2019 Volkswagen Jetta First Drive Review: VW's Small Sedan Surges Forward

As Volkswagen continues to fight to erase the memories of Dieselgate, its best-selling car in the U.S. steps up its game. 

Ever since 2015, it's been hard not to begin every single review of a Volkswagen vehicle by framing the car in the context of the company’s protracted rebound from The Great Diesel Emissions Scandal. That’s hard, because it keeps cropping back up in the news as the company fights furiously to right its ship—though its current ranking as the number one global sales leader would suggest that it’s pretty dang upright already—and the cars are central to the company’s rebuilding. 

Nevertheless, just as the newly-redesigned 2019 Jetta rolled into media hands this week, Volkswagen announced it was ousting VW Group CEO Matthias Mueller—whose reaction to Dieselgate has been seen as “sluggish” at best—and replacing him with clear-eyed VW brand chief Herbert Diess. It’s a move intended to signal a definitive rejection of the Dieselgate era’s leadership. What ultimately matters most to buyers, though, is the product. That’s particularly critical here in the U.S., given that Volkswagen doesn’t appear until #42 in a ranking of the top 100 vehicles by U.S. sales, according to industry analyst Focus2Move.

But car #42 happens to be the Jetta, the most popular VW in the U.S. for most of the previous six generations it has been for sale, dating back to the early '80s. (So far, 3.2 million have been sold in the U.S.) So it’s no surprise that in light of the company’s desire to move the needle among U.S. consumers, VW has given the new 2019 model an extra amount of love, with the car being designed, built, and sold exclusively for the North American market. The final product, tested amid the sweeping rural roads of North Carolina in early April, is a legitimately great rebirth for the model—with sharp handling, a modern and refreshingly different interior, and smart exterior lines that mercifully refuse to betray the car’s mid-range status—and potentially a huge shot in the arm for the brand’s presence in the U.S.

Eric Adams

The exterior design is the first sign that VW takes the new Jetta’s role in the brand’s health quite seriously. Once a slave to the compact-car segment’s demands on interior accommodations (climbing in sometimes felt into a shrink-wrapped egg carton), it now feels much more like its own animal. The dominant horizontal posture of the wider track gives it a more serious presence, and the longer wheelbase generates shorter overhangs at the front and rear—a hallmark of the premium/luxury segment. The character line generates a graceful bit of shading along the side, the hood creases are among the first that didn’t make my eye twitch, and the standard LED headlights are fantastically-complex creations that pull you in like sci-fi wall art. And the shape is as sleek as it is stylish, generating a respectable drag coefficient of 0.27—which also contributes to a reduction in road noise.

Eric Adams

Inside, you’ll find an environment that—while still rich in plastic, and occasionally stuck with blank spots—is at least more elegant than you'd usually expect in a mid-range compact. Everything is well-proportioned, from the size of the steering wheel and the infotainment rectangle, and it’s all precisely aligned for visibility and visual appeal. Things are angled just so (that is, favoring the driver); hints of chrome trim provide splashes of life; and a panoramic sunroof, available on SE and above trim levels, contributes a feeling of lightness to the interior.

The 10.25-inch infotainment display spares you the clutter that often comes with these consoles, and the Digital Cockpit in the instrument panel found in SEL and SEL Premium trims replaces conventional analog instruments with sharp, configurable data streams—including an option to place navigation data front and center, crucial for this age of endless distractions. (Those upper trim levels also bring a BeatsAudio system, with a 12-channel, 400-watt amplifier and nine speakers, to the table.) Additionally, the Car-Net App-Connect smartphone integration includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, as well as a variety of vehicle security and information-access systems offered on a subscription basis. Nudging the car even further upmarket, the systems offer—for $18 a month, on average—crash notification to contact first responders, stolen vehicle location, remote door lock, remote diagnostics, and speed and boundary alerts for young drivers in the family.

Eric Adams

The 2019 Jetta offers a respectably-wide range of safety options, including automatic cruise control and lane centering, but for me the truly standout feature was—believe it or not—the volume knob. Though such old-school controls are starting to fade in favor of a variety of awkward touch-sensitive strips and big multifunction dials, the Jetta’s volume knob doubles down on tactile feedback, with a crisp click at each detent that’s both audible and satisfying. I found myself fiddling with it repeatedly, to the great annoyance of my passenger. It’s the little things.

Eric Adams

Taking the machine out into the wilds of North Carolina near Durham, the Jetta felt easily more capable than it should have for a family car that starts at just $18,545. In Sport mode, the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder felt responsive and capable, without the sense of “wimping out” that the previous version (and some competitors) tend to serve up as the car approaches triple-digit speeds. The 147-horsepower, 184 pound-foot engine lays down its power through a new eight-speed transmission—with an optional six-speed manual variant—that keeps the car nicely comfortable across a wide variety of engine load situations. 

The new Jetta also stays reasonably flat in the turns, even at, shall we say, more aggressive speeds. The suspension is a conventional strut-type up front with lower control arms and long-travel coil springs, but with a simpler torsion beam in the rear—a system designed to balance comfort and handling while also dropping weight, to the tune of a 44 pound reduction in unsprung mass. Body roll felt minimal, and the car seemed more substantial than it actually was while snaking through turns—which isn’t meant to suggest feelings of excess mass as it is feelings of capability. TL;DR—the 2019 Jetta just felt good to drive.

Eric Adams

The Jetta will come in S, SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium trim levels, starting at $18,545 and topping out above $27,000. Included in this mix—and in another direct nod to the kind of buyer satisfaction that VW is heavily targeting—is a six-year, 72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that can be transferred to any number of owners until it expires. It’s the most extensive warranty available in the U.S. market...so if the volume knob doesn’t pull you in, that very well could.