2019 Volkswagen Jetta Prototype First Drive

Driving the Prototype

There sits the new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta, a month before its debut at the 2018 North American International Auto Show. That's why it looks like an art project. That's why our cellphone and laptop were confiscated as we entered Volkswagen's North American proving grounds, just outside Maricopa, Arizona. And that's why there's a group of Volkswagen representatives watching, and an emergency vehicle stationed nearby.

Volkswagen's massive Arizona proving grounds hosts everything from off-road tracks and a banked high-speed oval to weathering stations and chambers that blast vehicles with 125-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Cars and parts are left out in the elements to verify the integrity of their sealants and protectants. On-site durability tests can reproduce 12 years of use in a matter of days. All Volkswagen products are tested here; we see everything from the remains of disassembled Bentley Bentaygas to a black Porsche 911 GT3 RS sitting out in the desert, wearing away in service of validating their brand's corrosion warranty coverage.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Hide and Seek
This prototype Jetta's black-and-white camouflage hides many exterior design specifics, but the rear overhang looks much larger and the roof slopes more gently into the trunk. Volkswagen representatives tell us the new Jetta is nearly 2 inches longer and less than an inch wider than the current model. These increases, combined with the design changes, should make for roomier passenger and cargo areas.

Inside, the prototype's entire dashboard is covered with a large rubber mat to hide its look and features. But once we're out of sight of the Volkswagen reps, lifting up the mat reveals the full digital gauge cluster that debuted in the 2018 VW Atlas SUV. The likely optional 12.3-inch display looks clean and modern, but we can't pay too much attention since there's a turn ahead and we need to steer.

We're on a small, single-lane handling loop that's punctuated with expansion joints. The Jetta is easy to point around, though the steering seems a little too light when you turn the wheel off center. Switching to the sportiest drive mode using a button to the left of the shifter reduces the steering assistance, sharpens the throttle response, and puts the eight-speed automatic transmission into a more aggressive setting. Most of these changes are subtle, but the steering feels more natural in this mode.

Underneath the 2019 Jetta is what Volkswagen calls the MQB platform, a description of a set of common parts, like the chassis and body structure, that are shared among most of the brand's U.S. lineup. Despite the advancements this change brings, the Jetta's use of a torsion-beam rear suspension makes it a bit of an outlier. Not only do few of the future Jetta's similarly priced competitors use this less sophisticated (and less expensive) setup, but Volkswagen representatives said that an upcoming sporty Jetta variant will have a multilink rear suspension.

Still, it's difficult to sense the shortcomings of the torsion-beam design during our brief drive. The Jetta takes to the handling circuit competently, feeling compliant and quiet — it may have even elicited a smile or two. A Volkswagen chassis engineer tells us that customers complained that the current Jetta is too firm, so the intent with the 2019 model is for a softer ride. He also says the engineers paid special attention to minimizing the thunk experienced over a freeway expansion joint, which is a phenomenon we think is likely amplified by the torsion-beam setup. We'll have to test the car on more familiar roads to see how it holds up.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Round It Goes
With our brief time on the handling circuit over, next up is the high-speed banked oval. We get a quick overview on oval etiquette as we watch various test cars whiz by, including a red Audi S5 that we're instructed to let pass if we see it in the mirrors. The 2019 Jetta will debut with the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that comes standard in the current model. Its output shouldn't change much from the current engine's 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque figures, which are competitive within the class.

The engine works eagerly as we accelerate onto the oval. It takes a beat to build steam, which is typical for small-displacement turbocharged engines, but pulls strongly once underway. Each of the oval's four lanes has a maximum permitted speed — the outside being the fastest — but we have no idea how fast we're going because the dash is still covered by the rubber mat.

The solution? One of the facility's test drivers, who's riding shotgun, pulls out his phone and opens a GPS speedometer app. The display is backward and upside down because, when they test at night, the drivers put the phone on the dashboard so it reflects onto the windshield in a MacGyver-esque head-up display. We're driving during the day, so backward and upside down it is.

Even though there isn't a terrific amount of power, we reach the Jetta's speed limiter quickly — around 127 mph as indicated by the cellphone. After some amusement from entering banked turns with the gas pedal matted to the floor, we move out of the way of that red Audi and back down to freeway speeds, where the Jetta seems happy and quiet.

2019 Volkswagen Jetta

Turn Around
Volkswagen is in the midst of an international corporate sea change that includes decentralizing its vehicle development powers to the disparate markets it services. After all, shoppers in China, Europe and North America have wildly different expectations about how their cars should look and work, so the Volkswagen divisions within those markets now have more control of what their vehicles offer.

For North America, and according to Volkswagen, that means things like focusing less on super-premium interior trims and more on overall interior functionality and extra cupholders. The 2019 Jetta is one of the earliest models to reflect these efforts. And we look forward to seeing it sans camo when it debuts at the Detroit Auto Show in January.