Christopher Little

Too Grown Up: VW Jetta SE

The Volkswagen Jetta has an impressively diverse range of engines – from the efficient Jetta Hybrid and TDI Clean Diesel to the performance-oriented GLI. Unfortunately the Jetta that doesn’t get much attention is the middle child, the 2.5L inline-5 powering the Jetta SE and SEL. For some reason, straight fives have never resonated well with Americans. Volkswagen couldn’t rest and let the middle child skirt the spotlight, so it’s been given a thorough going-over for 2014.

VW Jetta 1.8T 4

The Jetta SE’s changes all occur beneath the surface. They’re not seen, but they’re definitely noticed from behind the wheel. After swapping out its rear drums for disc brakes in 2013, the Jetta SE loses its torsion beam rear suspension in favor of the GLI’s independent multilink setup. VW also exchanged the old hydraulic steering for the GLI’s electric unit. On top of all of that, the Jetta SE is now powered by a 1.8L turbocharged inline-4. The new 1.8T is based off of the 2.0T found in the, you guessed it, GLI. In terms of output, the new engine isn’t that different from the outgoing 2.5L unit. Both engines make 170hp and the 1.8T only gets slight torque bump to 184lb-ft, but peak output now occurs at only 1,500rpm.

VW Jetta 1.8T 10

With all these GLI-inspired changes, it might sound like the Jetta 1.8T is 9/10ths of a GLI. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite true. The GLI is fun to drive. The Jetta SE, no matter how hard you try, simply isn’t. You can run the 5-speed manual transmission through its paces to keep the engine in its power band. You can brake hard and throw the car into tight corners to work the newly revised suspension and steering. You can do all of this and have almost no fun at all. The Jetta SE is too “civilized” for that kind of treatment. It tackles that back roads with a remarkable indifference. If you happen to be too hard on it, it will politely flash the traction control light and cut the throttle. Like the Beetle we drove, there’s no button override in this system.

VW Jetta 1.8T 5

Here we must make a distinction. Just because a car isn’t fun to drive doesn’t mean that it’s bad. There’s nothing wrong with the way the Jetta SE drives. In fact, there’s nothing offensive or off-putting about this little Volkswagen. To be honest, the most negative point in the notebook was that the HVAC blower might be a bit loud. All of the other points were resoundingly positive. The new electric steering is well-weighted and feels far more connected than other cars in its class. The 5-speed manual has a light clutch and accurate but long throws. The gearing is tall in the name of efficiency, but the 1.8T’s low-RPM power prevents driveability from suffering. The new suspension setup perfectly balances comfort and performance. The interior is smartly and ergonomically laid out. The seats are comfortable, visibility is good, and it’s fairly quiet at speed.
The Jetta SE is a civilized car. It’s also a great value. Our tester, the SE with Connectivity and Sunroof, comes standard with 16″ alloys, heated front seats, keyless access with push-button start, a touchscreen-controlled sound system, and power sunroof. Some of the interior plastics look better than they feel, but for less than $24,000, its still arrives with predictable German build quality. That’s been VW’s game plan lately; civilized, inoffensive, value. On those points, the Jetta SE delivers.

VW Jetta 1.8T 2

At the end of the day, Volkswagen delivers comfortable and affordable transport with the new Jetta SE. We were honestly let down a little by this. The new Jetta feels so mature, almost too grown up – as if the car was averse to having any fun. This doesn’t make it a disappointing car, however. The new suspension, engine, and steering improve the ride, handling, and efficiency. Over 220 miles, we averaged 29.9mpg. Then there’s the very reasonable $23,000 sticker price for all of the standard equipment. For the enthusiasts, though, the GLI is still the Jetta to have. The 1.8T in the SE and SEL isn’t a substitute for the 2.0T. It’s a model all its own, combining much of the same technology and engineering to provide a very suitable car.

-Christopher Little

2014 VW Jetta SE w/Connectivity & Sunroof
Destination Charges $820
As Tested MSRP $23,215

All Grown Up, Still a Bit Short: 2012 VW Beetle
The Euro Option: 2013 VW Passat TDI

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