Full 2012 Volkswagen Jetta Review
What's New for 2012
Fully redesigned last model year, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta features only minor changes. The SEL and TDI trim levels now offer a Fender audio system, while last year's Sport package for the SEL has been discontinued.
The Volkswagen Jetta once presented a good middle ground between Japanese compact sedans and entry-level German luxury. It offered a sturdy chassis, tasteful interior materials and enough sport to make the package lively around town. Most buyers felt the premium quality was worth the extra price of admission. But Volkswagen thought the premium price discouraged an even greater amount of shoppers. So last year it made its redesigned Jetta a centerpiece of an aggressive new pricing strategy.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta carries on the work of its redesigned predecessor largely unchanged. No longer simply a Golf with a traditional trunk, the Jetta offers a longer wheelbase and more rear seat room than VW's compact hatchback. And indeed, the Jetta is very roomy for its class, particularly in the backseat. Standard features are generous and the top trim level and diesel variants get the premium Fender audio system with a touchscreen interface.
Mostly, though, there's price. The Jetta is now fully competitive with other small sedans in terms of price and feature content, and on top of that you still get the VW image. But the new sedan's obvious cost-cutting comes at the expense of details that used to give the Jetta an edge. For example, soft-touch interior materials have been replaced with a harder, more industrial-grade finish on all but the priciest SEL Premium model. There are no more rear-seat air vents and the front armrest is no longer adjustable. Rear drum brakes supplant rear discs on lower trims, and the rear suspension now features a less sophisticated design.
How much this matters depends on your perspective. Although Volkswagen might have forsaken its core buyers, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta is still a solid choice for a small or midsize sedan. Its spacious interior, standard features, comfortable ride and optional fuel-efficient diesel engine keep it competitive with other top choices like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3 and Suzuki Kizashi. We certainly suggest taking some test-drives to find out whether this latest VW Jetta is right for you.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta is a midsize sedan available in Base, S, SE, SEL, SEL Premium and TDI trim levels. The Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen is reviewed separately, as is the performance-oriented GLI, which is a Jetta fitted with the GTI's sporty hardware.
The Jetta Base is a stripped-down model that comes with 15-inch steel wheels, power locks and windows, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable front seats, cloth upholstery and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat. The S adds keyless entry, air-conditioning, power/heated mirrors and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. Opting for an S model with a sunroof also gains a front center console and cruise control.
The Jetta SE gets a more powerful engine, 16-inch steel wheels, cruise control, a front center armrest and storage compartment, a rear-seat center armrest, a trunk pass-through and premium vinyl upholstery. The SE Convenience package adds 16-inch alloy wheels, heated windshield washer nozzles, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth and a six-speaker sound system with satellite radio and an iPod interface. A sunroof can be added to the Convenience package and with it comes a premium six-speaker sound system with a touchscreen interface, SD memory card reader and a six-CD changer.
The SEL includes all the SE's optional equipment (other than the sunroof, which is a stand-alone option), plus 17-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, foglamps, chrome exterior trim, keyless ignition/entry, manual front seat lumbar adjustment, a trip computer and a navigation system. Stepping up to the SEL Premium adds black-accented 17-inch wheels, higher-quality dashboard materials and two-tone sport seats.
The Jetta TDI with its turbodiesel engine is equipped similarly to an SE with the Convenience and Sunroof packages. It gets the SEL's rear disc brakes and trip computer as well. When equipped with the optional navigation system, the TDI also gets foglamps, exterior chrome trim, keyless ignition/entry, manual front seat lumbar adjustment and the touchscreen navigation/stereo interface.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta Base and S come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 115 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard and a six-speed automatic is optional. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway and 25 combined with the automatic and 24/34/28 with the manual. These numbers go up slightly if you use premium gasoline.
The Jetta SE, SEL and SEL Premium get a 2.5-liter inline-5 that produces 170 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. It gets the same transmission choices as the 2.0-liter inline-4. Its EPA-estimated fuel economy is actually quite similar, with 24/31/27 for the automatic and 23/33/26 for the manual. Jetta SE and SEL models sold in California-emissions states can also earn super-clean PZEV emissions certification. In Edmunds performance testing, a manual-equipped Jetta SEL went from zero to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds -- a good time for a midsize sedan with this type of fuel economy.
The Jetta TDI features a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel inline-4 that produces 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is standard and Volkswagen's six-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox is optional. In Edmunds performance testing, a Jetta TDI hustled from zero to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds. With either transmission, estimated fuel economy stands at an excellent 30/42/34.
The 2012 VW Jetta comes standard with traction and stability control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. All Jettas have antilock brakes with brake assist; however, the S and SE have rear drums. The SEL trims and the TDI get rear discs. In Edmunds brake testing of an SEL with summer tires, the Jetta came to a stop from 60 mph in a better-than-average 117 feet. The TDI with all-season tires closed the same distance in a more disappointing 135 feet.
In government crash tests, the Jetta earned an overall score of four stars (out of a possible five). Within that rating, it earned four stars for overall front crash protection and five stars for overall side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Jetta its best possible rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset, side and roof strength tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
When the new Jetta bowed last year, its interior disappointed us. Build quality was still tight, but the materials that once gave the Jetta its premium feel had been replaced by cheap, hard surfaces. For 2012, the SEL Premium trim gets some of those nicer materials back, but the Jetta used to stand out because even the lowliest trim level felt more special than the average compact sedan. Regardless of trim, some of the small features that used to set the Jetta apart are still MIA, including a height- and length-adjustable center armrest, rear-seat air vents and infinitely adjustable front backrests. The Jetta Sportwagen, still based on the Golf, has these features and is a nicer car for them.
That said, the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta is spacious enough for a full-size adult to sit comfortably in back with room to spare. Its 15.5-cubic-foot trunk is actually bigger than the Honda Accord's, a car that competes in a larger class. And the interior, while downgraded, still offers a clean and unfussy design. We particularly like the available touchscreen stereo interface and its redundant dial knob that's ideal for controlling an iPod. The associated navigation system, however, is a bit of a letdown due to the small screen and limited amount of displayed information.
The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta remains a very German car in its solid, substantial feel. Though the steering has a small dead spot on-center and a somewhat artificial feel, it's quick and precise enough when guiding the Jetta through corners. The car's ride quality is also quite agreeable and the suspension easily soaks up most road irregularities.
The base 2.0-liter engine is wheezy and gets no better fuel economy than the 2.5; we'd strongly recommend avoiding this one. While not the smoothest or richest-sounding engine in its class, the 2.5-liter five-cylinder is definitely the better choice. We've noticed, however, an annoying, delayed throttle response when this engine is paired with the six-speed automatic.
Though it's notably more expensive than the 2.5-equipped SE and SEL, the TDI is a keen choice thanks to its meaty low-end torque and frugal fuel economy. The manual would again be a preferred choice, though the DSG, with its automated and manual modes, works well as a best-of-both-worlds choice.