At its leading edge, the hood of the 2005 Volkswagen Jetta is notched with a small, semicircular relief. The crescent-shaped carving is just large enough for the panel to perfectly wrap itself around the grille-mounted VW badge. When the hood is closed, it's as if the two are in a long, loving embrace.
This artful detail will no doubt go unnoticed by the masses, but Jetta owners from Bean Town to the Bay Area will recognize it as the only bit of cool VW carried over from the previous model. And the last Jetta was cool. In fact, it stood alone in the premium small car segment for years, giving the I-really-want-a-BMW-3-Series-and-I-will-have-one-some-day-but-for-now-I-only-have-about-$20-grand-to-spend crowd a place they could feel good about themselves.
But the fifth generation of the small sedan is not the 2006 Jetta as you might expect. Instead, VW has labeled it, and the last of the previous car, 2005 models. Probably, just to make Jetta road tests more difficult to write for guys like us. Whatever its model year, this is a fine car. In fact, the new 2005 Jetta, or the 2005 new Jetta, as VW is calling it, is better than its predecessor in every way sort of.
Hoping to appeal to the company's bank of maturing Jetta owners, many of whom may be in need of a larger car, Veedub has added 7 inches to the Jetta's length, 2.6 inches to its wheelbase and an inch to its width. Now the Jetta is about the size of a Toyota Corolla and has gained nearly 300 pounds in the process.
Rear-seat legroom is up to 35.4 inches, which is the exact amount offered in the Corolla. Young moms can now fit a baby seat and the actual baby back there, but headroom for taller adults is still on the tight side.
Front-seat room is also improved, and nearly mimics the dimensions of the Toyota. (I think we smell a trend.) Up front, the large amount of glass and tall roof line really create a feeling of spaciousness. One friend riding shotgun said he was sorry he had left his 10-gallon hat at home.
The Jetta's trunk, however, may be the single most impressive automotive packaging achievement since the sunroof. It's huge. Sixteen cubic feet. The last Jetta's trunk was only 13 cubic feet, and a Corolla offers only 13.6 cubic feet.
The inside of that trunk is more lavish than our first apartment. Volkswagen has upholstered it from top to bottom, installed a chrome metal sill plate and invested in hinges that don't intrude into the cargo space. Plus, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat is standard.
As on the last Jetta, Volkswagen has applied this kind of meticulous build quality and detailing throughout the cabin. This is the highest-quality interior on the market for the money. Period.
Len Hunt, the executive vice president of Volkswagen of America, Inc., says, "The Jetta's interior follows the VW philosophy of form follows function."
And we agree, the interior functions as well as any, with well-considered ergonomics, awesome sound insulation and high comfort, but the forms are worth noting. They're modern and interesting, but not overdone. At night, the gauges light up in VW blue with red needles, and all the knobs, buttons and switches work like they were lifted from an Audi. The three-spoke steering wheel is as perfectly shaped for driving as anything from Momo.
Gripes are limited to front seats that lack thigh support for taller drivers, and the severe nighttime brightness of the "Passenger Airbag Off" warning light on the dash. It's so distracting we even considered putting a square of tape over it.
Gone are the GL and GLS trim levels. VW has replaced them with a base Value Edition, which costs $17,900 with a manual transmission, and the Jetta 2.5, which starts at $20,390. The 2.5 comes with ESP stability control (a $280 option on the Value Edition), dual-zone climate controls, heated seats with adjustable height and lumbar support, keyless entry, a self-dimming rearview mirror, leatherette upholstery, rear air conditioning vents, a trip computer, rain-sensing wipers and the kitchen sink.
Then there are two optional equipment groups, Package 1 and Package 2. Package 1 costs $1,960, and will be the most popular. It adds a sunroof, a 10-speaker stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD player and 16-inch alloy wheels. Package 2 adds leather upholstery, multifunction steering wheel controls, satellite radio, wood trim and 12-way power front seats. A Package 2 car will top out at $26,740.
Our Jetta 2.5 Package 1 test car stickered for $24,040, which isn't the smokin' deal the $18,000 Value Package is. For the same money a 240-hp Honda Accord V6 starts looking pretty good.
For a few months, every Jetta will get the same drivetrain and a 2.5-liter, inline five-cylinder engine that makes 150 hp at 5,000 rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 3,750 rpm backed by the same smooth-shifting Tiptronic six-speed automatic used in the Audi A4.
Considering the last Jetta got a 115-hp 2.0-liter as its base engine, there's little to complain about here. The new engine isn't exactly high-tech with its iron block and low output per liter, but it's torquey, revs well enough and gets the Jetta down the road with adequate oomph. The engine sounds a bit weird, but all five-cylinders do.
Acceleration numbers are average for the class. We ran from zero to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 82 mph. That's exactly what we ran in the last Corolla we tested, which costs over $4 grand less than a Jetta when similarly equipped. Moreover, a V6 Camry or Accord will smoke the Veedub.
Fuel mileage is also OK for the class, with a city rating of 22 and a highway rating of 30. Our test car made a late-night banzai San Diego-to-L.A. run and averaged 28.6 mpg. As an added bonus, the five-cylinder drinks regular.
If you want more speed, a GLI version powered by a 200-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder will launch in the summer, and VW says it runs from zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. If you want more economy, a TDI (diesel) Jetta isn't far off either, and VW says it will pair the TDI engine with its DSG sequential manual transmission for the first time.
Not a Sport Sedan
Larger brakes are also part of the Jetta's redo, as is electric power steering and a new multilink rear suspension, which VW also borrowed from Audi.
