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Looking back, the Volkswagen Jetta always had a weird spot in the marketplace, not quite being on the same level as a premium brand but also surpassing the generic brands of the budgeted household. And if you saw someone driving a Jetta, they were seen as someone slightly superior, especially if you were driving, say, something like a Kia. But as times change, the generic brands of Honda, Hyundai and Nissan start to bring in quality materials and premium driving attributes, the tables of the Jetta start to turn and become to be seen as, “oh is that a rental?” 

Apart from some minor tweaks and updates, the Jetta is relatively the same since this current generation launched in 2018; however, a substantial change has taken place under the hood ditching the 1.4-turbo engine for a slighting bigger 1.5-turbo that has been taken right out of the VW Taos crossover. This change in engine brings in a boosted performance, increasing the horsepower from 147 to 158-horsepower, all while keeping the 184lb-ft of torque the same. Strangely enough, Volkswagen is at least trying to keep the spirit of driving alive by offering a 6-speed manual transmission on the entry level S and Sport models. The SE and SEL top trim get the standard 8-speed automatic. 

Since my example arrived in its dressed-to-impress SEL, it was paired with its automatic and despite being only 11-horsepower more than before, there is a noticeable difference in performance, the Jetta feels quicker and has no issues ushering to 60-mph in about 7-seconds. On the highway, the engine feels alive and eager to engage, the turbo comes in swift and the DSG gearbox is quick to downshift. But around town, there is a noticeable lag and overall disconnect. The turbocharger comes in at the middle of the revs, which becomes apparent during medium throttle application as we get a surge of urgency from the turbocharger. And at low speeds the transmission struggles to interact, feeling like it is stuck in economical mode, it felt like it did not want to downshift into second gear until the very last minute, and then were accompanied with another urgency from the turbo.  

Not following in the footsteps of its sportier GLI model, the Jetta uses different suspension components that make it feel wobbly and overly soft, a setup that seems more designed for comfort than enjoyment. Backed by an overly boosted steering system, the whole car loses any sense of driving confidence. On the open highway, however, we see a boost in fuel economy as the Jetta can be seen averaging 40-mpg’s, easily. And even after my week, I managed to get a combined average of 36-mpg overall, which just goes to show this is a highway cruiser.  

Without looking into all of the competitors’ specifications, the Jetta still seems to offer one of the more spacious interiors with a vast amount of rear seat legroom and headroom overall. Our SEL was outfitted with quite attractive faux brown and black leather accents that gave the interior a boosted premium appeal. Nonetheless, the cabin comes across as very jaded with an abondance of hard plastics. Despite the clean, modern appeal of the Volkswagen GTI’s interior, the Jetta continues to feature physical knobs and buttons along with a 10.3-inch touch screen infotainment that comes as standard on the SEL along with a semi-customizable digital instrument cluster.  

Knowing where the Jetta came from, I could always understand the premium price tag, it was basically an economical Audi, so you felt like you were getting more for your money. But now, with a starting price of $21,360 for the S and this SEL coming in at $29,090, the Jetta is a hard sell. Especially when we look at all the pieces; like the passenger side sun visor unable to extend like the driver side, ditching the floor mats to save cost, all the knobs felt like they might break off at any moment and having one of the most annoying Auto Start/Stops I have ever come across. What makes it even harder is looking at the competition… a Nissan Sentra SR, Hyundai Elantra Limited, Kia Forte GT and Toyota Corolla XSE all top out around about $27,000. And even though the Honda Civic Touring sees a more premium price of $30,000, it has 20-more horsepower and a nicer interior. 

But if your brand loyalty lies with Volkswagen, and your stone set on the Jetta SEL, perhaps looking at the Jetta GLI starting at $31,585 or better yet the GTI for $30,530. Yes, they cost a little more and they’re not as nicely equipped as the SEL with faux leather and power seats, but when it comes to overall car for your money, those are much better alternatives.  

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