its full passenger load.
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.