If there were more cars like VW’s Jetta, there would probably be more cars (as opposed to crossovers) for sale.
Because more people would want to buy them.
What makes the Jetta stand out is what has made most other cars fade away. It isn’t like them. It comes standard with a manual transmission – something that’s harder to find in a new sedan than a cigarette lighter. These having been replaced by “power points” – just as automatic transmissions have all-but-replaced manuals, especially in sedans.
It is also easy on gas – 42 MPG on the highway. And on the wallet, too.
Other car manufacturers might take a clue. As opposed to building more (of the same).
What It Is
The Jetta is an in-between sedan, a bit larger than the typical compact-sized sedan like the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra and a bit smaller than a typical mid-sized sedan such as a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. It’s also the only German-brand car that isn’t also a luxury-priced car, even though VW is closely related to Audi (and vice-versa).
But the thing that makes the Jetta stand out is that it is the last new sedan you can buy that not only offers a manual transmission – it comes standard with one. And so comes standard with more driving engagement than other sedans.
The Jetta is also very affordable. Base price for the S trim (with manual) is just $20,415.
And it goes 42 miles-per-gallon on the highway.
The high-performance GLI doesn’t go quite that far. But it does go faster. It comes standard with a larger and much stronger 2.0 liter engine (vs. the regular Jetta’s 1.5 liter engine) and a host of high-performance upgrades, including a limited slip differential, larger brakes and an adaptive/sport-tuned suspension.
Base price is $31,595 with the standard six-speed manual transmission; with the optional seven speed dual clutch automatic, the MSRP is $32,385.
Both versions come standard with VW’s Digital Cockpit LCD instrument cluster.
What’s New for 2023
The Jetta (and GLI) carry over unchanged. Also almost unchanged is the price. The ’23 GLI is only about $300 more than the ’22 ($31,295) which means it costs about the same, given inflation.
A car that make you remember what it was like to drive – and why it can be so much fun.
Pay less for the manual – and get better mileage than the automatic.
Not a too-small car. Or a too-big car.
What’s Not So Good
You have to use the touchscreen to change stations/audio sources.
No manual emergency brake.
The Jetta comes standard with a 1.5 liter, lightly turbocharged four cylinder engine that makes 158 horsepower.
What makes it unusual is that it’s paired with a six speed manual transmission (an eight speed automatic is optional). There are no other sedans in this price range that still come standard with a manual anymore. And not many even offer one, either. One of the few that does is the Honda Civic sedan – but only if you buy the high-performance Si variant.
Otherwise, you get a CVT automatic.
Even cars like the BMW 3 Series which once bragged heavily on being the “four-door sports car” – is now an automatic-only car (excepting the ultra-performance M variant, which stickers for $73,795 to start).
Another other perk is something you might not expect.
The manual-equipped Jetta with the 1.5 liter engine gets the best mileage: 29 city, 42 highway vs. 29 city, 40 highway with the optional eight speed automatic. This runs counter to what you usually hear, too. That being the gas mileage advantage – supposedly – of the automatic transmission vs. a manual. And it’s true, in a technically true sense. It is easier to program an automatic to the test that determines the city/highway numbers touted on the window sticker. The automatic can be programmed to shift into a higher gear, sooner – and so score higher on the test. But this may not reflect real-world realities, where a too-soon upshift can result in sluggish performance, which can only be remedied by pushing down more on the accelerator pedal, forcing a downshift.
In the real world, the driver of a car with a manual can see – with his eyes – evolving road/traffic conditions and choose the right gear for those conditions in an anticipatory rather than reactive manner. If he’s good at shifting – especially if he’s also paying attention – he can usually squeeze even better-than-advertised mileage out of the car.
And in this case the manual-equipped Jetta already touts better mileage than the automatic-equipped version. In the right hands, this car ought to be able to do even better, especially in city driving, where shifting is more frequent and choosing the right gear at the right time – often before programming can anticipate the need – can have a big effect on how far you go per gallon.
The high-performance Jetta GLI comes standard with a 2.0 liter engine that’s larger – and fed more boost – that makes 228 horsepower (28 more hp than the Civic Si’s 200 and 27 more than the Elentra N’s 201). This engine is also paired with a six speed manual. The optional automatic – if you want it – is a seven speed dual clutch automatic transmission that offers very quick, very precise shifts. It adds $800 to the car’s MSRP. It also takes 1 MPG away from the advertised city/highway numbers. With the manual six speed, the GLI rates 26 city, 37 highway – the latter number only 5 MPG off the pace of the Jetta with the 1.5 liter engine (and with 70 fewer horsepower). With the the seven-speed dual clutch automatic, the numbers are almost – but not quite! – the same: 26 city, 36 highway.
