Europe’s compelling swing at the value compact sedan segment

The 2017 Volkswagen Jetta is a little different from its competition. In America, the Jetta’s compact sedan segment is dominated by players from Japanese, Korean, and American makes: Cars like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cruze sell well here and put up a good fight for a competitive portion of the market.

Compact sedans are popular with a wide cross-section of shoppers, and for good reason. They’re big enough nowadays that a young family can easily haul a couple of kids in the back seat. They have trunks large enough to accommodate an occasional run to Costco or Sam’s Club to buy a bulk load of peanut butter and breakfast cereal. They’re easy to own because they don’t drink a lot of fuel and they don’t have high maintenance requirements. Also, they’re easy to park.

The 2017 Volkswagen Jetta is a very European take on the compact sedan. It hasn’t always fought for buyers by trying to match prices with the competition. Previous generations of the Jetta were marketed as kind of a near-premium alternative to the usual compact sedans here in the States. But when the latest generation of the Jetta (and its big sister, the Passat) debuted in America a few years ago, that changed. Now you can buy a 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE like the one I tested for well under $20,000 at most VW dealers. It’s price-competitive with just about everything in the segment, when optional equipment is considered.

I hear long-time VW fans saying it now: “Yeah, but they gave up a lot to compete on price.” Sure, some things changed, mostly under the skin. My test car’s suspension wasn’t as swift as the independent-rear-suspension Jettas of yore. Its interior materials weren’t as nice as Jettas I remember from the 2000s. But there’s still enough Germanic charm in the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE – particularly in my five-speed manual transmission test car – to make it stand out from the pack.

Design Notes

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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It’s clean – anodyne, even. Some criticized it as “boring” when it debuted. Compared to the swoopy designs of its contemporaries, maybe it was a little boring.

The 2017 VW Jetta continues the design started in 2011. It’s clean – anodyne, even. Some criticized it as “boring” when it debuted. Compared to the swoopy designs of its contemporaries, maybe it was a little boring. The Jetta’s straight lines and creases are in sharp contrast to the curvy, flame-like surfacing of, say, a 2012 Hyundai Elantra. But here’s the thing: The Jetta’s design has aged well. Other automakers have felt compelled to redesign their compacts in whole or in part since the 2011 Jetta’s debut. VW has made minor tweaks, but the basic design remains the same as it ever was.

Up front, there’s a very sober, thin grille opening between the two headlights that continue the grille’s overall shape, turning up at the outside edges. There’s a lower grille opening below the bumper strike face that doubles this shape. Two clean hood creases start at the meeting point of the upper grille and the headlights, streaking back in an elegant arc toward the side mirrors.

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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In profile view, the Jetta has a crease that runs from the corner of the headlight lens to the area just above the taillight lens. Unlike some sedan designs, the crease does not bisect the door handles. A secondary crease is formed low on the doors, creating a plane that coincides with flat surfacing on the bumper areas that is visible from the side. My test car had elegant yet simple 16-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels that dressed the Jetta up without trying to make it look like a race car. That kind of honest design choice is laudable nowadays.

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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At the rear, the upper crease from the sides continues all the way around to form the upper edge of the relatively short trunk lid. A major horizontal line emanates from the inner section of each taillight and forms the shadowbox over the license plate. There are a half-dozen lesser horizontal line elements in the rear bumper cover alone.

Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase (Inches) 104.4
Length (Inches) 183.3
Width (Inches) 70.0
Height (Inches) 57.2
Track front/rear (Inches) 60.4/60.3
Ground Clearance (Inches) 5.2

Interior Notes

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Interior High Resolution
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The interior of the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta is roomy, purposeful, and not as luxurious as past Jetta generations.

The interior of the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta is roomy, purposeful, and not as luxurious as past Jetta generations. The test car had plenty of hard, scratchy plastics, but VW thoughtfully included soft-touch surfacing on the areas most likely to be touched – door arm rests, center console arm rest, leather on the steering wheel and gearshift. In upper trims, the upper dash gets soft, injection-molded plastic instead of the hard, hollow-sounding stuff in the SE.

But are you interested in squeezing your dashboard or driving the damn car? The 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE has great ergonomics. The thin-rimmed steering wheel feels good in the hands. The shift lever feels good, too, and has a nice heft to it. The pedal box is plenty large enough for American-size feet and includes a positively enormous dead pedal for your left foot when not working the clutch.

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Interior High Resolution
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2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Interior High Resolution
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Infotainment is easy to use, with VW inserting thoughtful proximity sensors that enlarge the on-screen controls when your hand approaches the touchscreen. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration are there, too. In my experience, Android Auto worked seamlessly once my low-rent smartphone was plugged in via USB. That same screen handled rear camera display duties, making reversing into parking spaces a breeze.