Stops from 60 mph at the test track were impressively short, with repeated stops of 123 feet. Although that's better than the last Audi A4 we tested, we were disappointed by the Jetta's soft, long-travel brake pedal.
This is not a sport sedan, and nobody at VW claims it to be. "This car is not for people who want to be racecar drivers," Hunt told us. "But it's for people who like to drive, people who take the long way home."
We think the Jetta's suspension tuning is soft enough to make you take the short way home, but it's still a more involving drive than a Camry or Corolla. It handles curves well enough, but it leans a lot and never really feels like it's enjoying the drive. You get the feeling the car is doing what you're asking, but reluctantly, like when you make your kids eat their vegetables.
Its slalom speed of 61.3 mph is also slower than the 63.3 mph we've managed in a Corolla.
On the highway and over broken cityscape, however, its soft suspension, long wheelbase and very stiff chassis provide a supple ride. And the Jetta's electric steering is one of the best we've ever experienced.
The Big But
Stu Karp, VW's marketing leader, calls the car a little more grown-up, and he's right, both literally and metaphorically.
But there's a problem. The Jetta's maturing process — which added size, practicality and standard horsepower — has also stripped the car of its sex appeal, zapped it of its cool factor. Gone is the squat, budget-Bimmer look that helped make its predecessor the best-selling Jetta of all time. VW has instead given this Jetta a look that is undeniably more Toyota than BMW.
Volkswagen knows this. It's a calculated move in an attempt to woo a larger share of Toyota Camry/Honda Accord buyers, for whom a car's sex appeal matters about as much as the gap of its spark plugs.
It all makes sense, but the plan fails to account for the large batch of present Jetta owners who bought their cars because of the old Jetta's "it" factor. They may be a few years older, and they may be partying less and watching SpongeBob more, but they still want a car they think is cool. Don't they?
We think so.
Managing Editor Donna DeRosa says: When I drove the Jetta home, I was so proud of myself. I couldn't wait to tell my friend Mark that I had found his next perfect car. But when we went out driving that night, although he thought the car was very "nice," he said he'd rather have an Accord. (I won't even go into the conversation about me not knowing him well enough by now.) Of course, we are both older than the supposed demographic for this car, but it brings up a valid point. I think the Jetta is a guy car. Guys think it's a girl car. So who exactly is this car going to appeal to?
Volkswagen is trying to attract both sexes but as a result the car is suffering from an identity crisis. That spirited Jetta personality is getting lost in the translation. The new Jetta is undeniably a good car — it handles well, it's roomy and attractive — but will anyone identify strongly with its niceness?
At a time when car buyers of all ages still think they are eligible to be the next American Idol, who will want to be driving the bland sedan? We all want to fit into the special category. Nice is nice; it is not special.
Executive Editor Richard Homan says: The new Jetta is the most Japanese German car I've ever driven. And unlike most of the VWs I've slipped into and slammed through corners, its character is more in line with not trying to attract attention rather than enhancing my driving ambitions.
The styling, the suspension and even the turn-in are all less sharp and less alert than I expected (wanted, remembered). Not that the car won't take a set in corners or that it does so unwillingly — it just doesn't attack with any appreciable spirit.
Pulling like a strong four (rather than a weak six), the 2.5-liter, inline five-cylinder engine doesn't really have a sweet spot anywhere in the power band, and sounds about as tuneless as an engine can. On the other hand, the Jetta's six-speed automatic transmission's shifts are seamless.
The Jetta's exterior lines are — in typical Pacific Rim fashion — inoffensive. There are a few cute moments, but the big picture is a study in safe styling overall.
If the new Jetta's exterior is larger, the interior is a full two sizes bigger. The driver and front passenger lounge in unqualified comfort, while the rear-seat squad gets legroom that's from the next class up.
The trunk is the best thing about the new Jetta. It is enormous, huge, gigantic and XXXL, all at once.
Do I like this new 2005 Volkswagen Jetta? Yes. Do I love it? No, but I wanted to. For under $20,000, the new Jetta is going to make a lot of people contented. If you're in the market for high fun and thrills, however, the Jetta road is closed for now. Wait for the 2.0-liter turbo coming later.
System Score: 8.5
Components: The head unit is just the way we like 'em, with big buttons, a logical layout and simple display. Flanking the six large preset/disc number buttons are two round knobs. As expected, the left knob controls on/off and volume and the right controls tuning and the radio's scan function. Old fashioned? Yes. Still the best setup after many decades? Yes. Smaller knobs control bass, midrange, treble, balance and fader functions. An in-dash six-disc CD changer is standard.
Ten speakers distribute the sound throughout the cabin. Each front door contains a tweeter, midrange and woofer, while each rear door houses a midrange and woofer. System output is rated at 80 watts total.
Performance: Although this system's 80-watt specification may seem laughable in this age of 200-watt-and-up amplifiers, we found the sound more than satisfactory. At low-to-medium-high volume settings, the bass is punchy, the highs are crisp without sounding tinny and the mids do a nice job of filling out the musical spectrum. Separation is fine, until you get crazy with the volume knob. Should you find a need to crank it up to Headbanger's Ball levels, things can get a little muddy as the highs and mids wash together and the bass loses some of its tightness.
All in all, most folks should be pleased with the performance. When we cued up a live version of the Cure's "Fascination Street," the jangly guitars, eerie keyboards and pummeling drums were reproduced cleanly and faithfully. Live recordings tend to bring out the weaknesses in a system, but the Jetta's system passed with flying colors.
Best Feature: Control layout.
Worst Feature: Cranking it way up brings down the sound quality.
Conclusion: Unless you crave volume settings that promise permanent hearing loss, this system should be more than ample. — John DiPietro