First Tests

2016 Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T SE First Test: Built to a Price, Not a Standard

We Test the 150-HP Jetta 1.4T

We Test the 150-HP Jetta 1.4T

No car is perhaps more emblematic of Volkswagen’s enigmatic relationship with America than the Jetta. The U.S. boasts one of the most competitive auto markets in the world, yet Wolfsburg has long been content to offer Americans a small sedan engineered to be merely acceptable for undiscerning consumers. Although closely related to the Golf, the Jetta has routinely lagged behind VW‘s icon car in terms of technology and refinement. The pattern continues with 2016 VW Jetta 1.4T SE.

While the brilliant seventh-generation Golf, our 2015 COTY, uses Volkswagen’s sophisticated and refined MQB architecture, the Jetta 1.4T SE still rolls on the PQ35 platform that debuted on the fifth-generation Golf more than a decade ago. But here’s the thing: The Jetta outsells the Golf two-to-one in the U.S. To the Germans that single data point suggests Americans don’t want a state-of-the-art small car.

What makes the 2016 Jetta 1.4T SE interesting is that under the hood is a state-of-the-art engine. The 150-hp, 1.4-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve, turbocharged four-cylinder is a member of the EA211 engine family developed for the highly flexible MQB architecture, and it’s the new base engine for the Jetta lineup, slotting in under the 170-hp, 1.8-liter and 210-hp, 2.0-liter fours, both of which are also turbocharged. Ironically, the 1.4-liter engine is also used in the range-topping Jetta Hybrid.

With those 150 horses arriving at 5,000 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque from just 1,400 rpm, the 1.4-liter EA211 delivers an impressive—ahem—boost over the 115 hp at 5,200 rpm and 125 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm delivered by the stolid, ancient eight-valve, 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated four that was previously the Jetta’s entry-level powerplant. And it gives the 1.4T SE near identical performance to Jettas once powered by the unloved—and now discontinued—170-hp, 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated five-cylinder engine. The 0-60 sprint takes 8.4 seconds, with the quarter mile dispatched in 16.3 seconds at 86.2 mph (139 km/h).

Like most small turbocharged powerplants, though, you get either eco or boost, and never the two at the same time. The Jetta 1.4T SE delivered an impressive 41.5 mpg (5.67 L/100km) on the highway during our Real MPG testing, comfortably besting the 39 mpg (6.03 L/100km) VW claims the car makes on the EPA cycle. Torque and tall gearing are the secret; at 60 mph in top gear, the little engine’s turning just 1,800 rpm and right in the thick of the torque curve. On the twisties and around town, the slick DSG transmission does a great job of surfing the torque to deliver responsive performance feel. In terms of driver appeal, this is one of the best entry-level powertrain combinations in the small sedan segment.

The Jetta 1.4T SE’s Achilles heel, however, is disappointing city mileage. The 23.4 mpg (10 L/100km) recorded on the Real MPG city section is not only well short of the claimed 28 mpg (8.4 L/100km) for the EPA city cycle but also 23 percent worse than the mileage achieved by Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in our testing. So despite being a fuel-sipper on the highway, the Jetta’s Real MPG combined fuel economy number is 29.1 mpg (8.1 L/100km), compared with 34.4 mpg (6.8 L/100km) for the Civic and 32.0 mpg (7.3 L/100km) for the Corolla. Even Chevy‘s new Cruze, which is also powered by a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four, manages 31.9 mpg (7.4 L/100km) combined over the Real MPG test cycle.

The Jetta 1.4T SE stumbles on the one thing most buyers would expect it to do well.

With little else changed since the Jetta’s last redesign, the rest of the car is familiar fare, which means a mixture of good and average. There’s a lot of transmitted road noise, and the ride quality could use a little more plushness at lower speeds, but even though the PQ35 platform hardware is now well into middle age, the chassis is nevertheless fundamentally composed and decently responsive with the nicest, most coherent steering of any mainstream small sedan in America.

The exterior sheetmetal lacks the tortured surfaces and twisted lines that these days are often passed off as visual excitement or surface entertainment and so is seen by some as boring. But it’s easy to mistake conservative for dull. The Jetta is a crisply tailored, beautifully surfaced, decently proportioned car that will still look good 10 years from now.

Similarly, the interior design is also quietly sophisticated. It just doesn’t feel it, with too much obvious hard plastic and not enough surprise and delight. No vents for the rear seat passengers? Really? That’s a pity because in packaging terms the rear seat is very good. And, of course the trunk is massive.

The Jetta sells because it’s cheap, and Americans love a bargain. A bare-bones 1.4T starts at less than $19,000 USD including destination and delivers a reasonable car for the money. The 1.4T SE with the Connectivity package comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, a rearview camera, heated front seats, and VW’s Car-Net App-Connect system, which allows it to run apps off your smartphone, and at just over $23,000 USD, it’s the most expensive of the 1.4-liter-powered Jettas.

The Jetta is due to move on to the MQB architecture for the 2018 model year. It’ll still be an affordable, conservatively styled sedan with roomy rear seats and a massive trunk, a formula that’s appealed to generations of first-time new-car buyers in America. But maybe this time VW will offer Americans a Jetta they want to buy because it’s great, not just because it’s cheap.

2016 Volkswagen Jetta SE (1.4T)
BASE PRICE $19,815
PRICE AS TESTED $23,145
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 1.4L/150-hp/184-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,058 lb (59/41%)
WHEELBASE 104.4 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 183.3 x 70.0 x 57.2 in
0-60 MPH 8.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.3 sec @ 86.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 123 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.3 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 28/39/32 mpg
ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY 120/86 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.60 lb/mile