If the Volkswagen Jetta 1.4T sedan were a drink, it’d be whiskey on the rocks. It is a straight-up, no-nonsense compact sedan that exceeds the few promises it makes. We said as much about an automatic-transmission model we tested last year, and it holds true even more so with the more satisfying stick-shift version. Other compact four-doors may be sexier (Mazda 3), newer (Chevrolet Cruze), or inexplicably ubiquitous (Toyota Corolla), but the Jetta is solid goods.
The current Jetta looks just as much like a child’s drawing of a three-box sedan as it did back in 2010 when it was introduced. There’s a long rectangle propped on top of four wheels with a smaller rectangle on top of it, adorned with rectilinear headlights and taillights, door handles, and not much else. Whereas the nicer Jetta SEL and GLI stuff that casing with squishier, higher-quality interior finishes, the 1.4T S and SE (the latter being the model we drove for this review) make do with dashboards and door panels molded from hard plastics with a slight sheen. The only softly padded interior surfaces aside from the comfortable seats are each door’s armrest.
Behind the Jetta’s basic veneer, you’ll find competent driving dynamics, solid engineering, and above-average cabin space. Mostly, these hidden attributes are the result of VW’s multiyear improvement regimen for the Jetta. When the current-generation car arrived seven years ago, then common compact-car features such as an independent rear suspension, rear disc brakes, a modern infotainment system, and a decent engine were restricted to the richer SEL and sporty GLI models. VW has since added those items to the lower half of the Jetta lineup. Last year, it crowned the Jetta’s list of recent improvements by replacing the base Jetta’s ancient eight-valve, 115-hp 2.0-liter inline-four with the thoroughly modern 1.4-liter turbo four evaluated here.
We’re glad Volkswagen finally gave lesser Jettas the same quality mechanicals that elevate the SEL and the GLI. The multilink rear suspension delivers supple ride quality and above-average handling, and the benefits of four-wheel disc brakes are well known. We recorded middling grip and braking figures (0.83 g and a 184-foot stop from 70 mph), which may have been in large part due to the Bridgestone Ecopia tires, but subjectively, the Jetta is satisfying and confidence inspiring when driven at most any speed.
Next to the 170-hp 1.8-liter turbo inline-four that powers the Jetta SEL 1.8T and the 210-hp 2.0-liter turbo four in the Jetta GLI, the 1.4T engine might seem like a pipsqueak. Not so—the 1.4T’s 184 lb-ft torque figure matches that of the 1.8T, and it arrives 100 rpm sooner at a low 1400 rpm.
In practice, though, this engine needs the tach needle swinging past the 2500-rpm mark to wake up. Turbo lag isn’t the issue; instead, it’s the five-speed manual’s tall gearing, which dulls the 1.4T’s might. To make up for the lack of a sixth forward gear, VW chose ratios for third, fourth, and fifth that are taller than those in the six-speed gearbox offered in the GLI.
Adept drivers can circumvent the transmission’s ratio allotment by downshifting to a lower gear and freeing up the 1.4T. Around town, we kept the revs up by staying in second or third. The engine is so smooth and makes such pleasant, muted mechanical noises that you’ll hardly mind playing in the upper half of the rev range. And shifting is no chore at all, thanks to the buttery shifter and light clutch-pedal effort. Surprisingly, this driving style didn’t excessively drag down fuel economy, as we recorded 31 mpg over the course of this test—just 2 mpg down on the 1.4T’s EPA city estimate. On our 75-mph highway loop, the Jetta averaged 37 mpg, which is quite good. Yet we’ve seen more than 40 mpg from Honda Civics with the available 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder.
Despite being down on horsepower and torque relative to the smallest powerplants available in the Civic and the Mazda 3, the 1.4-liter turbo acquits itself well at the test track. At 7.7 seconds to 60 mph, this Jetta is quicker than the automatic-equipped sedan versions of the Civic, the Ford Focus, and the Cruze, but it is 0.2 second slower to 60 mph than a base-engine, manual-transmission Mazda 3. The VW also outguns the Hyundai Elantra Eco, with its identically sized engine, in both output and acceleration.
VW has elevated the mechanicals of the base Jettas, but the S and SE still suffer due to the previously mentioned low-buck interior finishes, four audio speakers rather than the six found in the SEL and GLI, and an empty cubby at the back of the center console where rear-seat HVAC vents live in nicer Jettas. At least the stoic, mature aesthetic that Volkswagen applies to the door panels and dashboard keeps the hard, somewhat shiny plastics from taking on a Playskool appearance. Even so, similarly priced, low-spec versions of the Mazda 3 and the Honda Civic have fancier interior duds similar to those of their more expensive trim levels.
At least Volkswagen gives Jetta SE buyers today’s must-have items for an affordable price. Standard equipment includes Bluetooth connectivity, heated front seats, vinyl upholstery, cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, a sunroof, and a 6.3-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay integration. To swallow the SE 1.4T’s $21,715 sticker—on par with the similarly equipped Mazda 3 Touring—one must appreciate the Jetta’s minimalist mind-set. Some buyers might notice and enjoy the way the Jetta’s doors shut with a substantial feel, the center armrest that can slide fore and aft and tilt to the driver’s desired position, or the car’s precise fit and finish. Others might consider the Mazda 3, a favorite of ours that has a nicer interior and drives even more sweetly than the Jetta.