Jetta: All the Betta for the Young

Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of the Car Talk show on public radio, are always dissing drivers of the Volkswagen Jetta. They contend that Jetta drivers are among the rudest on the roads, always cutting people off, going too fast, etc.

Whenever I hear Click and Clack go into their rap, I get the feeling that what they're really complaining about is under-25-year-old drivers because the Jetta is very popular with college students and recent grads. And if the nation's youth went for the old Jetta, they're really going to covet the redesigned '05 version, which came out in March, and the similar '06s coming out in September. Jettas are zippy, German-engineered drivers' cars with available features that rival those of entry-level luxury models -- and a price to match.


  The "new Jetta" -- as VW likes to call it -- is a considerable improvement over the previous model. It's seven inches longer and somewhat wider, for one, which allows for a spacious interior and a truly capacious trunk. For a small car, the Jetta now has a major amount of leg, shoulder, and hip space, both in the front and back seats. And when you fold the rear seats down, you open up cavernous hauling capacity. There's also a pass-through from the trunk to the interior so you can leave the rear seats up and still carry skis.

The driving experience is new and improved, too. The gasoline-powered Jetta comes standard with a frisky, 2.5 liter/150 horsepower five-cylinder engine. The idea of the unusual five-cylinder configuration, as a UPS driver informed me the other day as he was admiring the car in my driveway, is "to give you the performance of a six cylinder engine and the fuel economy of four cylinders." (Great marketing, VW!)

The new Jetta is rated to get 22 miles per gallon and 30 on the highway (38 mpg in town and 46 on the highway for the TDI diesel version). Yet, to appeal to North American drivers, VW also gave the car a lot more torque than the previous Jetta, so it really jumps when you punch the accelerator.

OVER 20 Gs.

  Even with an automatic, the Jetta has a very nice sports-car growl that's even more aggressive if you put it in "sport" mode. As with the Mazda 3 and other fun-to-drive small cars, you can also do the shifting yourself if you opt for the Jetta's optional Tiptronic automatic transmission (a $1,075 option). The six-speed automatic in the Jetta is even more fun to shift than the Mazda 3's four-speed automatic.

The new Jetta doesn't come cheap. The logical version for most students would be the "Value Edition," which starts at $18,515 (Jetta base prices stay almost the same for '06). It comes standard with front and rear side-curtain airbags, traction control, and antilock brakes, as well as a CD player, cruise control, and eight-way adjustable seats.

Add another grand for an automatic transmission, $380 or rear side airbags, $280 for electronic stability control (both important safety options), and you're over 20 Gs for the starter model (though VW is offering a $199-per-month lease deal until Aug. 31).


  My test car was the more expensive 2005 Jetta 2.5, which starts at $21,000 (plus another grand for an automatic) and really mounts in price when you add options. For instance, the package that includes a leather interior, 12-way power seats, a sunroof, trip computer, and satellite radio costs $4,660 (reduced to $3,485 for a slightly different package on the '06).

The base TDI model, with its smaller, four-cylinder, 100 horsepower diesel engine, starts at $22,000 and has some of the same available options as the 2.5. Speedy new, turbocharged, 200 horsepower '06 Jettas are coming out in September -- the gas-powered GLI and diesel 2.0T. But they start at more than $24,000, options are just as pricey as on the 2.5, and going with the turbocharger will jack up the insurance rates of most under-25 drivers.

If you're on a tight budget, you can always consider a used Jetta. A low-mileage, dealer-certified 2000 or 2001 Jetta goes for around $14,000 at VW dealerships, and you'll pay less if you shop the want ads. Just be aware that 1996 to 2003 Jettas are on Consumer Reports' "Used Cars to Avoid" list -- it cites their spotty reliability.


  I'm not a huge fan of the new Jetta's design. To me, it's cool seen from the front: It looks forceful and intelligently designed, partly because the headlight assemblies are shaped like eyes with the eyebrow cocked inquisitively. With the oversized VW logo right upfront, there's no doubt what kind of car the Jetta is when it's seen head-on. Unfortunately, from the side and back -- as other reviewers have noted -- the new Jetta looks a lot like the much cheaper Toyota Corolla, hardly the image you want in an enthusiast's car.

The new Jetta's interior is well-made but plain. On the plus side are roominess, comfortable and very supportive seats, plenty of storage space in the doors and glovebox, and some very handy-to-use controls. For instance, the switches to open the gas-compartment door and trunklid are low down on the driver's door, which I found very handy.

The minuses include the design of the trip computer. It's complicated, and the controls are on the windshield-wiper stalk. I repeatedly pushed the buttons and toggle switch that control the system, and most of the time nothing happened (except that occasionally I started the windshield wiper by accident).


  That raises a big doubt about the Jetta: Past quality problems mean you don't have the promise of reliability you get when you buy, say, a new Honda or Toyota. That said, the new Jetta comes with a very solid warranty and four years of free roadside assistance.

The other negative is cost. When I told the UPS driver the new Jetta seemed pricey, he replied: "Hey, everything's expensive these days." True, which is why you have to watch your pennies. If I were a student buyer, I'd go with the Value Edition -- and bargain hard and comparison shop before I did.

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