Since its introduction for 2011, Volkswagen's current Jetta compact sedan has been very good to the German automaker.
The idea of a roomy, well-equipped, semi-premium German-badged car in a segment full of bland, mainstream rivals has gone down well with buyers -- the once-niche Jetta has become Volkswagen's bestselling model in the world, with sales of more than 900,000 last year.
While the basic engineering and styling hasn't changed in the past four model years, Volkswagen has been constantly tweaking and upgrading the front-wheel-drive, five-passenger Jetta four-door along the way. Old school VW fans have whined about the new-age Jetta's designed-to-cost strategy. The return of the sporty GLI model a couple of years ago helped, but for 2014, a new turbocharged mill and an independent rear suspension have replaced the funky five-cylinder gas engine and solid-axle rear suspension.
One of the reasons for the Jetta's popularity is its plethora of powertrains.
Want a Jetta on the cheap? There's the $17,190 Jetta Trendline (all prices include freight and pre-delivery inspection fees) base model and its prehistoric, 115-horsepower "two-point-slow" gas four-cylinder.
Want diesel? Go for the $25,985 Jetta TDI. Prefer a hybrid to save fuel? There's also the $32,495 Jetta Turbo Hybrid. Want a sedan version of the GTI sports compact? Go for the aforementioned $29,685 Jetta GLI.
Sitting in the middle of the lineup is my tester: the new-for-2014 $26,885 Jetta 1.8 TSI. With an optional six-speed automatic transmission replacing the standard five-speed manual and top-level Highline trim package, my example came to $29,855.
Following the trend of employing engines with smaller displacement, fewer cylinders and forced air induction, the Jetta TSI's (in Volkswagen-speak, that's Turbo Stratified Injection, which delivers a leaner fuel-air mixture and uses less fuel) new 1.8-litre turbocharged gas four makes the same 170 hp as the outgoing, normally aspirated 2.5L five-cylinder. However, torque has increased by seven to 184 pound-feet and arrives earlier in the rev range at 1,500 rpm compared with 2,750 in the 2.5.
The new mill also puts the Jetta TSI right there with its two biggest compact sedan rivals for 2014: the 184 hp and 185 lb-ft Mazda3 GT and the 173 hp and 154 lb-ft Kia Forte SX.
The new turbo 1.8 also makes the Jetta TSI a bit quicker and more frugal than the older five-cylinder engine. With the autobox, the run from zero to 100 kilometres per hour is now a half-second quicker at 8.5 seconds, while fuel economy improves from 9.1 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 6.5 on the highway to 8.2 and 5.6, respectively.
In my week with the VW sedan, I saw an average of 8.8 L/100 km. Keep in mind, the more powerful Mazda is rated at an even more impressive 7.2 L/100 km city and 5.1 highway.
In truth, I was one of the rare fans of the Jetta's older in-line-five. If not all that powerful, it was smooth, and like Volvo's old fiver, it emitted a distinctive warble when revved. That said, the new 1.8 in the Jetta TSI -- which will also replace the 2.5 in other VWs -- is just as quiet. Because torque is available at such low rpm, you don't have to get the revs too high to get the small sedan moving briskly off the line.
Fans of the Jetta GLI's revvy 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (which VW says this 1.8 is related to) will miss that mill's snarly growl, but those looking for a more mature ride will appreciate the Jetta TSI's new motor.
If you like to shift, it's good to know VW still offers a five-speed manual in the Jetta. That's encouraging, because the autobox has been tuned for fuel economy, with an algorithm that tries to get to the overdrive sixth gear as soon as possible. More aggressive drivers can slip the console shifter to manual mode.
"Mature" can also describe the 2014 Jetta TSI's overall ride and handling character. While the VW compact sedan's body structure is solid and rattle-free, its ride is set up more for comfort.
The new multi-link rear suspension (formerly only available with the GLI) aids in creating a more composed ride over bad pavement than the older solid axle. And despite being electrically boosted to aid in fuel economy, the Jetta TSI's steering is accurate, with good feel and weight.
The rest of the 2014 Jetta hasn't been changed much. Inside, the two-tone black and beige Highline trim gives a sense you're driving a more expensive car, along with leather on pretty much everything the driver touches. The upgraded Fender audio system that comes with the Technology package adds to the premium feel.
With 440 litres of rear trunk space, the Jetta still offers more space than the newer Mazda3 or Forte. Even the VW's warranty -- four years or 80,000 km -- competes with the upscale German brands.
The Volkswagen Jetta has always been about value. For many, it's a substitute for more expensive compact sedans from the likes of Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. So swapping out the older five-cylinder for the 1.8 TSI engine -- which has more torque and is more fuel-efficient -- and adding the new multi-link rear suspension, for about the same money, make the new 2014 Jetta TSI's value equation even better.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014