Improved Fuel Economy Highlights the Updated Sedan

The model-year 2014 Jetta is the best car for you if you want the version that Volkswagen should have been offering since model-year 2011.

That’s when Volkswagen reinvented the Jetta, inflating it up from a cramped little jewel to a compact sedan sized for Americans. We loved the added passenger space, but the Tupperware interior quality, crude rear suspension and leftover five-cylinder engine were downers. For model-year 2014, though, VW corrects two of those three deficiencies.

Essentially a cut-down version of the midsize Passat, the Jetta is VW’s best-selling model in America. It returns for model-year 2014 as a front-wheel-drive sedan—and there’s also a four-door wagon based on the smaller, pre-model-year 2011 platform. The sedan offers gas and hybrid models, and both body styles feature diesel versions, the choice of 25 percent of sedan buyers and a whopping 84 percent of wagon buyers.

Overall, more than nine out of 10 buyers go for the sedan, and that’s where the action is. The styling is unchanged for model-year 2014, but VW dumps the gruff 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that powered the lion’s share of these models. The replacement is a far-more efficient and modern 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Gone as well is the antiquated torsion-beam rear axle. Every version now has the more sophisticated independent rear suspension previously exclusive to the top-line GLI model.

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Those changes make a real difference. The new turbo four-cylinder has the same 170 horsepower as the old five-cylinder, but it has more torque for much better throttle response. It’s a half-second faster 0-60, too.

And fuel-economy ratings improve to 30 mpg city/highway combined with the five-speed manual transmission (an increase of four mpg) and to 29 mpg combined with the six-speed automatic (a gain of three mpg).

The SE and SEL models now wear 1.8T badges to mark their new engine. The entry-level S model retains its uninspired 115-horsepower four-cylinder and rates a middling 25 mpg combined with automatic transmission. TDI versions use a four-cylinder turbo diesel with a V-6-like 246 pound-feet of torque. They rate 34 mpg combined, easily top 40 mpg on the highway and take you 400 miles between fillups.

VW added the hybrid last year, and it’s a good one. It teams a turbocharged four-cylinder with an electric motor to generate the same horsepower and torque as the new turbo 1.8-liter, but the hybrid rates an impressive 45 mpg combined city/highway.

The GLI is the performance choice in the Jetta line. It has a wonderful 210-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, sport trim inside and out and a stiffer suspension. And even though every model has four-wheel disc brakes, only the GLI has red calipers. The GLI rates 26 mpg combined with its six-speed manual transmission, 27 mpg with the dual-clutch gearbox. By the way, the GLI and Hybrid are the only Jettas in which VW says you should use premium-octane gas.

Thankfully, there’s now a little GLI in the way every version drives. The SE and SEL have discovered the joy of turbocharging, while the independent rear suspension brings a new sense of confidence in corners and—most critically—uncompromised control through bumpy turns.

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The TDI is smooth and torquey. The Hybrid drives very much like any other model, except for some touchy brake feel as it recaptures energy to charge its lithium ion batteries. The GLI is a gem, though its ride is quite firm on city streets.

The bottom line: About the only competitors that rival a model-year 2014 Jetta for all-around road manners are the Ford Focus and Mazda 3. But neither of those can match this car’s cabin space. The front seats are upright and supportive. And that model-year 2011 redesign transformed the rear seat from a liability to roomy accommodations equaled by few compact cars at any price. Trunk volume is another asset at a generous 15.5 cubic feet, though the Hybrid’s battery pack reduces that to just over 11 cubic feet. With its shorter wheelbase, the wagon still suffers a tight backseat, but it overachieves with a maximum 67 cubic feet of cargo room.

We love the no-nonsense interior layout. The gauges, the controls, even the view out all serve the business of driving. Added for model-year 2014 is VW’s Car-Net telematics. It includes a crash notification, a stolen-vehicle locator and alerts the owner’s smartphone if someone he or she lent the car to exceeds a specified speed or travels beyond predetermined boundaries. That might be an 18-year-old’s definition of “buzz-kill.”

We mentioned before the plasticky interior that accompanied the model-year 2011 redesign. Unfortunately, an upgrade isn’t part of the model-year story. There are still a lot of hard surfaces in here, though the various models offer fabric vinyl, and leather upholstery that’s generally a cut above.

The Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra and Dodge Dart are among the compacts priced below the Jetta. But for driving dynamics, none is in the VW’s league. Even similarly priced rivals like the Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla don’t match its range of talents.

The model most people buy—the SE with automatic transmission—starts at $20,850, while the SEL comes with automatic transmission, navigation, sunroof and Fender-brand audio for $26,410. GLIs and TDIs with the dual-clutch are priced from $26,175 and $26,410, respectively, while the Hybrid begins at a steep $28,080.

It’s got performance, roominess and powertrain variety licked. About the only nagging question is dependability. VW’s been working hard to improve reliability ratings that are average at best. And every car it makes comes with free scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles. Still, a little act of faith remains part of the Jetta buying experience.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]