Go Jetta go

by Kelly Taylor  . Jul 08 2016

Lost in the diesel-emissions scandal may be that Volkswagen still makes gas-powered vehicles, and some rather efficient ones at that.

As with many other manufacturers — Ford, Honda, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz among them — VW is choosing turbocharging as the replacement for gasoline displacement. And in today’s subject, the Jetta 1.4 TSI, it’s working quite well.

Now, let’s not put complete faith in the computer programming of a company that’s proven so adept at cheating with computer programming, but there’s no cheating the amount of gas left in the tank. That level suggests there’s at least a modicum of truth in the dashboard’s reading of as low as 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres at the end of a city drive. After a week and 260 kilometres, the car hasn’t yet burned a half a tank. For all three Winnipeg journalists each having a week in the car, the fuel gauge did not drop below half.

What turbocharging does is make small engines punch above their weight class in power and torque, but only when needed. The turbo kicks in when you put your foot into it, but basically just idles at cruising. And you can see this in the fuel consumption meter, which in VWs resets every time you start the engine.

From start, the meter reads some pretty scary numbers, as high as 24 l/100km, which reflects the surge in fuel consumption on acceleration. But as you spend more time cruising, that number drops like a stone, to the point that by the time your trip ends, you probably burned on average 8.0 l/100km or even a bit less, depending on how aggressive you are with the throttle.

Of course, the double-edged sword of using a turbo for fuel economy is that using that turbo is so addictive, it’s hard to resist. Yet even while enjoying that burst during acceleration, the meter still drops back down.

VW did something interesting a few years ago, inverting the Golf and Jetta models as the brand’s value leader and bringing Jetta to market for as little as $14,900. That base price has since climbed to $15,995, but Jetta still has the lowest base price in the VW lineup. The 1.4 turbo is the base engine and it is, delightfully, still available with a five-speed manual transmission. The tester had a six-speed automatic, a $1,400 option.

As a Trendline+ model, the car comes standard with heated seats, heated windshield-washer nozzles, five-inch touchscreen audio system, cruise control and manual climate control. Added to the tester was the connectivity package ($450), which includes SiriusXM satellite radio, a USB input and voice control. That USB supports Apple CarPlay, which not only allows pass-through of certain Siri voice-control functions on an iPhone, it will also provide hands-free messaging.

That hands-free messaging reads incoming text messages to you, and for replies, attempts to discern what you’re telling it to compose a reply. It’s usually successful, particularly if you stick to simple, English words. I’m not sure what my wife thought when it turned Lagimodiere (a nearby highway named after a fur trader in what would become Manitoba) into Liza Modi, however. (Nor do I have any idea where it got the name Liza Modi.)

To transform Jetta into the value leader required a few sacrifices. First, you have to dispense with romantic images of your car being built by elves in the Bavarian forest: it’s made in Mexico. Secondly, some of the finish has been downgraded. The fit is fine, but instead of soft-touch in expected places, the car uses textured hard plastic. Some of the refinement you might find in Passat, for instance, isn’t here either. You do have to dig, however, to find these minor details, so for many drivers, it’s a pretty good example of VW quality, and it is on par with, and often above, the level of most of its competitors.

Jetta has a huge trunk. Its 0.445 cubic metres (almost 16 cubic feet) means you could sneak at least one adult and one child into the drive-in, if there were still many drive-ins left.

The 1.4 turbo might be the base engine in the least-expensive VW sold, but it’s a joy to drive, with power to spare coming out of corners despite its economy.

The styling might be starting to look dated, but it’s still attractive. There’s enough bling at the front to give some style, not so much as to be ostentatious. The interior has a functional minimalism that borders a bit on plainness.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca