Back when it debuted in 1980, the Volkswagen Jetta was essentially a four-door Rabbit with a trunk instead of a hatchback. At that time, VW decided to capitalize on the wildly successful Rabbit by introducing a version with a more upscale body style. In one deft stroke (OK, maybe it was more than a single stroke) of the designer's pen, an econobox was transformed into a stylish, formal sedan.
As it went through the years, the Volkswagen Jetta remained a twin of the Golf (aka Rabbit in the states prior to 1985) under the skin. The most distinctive VW Jetta yet arrived in 1999; sporting clean, purposeful lines. And in 2000, VW made a 150-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged inline four available to Jetta fanciers. This engine filled the chasm between the boring 115-horse I4 and the energetic but pricey 2.8-liter V6 that debuted in 1993. Thanks to the 1.8T, it was now possible to have a Jetta that possessed entertaining performance without having to spend the big bucks for the V6 upgrade.
For the 2002 VW Jetta 1.8T, the engine is rated at an astounding 180 horsepower. This is an increase of 30 horsepower over the 2001 Jetta 1.8T version. Car buffs will recognize that this engine is also used in the Passat, GTI and New Beetle Turbo as well as by Audi in its A4 and TT models. Oddly, in the new Passat, the 1.8T is rated at 170 horsepower, still admirable but 10 horses shy of the amount in the smaller Jetta and GTI models.
When we asked a VW spokesperson about the lower output version residing in the heavier, more upmarket Passat, the answer was rhetoric to the effect that the "Passat is geared toward a different driver." We surmised that perhaps the Passat's engine was tuned for more torque at the expense of peak horsepower, but this is not the case the Jetta 1.8T's engine also has 8 pound-feet more torque than the Passat's version.
Trim levels for 2002 continue with the base GL, midlevel GLS and luxury/sport GLX. The Jetta GL comes with desirable features such as air conditioning, power locks and a stereo with a tape deck. Want power windows, power mirrors and cruise control? That'd be the Jetta GLS. The more notable features of the top-dog VW Jetta GLX are the V6 engine, leather seating, wood trim, moonroof, high-powered "Monsoon" sound system, powered and heated front seats, trip computer, fog lamps and alloy wheels. The Jetta wagon, which debuted as a late '01 model, comes in GLS and GLX trim.
Safety continues to be a Jetta strong point. The Volkswagen Jetta received the highest possible ratings for driver and front passenger front-impact crash protection. In addition to dual front and side airbags, the Jetta comes with the latest safety advance: the side curtain airbag. This feature helps protect the heads of both front and rear passengers in a severe side-impact collision. Active safety (the kind that allows one to avoid an accident) is up to snuff, as well, with antilock brakes and traction control both standard.
Though official pricing on all Jettas wasn't available at press time, we were told that the 2002 Jetta GLS 1.8T will list for $19,550 in GLS trim, an increase of 1 percent for a car with 20 percent more power and a newly standard CD player. We would expect this version to be the volume leader for the model, which is the best-selling European vehicle in North America.
Scrutinize the 2002 VW Jetta 1.8T, and you'll notice not a whit of difference in appearance compared to the 2001 Jetta 1.8T. There are no badges or graphics to trumpet the more robust 1.8. Evidently, VW believes in the "walk softly but carry a big stick" philosophy.
So how much of a difference does the additional power make? Quite a bit, according to VW the 2002 Jetta will be able to sprint to 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds. And if you're worried that the higher peak power results in a loss of this jewel's flat power band, fret not. Peak torque still arrives at less than 2,000 rpm (1,950 rpm, to be exact) and stays up there until the tach's needle reaches 5 grand. The result is that this engine feels like the "old" 150-horse unit in terms of its flexible power delivery; it's just stronger throughout.
Our test car was equipped with the Tiptronic five-speed automatic, and it's a perfect match with the little turbo motor. Not once was the tranny caught flat-footed when a downshift was needed, it came without a moment's hesitation, and gearchanges were unobtrusive and timely. We're not sure about the Tiptronic; it's fun to play with and fairly quick to react when the lever is bumped to change up or down, but we saw it upshift (while in the manual "Tiptronic" mode) a few times on its own well before redline. We can understand having it programmed to upshift at redline if the driver hasn't yet flicked the stick, but it shouldn't take matters into its own hands until then.
Other vehicle dynamics are familiar to anyone who's driven the "new" Volkswagen Jetta or Golf which debuted in 1999. That is to say, handling is buttoned-down, steering is well-weighted and responsive, and the ride is comfortable, firm and controlled. Covering ground at a rapid clip is no problem, such that we'd advise a watchful eye on the speedo, as the Jetta is quite comfortable cruising at extra-legal velocities. Our sentiments on the binders were mixed, as the brakes seemed touchy at first, but felt strong and were no problem to modulate once we got some miles under our belts.
So what's wrong with this little gem? Regular readers will be familiar with our VW Jetta gripes, but in case you missed 'em, here they are: The stereo still has a separate power button (as opposed to this being controlled by simply pressing the volume knob). The front seat recliner works by way of a rotary knob that seems suitable only for those who are double-jointed. When in use, the cupholders block the stereo controls. And the back seat is short on legroom. But, hey, if the car were perfect, it would be an anomaly and would make our job that much tougher.
These petty annoyances with the VW Jetta 1.8T are more than offset by the tight build quality, adroit handling, effortless speed, comfortable seats, high-quality cabin materials, excellent crash scores and classy style. And to engender even more faith in its cars, Volkswagen has beefed up the warranty to include 4 years/50,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper protection (up from 2/24) and a fully transferable powertrain warranty good for 5 years/60,000 miles (changed from a 10-year/100,000 mile warranty that could only be transferred to a family member). And the roadside assistance program was doubled in length, making it good for 4 years/50,000 miles.
Sales have been strong as of late, and the Volkswagen Jetta is the company's bread-and-butter car. Now that the most affordable performance-oriented 2002 VW Jetta 1.8T has more power and the option of a five-speed Tiptronic gearbox, we don't see that changing anytime soon.