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Model year 2017 changes:
Editor's note December 22, 2016: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.
With its diesel emissions cheating, Volkswagen lost the trust of the American people, which is a shame because its gasoline-engine cars are still quite good.
Take the 2016 Jetta SE. Powered by a peppy, gasoline-burning engine, it's one of the most affordable compact sedans available. It's a blast to drive, has more interior space than its competitors, and it's got a fair amount of tech in the cabin.
A 1.4-liter turbocharged engine powers the Jetta SE, with available upgrades to a 1.8-liter turbo and a hybrid. The Jetta GLI, the most powerful in the model range, comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, producing 210 horsepower.
Don't discount the base engine, however, as this zippy little four-cylinder puts out 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A standard five-speed manual transmission gets the power to the front wheels, although our test vehicle arrived with the six-speed automatic, offered with no extra charge.
The turbocharger helps that tiny engine put out more power by forcing more air into the cylinders, but turbos notoriously take a little time to spool up, causing turbo lag, or a dead spot when you hit the gas.
Fortunately, the Jetta's turbo spools up quickly and there is not much noticeable lag.
The engine runs up to the redline with ease, making it a spry little four-cylinder indeed. The six-speed automatic can be shifted manually from the stick, but honestly the transmission does a fine job on its own. It's nice to have a manual mode at certain times, like powering up or down a mountain pass, but 95 percent of the time folks will find themselves ceding control to the computer.
The Jetta does a nice job of smoothing out the rough city streets, and the speed-sensitive electric power steering offers quick inputs and a nice weight at speed. The Jetta SE rides on 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, which should do most buyers just fine.
At the end of my week with the Jetta, I averaged 27.5 miles per gallon over a combined route of city traffic and highway stretches, much less than the expected EPA fuel rating of 32 miles per gallon combined (28 city/39 highway). However, my heavy right foot may have had something to do with that.
If you stick with the five-speed manual, Volkswagen claims an EPA fuel rating of 28 miles per gallon in the city, 40 on the highway, and 33 combined.
The Jetta SE comes standard with a 5-inch color touchscreen, although our test model showed up with the optional larger 6.3-inch color touchscreen. Now running the second-generation Modular Infotainment Platform (MIB II), the Jetta's infotainment system features faster processing and better graphics than in previous years. Volkswagen's Car-Net interface now offers smartphone integration through Volkswagen's App Connect.
Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink put your smartphone home screen directly on the car's touchscreen. It's great to have many of your smart phone apps like messaging and navigation right on the Jetta's dashboard, but be warned that many aftermarket USB cables are not compliant. I had to raid my colleagues' stash before I found one that would work.
Once my iPhone was connected I could access apps through the touchscreen, steering wheel controls, or Siri. I was able to easily play my podcasts, make phone calls, and reply to any text messages. If you're a fan of Google maps, however, you won't be able to access them via CarPlay. Only Android Auto gets to use Google maps. We iPhone users are stuck with Apple maps.
The 1.4T Jetta SE comes in at $20,095, and while the interior is functional, it's far from luxurious. Expect the basics like cloth seats that adjust manually, air conditioning, and power windows. However, there are a few upscale touches. Push-button start is standard, as well as cruise control, a rear view camera, and heated front seats.
And while the interior may be sparse, Volkswagen does make excellent use of the interior space. The rear seat is one of the largest in the segment, and at 15.7 cubic feet, the cavernous trunk is large enough for luggage for five.
Volkswagen biggest problem with the Jetta is not the Jetta itself, but rather the competition. The Mazda3 with the 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine pushes more towards the enthusiast buyer, and the curved style lines give it a more expensive look. The Honda Civic has been the old economy sedan standby, and its newest generation looks like a strong competitor in the segment.
Still, the Jetta is an excellent value and worthy of a test drive.