There is also another consideration – one that’s more subtle and longer-term. Manual gearboxes are generally lifetime gearboxes. Barring abuse – or the uncommon design defect – they will last as long as the car does. The clutch won’t, of course – as it is a wear item, like brake pads. But replacing a clutch costs a fraction of what it costs to replace an automatic that fails, especially a fancy dual-clutch automatic.
On The Road
The GLI is quick (0-60 in about 5.9 seconds). But what counts is that it’s more fun. This being very much a function of having something to do – other than push down on the accelerator pedal.
Automatic-only sporty cars are kind of like amusement park rides in that you don’t have much say over the ride. Yes, of course, you can still decide when it goes and how fast. The car, I mean. But much of the getting-there is handled by the automatic transmission – while you sit back and enjoy the ride.
In the GLI – even the standard Jetta with the 1.5 liter engine – you are in charge of the drive.
And that’s the difference here.
Working the clutch – and timing the shifts – involves more work, of course. And skill – to do it well. And of course attention. But that is just the point – if the point isn’t just the getting-there. It is the difference between being a spectator – almost – and a participant. Anyone can floor the gas, especially in a modern car – with all the traction/stability control safety nets in place. There is no art to it when anyone can do it. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with floor it and go performance.
It arises from the knowing that not just anyone can do it. From the satisfaction of knowing how to do it – and doing it well. Even if not every time (missed shifts happen to the best of us). From it being entirely under your control, for once – and not second-guessed by some gottverdammt computer. It is almost a gleeful thing to hold a gear as long as you like. To upshift when you think it’s time. The fine control that is exercised – by you.
Automatics have – arguably – done more to make driving boring (and so, make cars boring) than anything else shy of taking the bus. Drive the Jetta – GLI or base – and you will remember what’s being forgotten.
The shift action is smooth; the clutch isn’t heavy or grabby. This VW can be driven as smoothly – by someone who knows how to drive – as an automatic-equipped ride. And if you do know how to drive – and can resist the urge to drive it – it is possible to exceed the advertised MPG numbers. I got close to 30 out of the tested GLI in just-poking-around “city” driving, to demonstrate to myself (and convey to you) the real-world efficiency advantages of a manual.
And then there is the advantage of being able to jam through the gears when the urge hits you. When it does, you will be glad you’ve got more to do than just push down on the accelerator pedal.
There are other things to admire about the Jetta, too – GLI and standard. You have better all-around visibility (especially to the rear) than you would in a typical crossover. And being lower to the ground greatly improves how the weight doesn’t shift to the outside of the curve as you corner. Speaking of that. The Jetta is something else so many new cars are not.
Which is light.
The Jetta weighs 2,989 lbs. – which for a modern almost-mid-sized-car is flyweight. You can feel that difference, too. The turbo’d 2.0 has no problem getting this car going without much revving. It generates 258 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 1,500 RPM, so you can use almost any gear to keep going, once you’re going.
At The Curb
The Jetta is unusual in another respect. It falls in between compact-sized sedans like the Toyota Corolla/Honda Civic/Hyundai Elantra and mid-sized-sedans such as the Toyota Camry/Honda Accord.
It is 186.5 inches long – vs. 184 inches for the Civic and 184.1 for the Elantra.
Yet it has about the same space inside (and in its trunk) as a larger, mid-sized car like the Camry, which is 192.1 inches long and has 42.1 inches of front seat legroom and 38 inches of rearseat legroom and a 15.1 cubic foot trunk. The Jetta has 41.1 inches of front sat legroom, 37.4 inches of rearseat legroom and 14.1 cubic foot trunk.
The Jetta’s base price is also about $5k less than the price of a mid-sized (on the outside) sedan like the Camry, which stickers for $26,220 to start.
All Jettas come standard with VW’s Digital Cockpit instrument cluster but the GLI’s is specific to this trim and is paired with a secondary 8 inch LCD touchscreen off to the right. This one features finger-gesture control (and voice command) for some of the functions. GLIs also come standard with a high-output Beats Audio system, additional USB port (including the new “C” type) as well as a panorama sunroof, heated sport buckets, real leather trim and the mechanical/performance upgrades mentioned earlier.
Another thing that’s standard is a push-button electric parking brake – so no more using the gran handle to lock the rear wheels and spin ‘er around like RockFord.
Like most new cars, the Jetta comes standard with a suite of “driver assistance” systems, including Lane Keep Assist and automatic emergency braking. But all of these can be fully turned off, if you do not wish to be “assisted.” Manual equipped models do not have engine stop-start “technology,” either.
The engine stays on until you shut it off.
The Bottom Line
The Jetta is one of the last new cars you can still buy that you might want to buy.
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