Used 2003 Volkswagen Jetta Review

The Jetta is no longer priced like an economy car; yet, its powerful engine lineup, near-ideal balance between ride and handling and premium cabin materials make it one of our top recommendations to small car buyers.

what's new

Volkswagen eliminates the GLX trim level for wagons -- this means that those who prefer the VR6 engine to the 1.8T engine will have to stick with the sedan. As a consolation, GLS wagons equipped with the 1.8T are eligible for a premium package, which bundles traditional GLX content like power seats, automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, wood interior trim and a trip computer. Additionally, VW has made the 1.8T available on both the GL sedan and wagon. GLs now have power windows and mirrors, cruise control and a CD player, while the GLS gets a standard sunroof and alloy wheels. All Jettas are available with stability control (ESP), heated seats and the Monsoon sound system. Other changes include a ULEV rating for the 2.0-liter four-cylinder, redesigned cupholders and backlit buttons on the standard stereo head unit.

vehicle overview

Introduction: The Jetta, Volkswagen's sedan and wagon versions of the Golf, has always been one of our favorites. Like many cars conceived in Germany, the Jetta possesses an uncanny ability to keep the driver in touch with every undulation and irregularity on the road without sacrificing comfort. VW's small car can no longer be grouped with economy cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in terms of price, but it hasn't lost any of its appeal with U.S. buyers, thanks to a long list of standard features at every trim level and stylish, comfortable cabins replete with high-quality materials and the company's signature blue and red nighttime illumination.

Although the fourth-generation Jetta is now in its fifth year, Volkswagen has kept its top-seller fresh with continual upgrades -- the introduction of the marvelous 1.8T engine for 2000; the arrival of a wagon version, not to mention a sport suspension option for 2001; and last year, power upgrades for both the 1.8T and VR6 engines, as well as the return of the GLI sedan for enthusiast-type drivers who crave six-cylinder power without the premium features and price of the GLX. This year, the 1.8T becomes available to entry-level Jetta buyers in the GL sedan and wagon.

Unless cost is your primary concern in selecting a compact sedan or wagon, the Jetta merits serious consideration. Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: VW is offering GL, GLS, GLX and GLI versions of the sedan, and GL and GLS versions of the wagon. Standard features on GL models include side airbags and head-curtain airbags; four-wheel antilock disc brakes; a height-adjustable driver seat; telescoping steering wheel; power windows, mirrors and locks; cruise control; a CD player; a full-size spare tire, and for 1.8T-equipped cars only, traction control. Options include stability control (ESP), heated seats, a Monsoon sound system and a dealer-installed CD changer.

The next step up is the GLS, which adds a center armrest, a sunroof and alloy wheels. All GL options are available on the GLS, along with a leather interior. GLS 1.8T models can be fitted with a sport package (firmer suspension, 17-inch wheels), and GLS 1.8T wagons are eligible for a premium package with power seats, automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rain-sensing wipers. The GLX sedan comes with 16-inch wheels and all of the above, except the sport package and CD changer -- the changer remains optional and 17-inch wheels are an a la carte extra. Finally, the sporty GLI sedan has all the GLS content, except the sunroof (now optional), and adds 17s, a sport suspension, ESP and sport seats. Options are almost identical to those for the GLS.

Powertrains and Performance: GL and GLS buyers can choose from one of three engines -- a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 115 hp, a 1.9-liter turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel worthy of 90 hp or a delightful 180-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter inline four called the 1.8T. All three engines provide ample power for easy around-town acceleration and are available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Fuel economy with the 2.0-liter is only average, but the TDI is a serious fuel miser (up to 49 mpg) and ideal for commuters. The 1.8T makes any Jetta a rousing good time, while delivering gas mileage about equal to the 2.0-liter (24/31 manual, 22/29 automatic). The compact 200-hp 2.8-liter VR6 purrs under the hood of GLX and GLI models; the former takes only a five-speed automatic, while the latter gets a six-speed manual.

Safety: The Jetta earned five stars in both of NHTSA's frontal-impact crash tests; the sedan earned four stars in side-impact testing. The IIHS rated the car "acceptable" for the offset crash test. Side airbags and head curtain airbags are standard across the line; stability control is either standard or optional, depending on the model. Interior Design and Special Features: Each Jetta's cabin is filled with high-quality materials and assembled with care. The front seats are roomy, but the rear bench, though nicely contoured, is tight on legroom. The wagon has 34 cubic feet of capacity with the rear seats up and 51.9 cubes when they're folded. Driving Impressions: Out on the road, the Jetta manages to provide both comfortable ride quality and agile handling. If the regular suspension is too soft for your taste, try the optional sport suspension.

edmunds expert review process

This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.

We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.