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Interior High Resolution
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2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Exterior High Resolution
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The trunk was fairly enormous, with 15.7 cubic feet of room for groceries, luggage, or whatever. I hauled groceries for my family of four, a few hundred newspapers for a paper route, and my youngest kid’s diaper bag during the test week – not all at the same time – and found the trunk to be easy to load and unload as well as plenty large for family duties.

The Drive

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE - Driven Drivetrain High Resolution
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My test car was equipped with a rarity in this segment: a five-speed manual transmission. That added to its Germanic charms, with its light-and-easy clutch modulation and its substantial-feeling shifter. The clutch was easier to modulate than the last manual-transmission VW I drove, the Golf R. Admittedly, the Golf R is a performance car and makes nearly twice as much horsepower as my Jetta SE test car, but it had an annoying dead spot in the clutch pedal travel that made it difficult to get used to for the first couple of days. The Jetta’s clutch was much more natural. I was immediately comfortable driving it.

The transmission provided wide ratio spreads, with both fourth and fifth gears being overdriven on a 3.23:1 final drive ratio. Honestly, adding a sixth cog would probably only make the steps between the first four gears shorter – and needlessly so, because the torque comes on so early.

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Powering my Volkswagen Jetta SE test car was VW’s masterfully done 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.

Powering my Volkswagen Jetta SE test car was VW’s masterfully done 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gasser making 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 184 pound-feet of torque at a super-low 1,400 rpm. It was plenty peppy in town and didn’t run out of breath at extra-legal speeds on the highway.

In the absence of a TDI diesel engine, the little 1.4 does yeoman’s work on the highway, pulling down an EPA estimate of 40 miles per gallon there with the manual transmission. I pushed the Jetta hard on I-40 one day, cruise set between 80 and 85 mph, and still managed to eke out 36.1 mpg by the end of my 590-mile week. That week of driving included plenty of in-town traffic and some country two-lane commuting.

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The nicest thing about the 1.4 was how quiet it was. I could barely tell when it was idling. I was left wondering why on earth VW isn’t putting this engine in the U.S.-spec Golf, in which I think it would work very well. Golfs are available with this engine in Europe. Why not America? Imagine a 40-mpg gasoline-powered Golf! Currently, that car returns just 36 mpg in EPA testing, even though it’s smaller than the Jetta.

The Jetta’s steering feel was a class above competitors in the compact segment at this price point. Effort loaded up nicely as I cranked it into a turn, and it lacked the numbness on-center that plagues its competition. Even though it wasn’t pretending to be a performance car, it performed admirably when I flogged it through the twisties. Its tires were not low-profile, but the car’s handling didn’t suffer for it on public roads. In fact, impact absorption and highway quietness were probably all the better for having some real sidewalls on those 205/55R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tires. That said, if you plan on taking your family car to an autocross event, you’re probably better off with the pricier performance version of the Jetta, the VW GLI.

Drivetrain Specifications

Engine 1.4L, inline four cylinder, 16V, turbocharged/intercooled, TSI
Horsepower 150 HP @ 5,000 RPM
Torque 184 LB-FT @ 1,400 RPM
Transmission 6-speed manual
Fuel economy city/highway/combined 28/40/33

The Competition

Nissan Sentra

2016 Nissan Sentra High Resolution Interior Exterior AutoShow
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2016 Nissan Sentra High Resolution Interior Exterior AutoShow
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The Nissan Sentra is a lot of car for the money. A base model is the only way to get a manual transmission like my Jetta SE test car, and a base Sentra will be missing some of the Jetta’s nicer features. Namely, it won’t have Jetta’s neat leatherette upholstery or slick touchscreen infotainment with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

The Sentra also happens to be a lot less entertaining to drive. Steering is numb. Horsepower is underwhelming from the 1.8-liter naturally aspirated engine, which is thirstier than VW’s 1.4-liter mill. If you opt for an automatic, the Nissan saddles you with a CVT, while VW gives you a fairly excellent six-speed. The Volkswagen Jetta in any trim will be a far more engaging car to drive than the comparable Sentra model.

The Sentra and the Jetta are both due for a major design refresh, but the Jetta’s design somehow remains fresher than the Sentra’s. The interior of the Sentra, especially, is showing its age. However, the Sentra’s trump cards are its rear-seat legroom and frequently discounted pricing. If you need maximum family-hauling space at the lowest price possible, that may be enough to sway you to Nissan’s camp.

Read our full review on the Nissan Sentra.

