Volkswagen Jetta loyalists tend to be a rather fanatical lot who'd rather eat sauerkraut with warm beer for breakfast than drive something as plebian as a Corolla or Civic. With its European personality (read: involving drive) and upscale cabin trim and materials, it's easy to understand this compact sedan's historical appeal. And yes, there is that feeling of upmarket status as well — the Jetta neatly bridges the gap between run-of-the-mill econoboxes and entry-level luxury sedans.
Trouble is, Volkswagen needs more than that to make a sizable dent in the super-competitive $17,000-$20,000 compact sedan segment. The company needs what the industry calls "conquest sales." That doesn't mean salesmen in conquistador garb pummeling showroom visitors into purchase submission. It really means consumers who change brands, and that's where the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE comes in.
The new Jetta SE is aimed straight at mainstream compact sedan buyers and woos them with such luxuries as heated front seats, satellite radio, a CD changer, one-touch power windows all around and a power sunroof. For around $20,000, this nicely equipped and highly refined Jetta is priced on par with a Civic EX, Mitsubishi Lancer GTS or Mazda Mazda3 Grand Touring, and about a grand more than a loaded Corolla LE. Although Volkswagen's reliability remains an iffy proposition, we think the Jetta SE is certainly good enough for a few conquests.
The 2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE comes with a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that's rated at 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, giving it anywhere from 14 to 44 more horsepower than the inline-4 engines of its rivals. The engine note is somewhat gruff, but a few staffers felt that gave the car some personality, something lacking in a segment where most engines have all the aural appeal of a sewing machine.
When the inline-5 is paired with the manual five-speed gearbox found in our test car (a six-speed automatic is available), you'll find this V-Dub's performance is relatively brisk, with the 0-60-mph dash accomplished in 8.6 seconds. We highly recommend the manual transmission, as the progressive clutch and precise (though slightly rubbery) gearshifter add a sprightly feel to the car that is missing with the automatic.
At 21.7 mpg our fuel economy was disappointing against the EPA's 21 city/29 highway and 24 mpg combined ratings. Driven less, umm, spiritedly, you'll probably pull mid-20s for an average.
Although the Jetta's brakes felt fine in normal driving, with an easily modulated, linear pedal action, stopping performance at the test track was mediocre. The Jetta's 134-foot effort from 60 mph was below average — the best stoppers in this segment can do the drill in around 120 feet.
Introduced three years ago, this generation Jetta has been criticized by car buffs for losing some of its previously strong European feel. Its formerly firm suspension has been softened to appeal to the greater majority. Yet for most people buying in this segment, a comfy ride matters more than the ability to attack apexes. In day-to-day driving, the Jetta is a fine companion, swallowing the bumps and providing a relatively quiet cabin from which to endure the daily grind.
When you're away from the rat race and running through curvy back roads, the Jetta remains composed until you start pressing it, at which point the car's noticeable body roll lets you know it's no sport sedan. The SE's steering is nicely weighted and accurate, but handling tests conducted at our test track showed the Jetta running through the slalom at 63.7 mph — about the same as a Honda Civic EX and about 5 mph less than the segment superstar, the Mazda Mazda3. Those seeking a stoutly sprung Jetta should consider the SE's athletic brother known as the Volkswagen GLI. Curiously, the pricier family jock lost the "Jetta" part of its name for 2008.
In this area, the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE shines with firm, well-shaped seats that contribute to the upscale feel of the cabin. A tilt-telescoping wheel and height-adjustable driver seat make it easy for most body types to find an agreeable position behind the wheel. The center console armrest is likewise useful for most folks, thanks to its adjustable sliding and tilting design.
Oddly, the driver seat features a single power adjustment: for the recline function. A nice touch in this segment, but it's usually a low-effort procedure to recline a seat — if we had a choice, we would've picked a power fore/aft adjuster. One-touch up/down windows all around is also something not seen in the $20K arena, and along with heated front seats gives you the feeling you're in a more expensive car.
The rear seat is also ideally contoured and offers a wide, flip-down center armrest and adjustable head restraints. Under-thigh support is fine for medium-size adults, but those 6 feet and over may find it lacking somewhat. At 35.4 inches, legroom back there is about average.
Wind and road noise are well muted on the highway and the suspension calibrations favor a supple ride over a more sporting, firmer setup.
Large instruments and easy-to-use controls make the Jetta SE easy to acclimate to. We've always liked VW's sunroof control, which requires simply twisting the knob to open the roof a desired amount — a half-twist opens it halfway — without holding a button down. The radio is also set up the way we prefer, with a volume knob on the left, a tuning knob on the right and large preset buttons in between.
Sad to say, although the air-conditioning is a breeze to use, it was hard-pressed to blast out a cold one. With temps in the mid-80s, the system seemed overtaxed, requiring a max fan speed to keep the cabin comfortable.
More generous is the Jetta's trunk, which features 16 cubic feet of capacity that's about 33 percent larger than its rivals. Should you go crazy at Ikea, the front passenger seat folds flat and the rear seat (which also features a pass-through) folds down in a 60/40 split.
Design/Fit and Finish
Cleanly styled, the Jetta's most flattering angle is the front three-quarter, where the signature VW grille extends down to the lower fascia to give it some identity. Blacked-out window frames and tasteful chrome accents lend some uptown attitude. From other angles, however, some staffers felt the Jetta could be a Corolla's movie double.
The Jetta's cabin is a strong selling point, with high-grade, soft-touch materials and metallic trim. The finely stitched leatherette upholstery (German for high-grade vinyl) does a fine impression of real cowhide with the bonus of being easier to clean. We're also fans of the cool blue lighting used for the instruments and radio display, but are puzzled at VW's decision to use orange lighting for the multifunction display between the speedo and tach.
Who should consider this vehicle
The Volkswagen Jetta has always been a stepping stone of sorts for young professionals who can't yet make the financial leap to an entry-level Audi, Benz or Bimmer. These folks value the Jetta's European breeding and more expensive look and feel over its mostly bland competitors' superior long-term reliability records. Although this generation has lost some of that sporty Euro flavor (full-strength GLI excepted), the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE still presents a tempting package of an enjoyable drive, key luxury features and an attractive price that anybody can appreciate.