Pros: Unique styling, quality interior materials, acceleration with 1.8T or VR6, German feel
Cons: Cramped rear seat, chassis skittish at the limit, poor reliability
My sister finally bought a Jetta, and Im finally reviewing the car. She didnt start out looking at the Jetta. She started out really wanting a VW Passat. (Click on the blue hyperlinks to read my reviews of related vehicles.) This was about two years ago. Then we went and drove the Passat, and she was just too buried in the car. Shes not very tall. And the Passat, like the Audis it shares a vehicle platform with, has a high cowl and beltline (base of windshield and side windows, respectively). So I suggested she look at the Jetta instead. I thought then and think now that, while hardly perfect, the smaller, cheaper VW is a better car in many significant areas.
So we drove the Jetta, she really liked the Jetta. She almost bought one, then decided to put up with her ancient Civic a bit longer. Recently she became interested in buying a new vehicle again. My father got the idea in his head that what she really needed was a Honda CR-V, so we went and drove that. We drove a few other things as well, including another Jetta. Last time we drove a Jetta with VW unique VR6 engine. Since then the turbo four became available. Especially this year, with a bump in horsepower from 150 to 180, its the better engine for the dollar. So we drove a Jetta with that engine this time, and thats the one she bought. (For 2003 the VR6 was upgraded. Click here for my review of that car.)
Enough about my sister. Time to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the car. The Jettas largest strength may be its unique character. Three things contribute to this character: the Jettas cute yet sophisticated styling, the quality of its interior materials, and its solid German feel. No other car offers anything approximating this combination. This combination is why the Jetta is hot, despite the high price, cramped rear seat, and somewhat squirrelly handling at the limit. If, like my sister, you hardly ever use the rear seat and dont drive terribly aggressively, and can afford the car, then there arent really any minuses.
Those are the broad strokes. Now for the details
Volkswagen Jetta Reliability
My sister ended up trading in her Jetta in 2005 because it proved to be very unreliable. Towards the end the "check engine" light kept coming on despite repeated trips to the shop. Most of the issues were electrical.
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Styling and Accommodations
The Jettas popularity owes much to its unique exterior styling. The Jettas shape is rounded enough to have much of the cuteness that made the New Beetle a hit, but mixes in just enough edginess to avoid the toy-like quality of that other VW. With alloy wheels (the wheel covers that come standard with the base model just dont work with this design), the Jetta has a sophistication about it that makes it a plausible small car for someone who would find a Honda Civic too entry level and insufficiently adult. Nissan would like you to think that the Sentra is a destination car, a car bought for itself and not just because you cannot afford more. Few small cars are destination cars. The Sentra certainly isnt. Its simply too basic transport vanilla in terns of looks, and too cheap in too many areas in terms of materials. The performance versions are less vanilla, but then they are blatantly boy racers. In contrast, the Jetta can plausibly be a destination car. I can see someone buying this car even though they can afford the Passat, or even an Audi. It very nearly matches those more expensive cars in sophistication and quality, while having a much more fun look about it. Its what the New Beetle becomes when it grows up.
There is one aspect of the styling I dont like. The wheelbase is so short (four inches shorter than that of a Honda Civic or Ford Focus) that it throws the proportions a bit off around the rear wheel. This wheel looks like it intrudes too far forward into the rear door. As a result, the rear door cutline just doesnt look right to my eye. This is much more a problem for me with the base cars wheel covers since these lack the ability to distract attention from what the body is doing just above them. At least I suspect this is a reason. At any rate, I dont notice this element nearly as much when the Jetta is shod with alloys.
The interior styling is less unique. It is quite conservative in the German idiom, with no fancy curves or eye-catching (or irritating) stylistic details. That said, this interior, especially in leather, has the look and feel of a German luxury car. It has this feel by design. VWs CEO told the companys product development organization to forget about the cost, he personally wanted all VWs to have high quality interiors, and thats what they have. They do end up charging quite a bit more as a resultthe Jetta, though smaller, is thousands of dollars more than a Civic or Focus. It also weighs hundreds of pounds more than other small cars. But if you want a car that feels like this one from the drivers seat, there is no cheaper or lighter game in town.
One part of the luxury car thing involves real tree meat on the dash and doors. Wood trim comes standard with the top-of-the-line GLX, but is not available otherwise. My sister personally dislikes wood in cars, so she really wanted the GLS. If, on the other hand, the wood makes the car for you (and it does for many Jetta buyers) then say hello to the GLX, which comes only with the six, leather, power sunroof, power seats you get the idea. The whole package, with a price to match.
The Jetta is pretty much a 2+2 that happens to have four doors, at least as far as seating capacity is concerned. The front seat is comfortable and spacious enough for all but large people (or those who prefer to swim in their cars). The seat itself could have more aggressive side bolsters for those who drive aggressively, but at least the armrest is so close that you hardly notice yourself using it as a brace.