Hyundai Elantra

2017 Hyundai Elantra High Resolution Exterior AutoShow
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2017 Hyundai Elantra High Resolution Exterior AutoShow
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Hyundai apes a lot of German styling in the interior of its latest Elantra compact sedan. If you Google “2013 Seat León interior” and then Google “2017 Hyundai Elantra interior,” you’re in for a fun comparison. Seat (pronounced SAY-ott), is VW’s Spanish-badged value brand, by the way, and the León is a slightly smaller cousin to the Jetta.

Hyundai toned down the Elantra’s exterior styling a bit for 2017, and the car is all the better for it. Where the previous design had lots of swoopy lines that made the design age quickly, the new one should be contemporary for years to come.

The Hyundai Elantra’s driving experience doesn’t come close to matching the VW Jetta’s, however. The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes slightly less horsepower despite packing 600cc more displacement than the VW 1.4-liter, and it’s way down on torque. Pony up for the Elantra “Eco,” and torque grows some, but still falls well short of the VW 1.4 while horsepower falls even further behind in the name of fuel economy – which is no better than the VW Jetta SE at 40 MPG highway. The hot trim is the Elantra Sport, which features a 1.6-liter turbo engine that would leave our Jetta 1.4T in the dust in a straight line, but that version of the Elantra is meant to compete with the Jetta GLI, not the more humble Jetta SE.

Pricing will be a wash between the lower trims of the Elantra and Jetta, unless either Hyundai or VW is offering some rebates. So it may very well come down to which design you like better, or which dealer offers the better experience for you.

Read our full review on the Hyundai Elantra.

Chevrolet Cruze

2016 Chevrolet Cruze High Resolution Exterior
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2016 Chevrolet Cruze High Resolution Exterior
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The most recent redesign of the Chevrolet Cruze is attractive, if a bit overwrought, both outside and inside. One wonders how dated this car will look in seven or eight years – will Chevy still have the same basic design, as VW has had for the Jetta in that amount of time? Probably not.

The Cruze is the best compact sedan Chevrolet has produced, and it’s deceptively quick on the road. It’s quiet interior and smooth Ecotec 1.4-liter engine match the 1.4-liter VW Jetta in quietness and smooth operation. It matches the VW Jetta’s fuel economy, too, with an EPA highway rating of 40 mpg.

Infotainment is a strong point for the Cruze, with an easy-to-use Chevy MyLink system that includes Android Auto capability. I prefer VW’s minimalist two-dial setup to Chevy’s multitude of buttons and two big dials.

Where Chevy has VW beat is in its available diesel engine. This used to be something that drew people to Volkswagen’s small cars, but in the post-Dieselgate era, there is no such thing as a diesel Jetta. There is a diesel Cruze, and it returns up to 47 mpg on the highway, according to EPA. But unless you’re a diesel fan who absolutely must have an oil-burner, the Volkswagen Jetta presents a far better package for actual family hauling. The Cruze has a tight interior for the segment, with far less real-world rear-seat legroom and headroom than the Jetta.

If the interior space isn’t a deal-breaker to you because you don’t haul people in the back seat, the Cruze may in fact be the Jetta’s closest competitor. As a father of two fast-growing boys, I would pick the Jetta for its interior space. But if not for that factor, the Cruze was just as nice to drive, and there are several Chevy dealers between my house and the nearest VW dealer. That makes it pretty appealing.

Read our full review on the Chevrolet Cruze.

Conclusion

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Compact cars try to be all things to an awfully wide cross-section of the car-buying market. They’re family cars. They’re small, fuel-efficient commuters that are easy to park in tight spaces. They’re cheap to buy and maintain. They have enough room to haul four people in relative comfort.

Every car has its strengths, some of which are outlined in the competitive comparisons above. But few competitors in this segment do all the things a compact car needs to do quite so well as the Volkswagen Jetta. Nissan Sentra, for instance, may be slightly cheaper to buy, and it may have more rear-seat legroom, but it’s also not nearly as engaging to drive, its styling isn’t as timeless, and its infotainment leaves a lot to be desired.

The Germans have a long, proud history of building “everyman” cars for the luxury-performance segment. The BMW 3 Series was the standard-bearer in the luxury compact car class for a couple of decades, and it remains one of the best all-’rounders in the segment today. It’s apparent that Volkswagen has managed a similar performance in the economy compact car segment with its latest tweaks to the Jetta. It’s a solidly built, cheap-to-buy, roomy small car that runs like a Swiss watch and returns excellent fuel economy without boring its driver. For that, I applaud Volkswagen.

Disclosure: Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of fuel for this review.

References

Volkswagen Jetta

2015 Volkswagen Jetta High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the Volkswagen Jetta.

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