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.
Drivers can either interact with the Car-Net features by pressing one of the three buttons located on the ceiling console in the vehicle -- information, roadside assistance, or SOS -- to speak to a call center operator, use an iPhone application (an Android version is coming "soon" according to a VW representative), or access the service through a browser on a Web-connected personal computer.
I was able to try out the VW Car-Net app previously on theand was also given demonstrations of the roadside assistance and vehicle-tracking features and found them to also be easy and accessible. I'm sure that it would function similarly on this VW, with the caveat that the Jetta SE's lack of navigation will disable features like address download. Without a navigation system in place, Car-Net's day-to-day usefulness is severely limited, but having the emergency and roadside services watching your back may add to your peace of mind.
A six-month free trial of the Car-Net service is included in the MSRP, after which it'll cost $199 per year to retain access. Going month to month will be more expensive, and committing to multiple years yields discounts. VW states that the system brings its vehicles into parity with telematics systems offered by GM, Hyundai, and Toyota at a competitive price.
Under the hood, you'll find Volkswagen's 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine. Power is stated at 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which gets sent to the front wheels via either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox.
On paper, the Jetta is already looking better than the new Corolla, but don't let the turbocharged engine fool you. This is no driver's car. Like the Toyota, it's basic transportation -- more grocery getter than corner carver.
Gone is the torsion-bar rear end of the previous model year; the Jetta's multilink rear suspension is back for 2014. However, rather than a performance upgrade, the benefit here is a more smooth, controlled ride over bumps. The Jetta is more comfortable for it, which is a very good thing for commuters. However, the suspension and steering are still pretty vague and dulled, which is not so good for enthusiasts -- they'll want to check out VW's GTI or the Jetta's GLI trim level.
Mash the right pedal to make a pass and you'll find that turbo lag is a noticeable issue for this 1.8-liter turbo if you catch it off-boost. Once you get the turbo whistling, power is not bad at all, but you'll have to keep working the five-speed manual gearbox to make the most of your revs. Even then, the ratios seem too broadly spaced and you'll sometimes find yourself waiting for the power. It probably could use another forward gear, which most drivers will probably get anyway when they inevitable opt for the six-speed automatic.
Fuel economy isn't bad at 26 city, 36 highway, and 30 combined miles per gallon. The trip computer reported a steady 30 mpg during my testing, which seems bang-on the EPA's guesses, but I'd have expected just a bit more from my relaxed and freeway-heavy testing cycle.
Don't get me wrong, the Jetta gets the job done. It's a more than competent highway cruiser, where its suspension isn't taxed very much and is able to soak up those expansion joints and jostles from cracked pavement. At speed, the Jetta feels solid and settled; its turbocharged engine hummed along happily in the meaty part of its torque curve. As an enthusiast, I'd like a bit more soul in my drive. But if you're looking for no-frills, no-thrills transport, this VW Jetta SE fits the bill.
The 2014 VW Jetta SE with Connectivity is a solid car for the money, but I didn't feel that it was outstanding or impressive. The power was good, the fuel economy was good, and the Car-Net telematics adds peace of mind, but I wasn't wowed during my week with this vee-dub. At least at this SE trim level, it's a car for people who don't necessarily care about cars. So if you're comparing it with the Toyota Corolla or Mazda3, our example's $20,420 as-tested price (which doesn't include the $820 destination fee) is not a bad deal.
But it doesn't take more than a glance at Volkswagen's lineup to see that the Jetta SE with its 1.8-liter turbo isn't the best deal in the automaker's stable. For not much more than our as-tested price, you could be driving a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI with Premium. This diesel-powered model packs much more torque (236 pound-feet), much better highway fuel economy (42 mpg), and better dashboard tech that includes Volkswagen's awesome Fender audio system. If you're in the market for a Jetta, do yourself a favor and scrape together an extra $4,435 for a much, much better car in the TDI.
|Model||2014 Volkswagen Jetta|
|Trim||SE with Connectivity|
|Power train||1.8-liter turbocharged and direct injected four cylinder, 5-speed manual transmission, FWD|
|EPA fuel economy||26 city, 36 highway, 30 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||30 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, MDI iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM satellite radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker RCD 310 standard audio|
|Price as tested||$21,240|