After reviewing the pricey Volkswagen Touareg 2, we were happy to see a more likely people's car in the form of the humble 2008 Volkswagen Jetta. While you have to pony up about $20,000 to get one, the Jetta is definitely on the affordable end of the scale, especially when you take into account its standard features that are sure to make any commute safe and comfortable. The Jetta offers a good value proposition in no-frills style.
It's also the first car we've seen where we were happy it didn't include a navigation system. The standard Volkswagen navigation system is slow, making it easy to miss turns when you are using route guidance, and it forces some bad compromises in cabin tech. Instead, we got a standard stereo head unit with an in-dash six-disc changer. As a pleasant surprise, we found that our SE trim level car gets a premium audio system standard. Too bad the aux jack was missing in favor of the iPod integration option, something else that Volkswagen doesn't do well.
Test the tech: Five cylinders of fury
For 2008, the Volkswagen Jetta comes in one of three trims: S, SE, and SEL. Our test car was the middle-road SE, but all Jettas are powered by the same 170 horsepower five-cylinder engine. We put the car, and its engine, to the test by filling all four seats and driving it over a variety of roads, including a dense urban area, a high-speed freeway, and on a winding mountain road. Would the engine give enough power to perform adequately over these roads while carrying four bodies?
Starting out in San Francisco, we dealt with moderately heavy traffic. This involved cars stopping in front of us and buses suddenly pulling into our lane, all of which we had to be on the watch for and ready to change lanes at a moments notice. Our Jetta came with a secret weapon in the form of its six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. Putting it in Sport mode in the city gave us more immediate acceleration, which helped us out in quick maneuvers.
For most of this driving, we were counting on the engine's 177 foot-pounds of torque to make those quick lane changes. In general, the Jetta impressed us. It wasn't going to floor us with its acceleration, but it didn't hesitate and was easy to get a quick burst of speed when needed. It really didn't feel much different carrying one or four people. Although the car is front-wheel drive, we didn't feel appreciable torque steer from it. While in the city, we went up one serious incline--Gough Street, between Lombard and Washington streets--if you ever want to give your hill start skills a try. On the incline, the Jetta was prone to rolling back, but with the automatic transmission, it was easy to get the car going in the right direction.
On the freeway, we had to contend with cars traveling about 75 mph. We kept pace with the faster traffic, passing cars in the slow lane and getting out of the way of people who really wanted to tear it up. The engine had no problem keeping the car moving at these speeds, and the transmission's sixth gear meant the rpms could hold between 2,500 and 3,000. There were a few grades we had to climb, and on these the Jetta took some urging, but we were able to maintain speed well with a deliberate application of the gas pedal. However, we weren't able to jump into the fast lane and pass everyone else at high speed.
For our final road type, we took the Jetta down a winding mountain highway, with plenty of turns rated at 30 mph to 45 mph. As we practiced setting up for and attacking the turns at moderate speeds, we played with the transmission's manual mode, selecting gears that would help us get power through the corners. The Jetta is far from a sports car--with front-wheel drive and a suspension designed for comfort we would get body roll and all sorts of other ill behavior if we pushed it more than moderately hard--but it did reasonably well even with its full passenger load.
While we had few problems keeping up with the faster traffic on the freeways, cutting through urban traffic, or negotiating mountain turns, the Jetta's five-cylinder engine didn't give us the efficiency we expected. The EPA rates it at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, but our observed average for the entire time we had the car was an unimpressive 20.8 mpg.