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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Accidental Test Drive: VW Jetta

As part of our holiday break I decided to have some fun perform some preliminary research. Since I promised a friend to go to a Mazda dealership later this month I decided to go for what I consider to be the upper end (or possibly beyond) of my market. Besides, the VW dealership wasn't too far from where I had lunch.

Stephan, who looks and sounds just like Dr. Kovac from E.R., went into his routine. Wow, is VW of America having to import car salesmen from Germany? I'll say this, he knew his products. Stephan mentioned all tie-ins with the VW corporate empire. The 6 speed automatic transmission is from Audi. The 5 cylinder engine is half of a Lamborghini V-10 engine. I already knew these things, but nice to see the salesman does. I mentioned the manual transmission as I prefer more control. I asked about safety features: driver/passenger, side-curtain airbags are standard, a recent Best In Class crash protection award, anti-lock brakes (ABS), Daytime Running Lights (DRL), and one tough frame.

The thing about the Jetta is all the little details. Not that any one detail was particularly cool, but it had so many little details. A huge trunk with tie downs and a hook that you can hang grocery bags upright with. A split 60/40 back seat with a pass-through in the middle for long items. The fact the front passenger seat will fold down as well for carrying really long items. The Leatherette (not cloth, but not real cow) seats that were so comfy. Front seats even had butt-warmers. Turn signals intergrated into the side mirrors. Visors that extend to cover the side windows so the sun doesn't distract you. A sun roof that had lots of control. Open it a little, a little more, all the way, just pop the rear up for venting (it almost sliced and diced). The power windows will retract if they accidentally try to crush your fingers. The fact you can use your key in the door lock to open and close your windows. The uplevel package (Option #1) had dual climate control allowing a his & her's setting. Even the armrest storage compartment and glovebox allowed cool air in. In-dash 6 CD stereo with 10 speakers.

I set the front seat where I would like it, and found the back seat had decent legroom. It wasn't a lot of space in front of my knees, but at least the seat wasn't touching. If you're over 5'10" and sitting behind me that could be a different story.

How does it drive? The shifter is very nice. Not quite a sporty short throw, but it isn't much more than a flick of the wrist. I couldn't tell where the clutch pedal would start to engage, but that is a matter of practice. I stalled out 3 times during the test drive when attempting to engage 1st gear. My solution was to overrev the engine a bit. Familiarity would solve that problem. If you already drive a car with a manual you won't have to adjust as much as I do. It was a 90 plus degree day and the AC worked great. Wind noise isn't noticeable and the Jetta is a very solid and quiet automobile. Chassis seemed composed when going over rough patches of the road. Solid as a rock was my impression.

What about the oft-commented underwhelming new 150 horsepower engine? With 0 - 60 in 9.4 seconds it doesn't sound fast. In a real world situation that isn't an unreasonable acceleration, but it isn't thrilling. That being said, I didn't find it to be sucky performance. If I want to hunt down Mustangs, unsuspecting BMWs, and tuner Civics by Fast And The Furious wannabes then the base motor won't cut it. For day to day, real world driving the 5-banger does okay. If you can't upgrade to the
200 horsepower GLI when it comes out the base engine isn't a bad penalty box. A glance at the power curve shows what I'm guessing to be 80-85% max torque from idle to redline so the flat torque curve helps with the decent acceleration. One time I hit 40 mph and was still in 2nd gear. That motor pulls. As for odd ghostly moans from the atypical engine architecture I can't say I noticed, but I never redlined the engine and the AC was definitely on and blocking some noise.

The EPA says 22 city/30 highway, but on long highway cruises Stephan says better than 30 mpg. I would get owners to confirm that, but mixed city/highway likely mid-20s and it runs good on regular gas.

Here was the one rub. I went for my test drive at the end of the month. Car dealers are very willing to deal with you at the end of the month. Oh crap had I realized that I wouldn't have gone! With an MSRP of a well-equipped Option #1 Jetta at $22,000 or so I'm wondering if they would go below $20K? I firmly reiterated my claim that I just couldn't pull the trigger yet due to the complete lack of job and income. Just a tip for you, if you are serious about buying a car and have already done your homework and test drives the last 2 days of the month are the best time to go if you want to purchase. The dealerships will seriously bargain with you.

Overall impression: if you want a serious mid-sized sedan on the smaller end that is full of premium equipment give the Jetta a look. The Value Edition starts at $18K and only fault is the fugly wheels. You can get cool wheels elsewhere for under $1,500. Upgrade to the Option #1 and you have luxury stuff that will put to shame many luxury makes. If your price range can afford it, this is a player you need to watch.

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