Unlike the Passats, the Jettas beltline and cowl (base of the windows and windshield) are low enough to lend the cabin an airy feeling and afford excellent visibility. I personally prefer this combination: just enough room to be comfortable along with lots of glass. It helps you feel connected to both the car and the road, without feeling cramped. Some people may shop the Jetta against the Volvo S40, the next least expensive European sedan sold in the U.S. The S40 has a very tall dash that makes me, at least, feel buried in the car, and I would not consider it for this reason alone.
The situation in the Jetta is less happy in the rear seat. Anyone over about 5ֻ is going to have scrunch a bit to avoid contact with the ceiling. Legroom is also tightand very tight with tall people in the front seats. A Civic or Focus offers far more rear seat room. So if youre going to have anyone in the rear seat often, this is probably not the right one. If you might be carrying a baby back there, make sure your child seat will even fit. Its that short wheelbase thing again
Trunk space is quite good for a small car, and the seat can fold down to hold even more.
On the Road
Four engines are offered in the Jetta. Ive never driven the base four or diesel, but really cant see getting so little power in a car that weighs and costs what the Jetta does. For a while, the only other engine was VWs unique, very narrow angle (so that its hardly a V) V6. But in the summer of 2000 a 150 horse turbo four was added, and this year that engine gets a boost to 180 horsepower. The base four produces 115 horsepower, the six 174 (soon to be bumped to 201). The turbo costs $1,650 more than the base four, the six another $650 above that. Ive driven both cars. Especially if the turbo fours fifteen percent better fuel economy makes a difference to you, and this was very important to my sister due to some environment-loving friends, I say save the $650. Heres why
Im the last person to think the horsepower or zero-to-sixty is everything. Though these engines are about equally fastwhich is plenty fast even with automatic for this driving enthusiastif the four had a lot of turbo lag, or was rough, Id say go ahead and spend the extra for the six. But never while driving the turbo did I notice turbo lag much. What I did notice was a healthy amount of low-end torque. This engine reaches its torque peak at a low, low 1950 RPM, and maintains its peak level of torque through about 5500 RPM. Torque curves dont get much flatter. I also felt that the turbo four was plenty smooth for this car, even though I found the nearly identical 170 horsepower turbo four in the new A4 objectionably rough. I suspect different tuning and different engine mounts, along with higher expectations for an Audi, played a role in my strikingly different evaluations. It also doesnt hurt the turbo fours case that the VR6, largely due to its unique geometry, is not the smoothest six around.
I personally prefer a manual. But since my sister wanted an automatic this time around, both Jettas I drove were so fitted. This might be just as well, because the shift linkages in VWs tend detract from the joy of doing your own shifting. The automatics include VW/Audis highly touted Tiptronic feature: If you want to shift the engine yourself, slide the shifter over to a short slot to the right of the standard one, and bumping it forward and backward then summons nearly instantaneous upshifts and downshifts, respectively. I would want this feature if I was forced to have an automatic. That said, Ive yet to find this feature nearly as intuitive or enjoyable as a conventional manual in any of the cars Ive driven with it. Compared to a conventional manual, manumatics provide far less tactile feedback through the controls (after all, there is no clutch to receive feedback through) and shifts cannot be modulated (feathered). Such a feature is nice to have, but nothing to get all excited about. Id still get mine with a clutch.
A definite plus of the turbo four is handling. This engine weighs substantially less than the VR6, and less weight on the front wheels is a good thing. It leads to more balanced, more nimble handling.
That said, the Jettas handling falls well short of perfection. In very aggressive driving, torque steer rears its ugly head, the chassis gets a bit bobbly and skittish, and things generally feel a touch unsettled. Thankfully the optional sports suspension settles these unwelcome dynamics down a bit, by both reducing lean in turns and generally keeping the body more steady. As I note in my review of the Passat, I wish a similar sports package were available on that car.
I must restate that these lapses in refinement usually only occur during very aggressive driving. Driven in a more sane manner, the Jettas chassis feels as solid and buttoned down as much more expensive German sedans. Thanks are due the well-weighted steering and stiff body structure (you do get something for the extra poundage this car is toting).
Despite the Jettas very short wheelbase, it generally rides well, with none of the hobbyhorsing that can accompany a short wheelbase. Though the optional 17 low-profile tires coupled with the stiffer sport suspension do degrade the ride a bit, even they do not result in a harsh ride. You hear the tires hit the bumps, but its a pre-Lexus Benz type of sensation, heard more than felt. As German suspensions often are, this one is firm yet compliant. As with many quasi-affordable European cars, road noise can be prominent on some road surfaces, but overall noise levels are usually low, especially for such a small car. The Jetta generally rides and feels like a larger, more expensive car.
The tire and wheel choices require a bit more comment. With the turbo four, the only available wheels are the standard 15s and the optional ($800, including the otherwise $200 sport suspension) 17s. Aesthetically and dynamically, the first have a bit too much sidewall while the latter have so little that wheel damage is a definite possibility with potholes. Sixteens would be a good balance, but are only available with the VR6. I wish they were available, perhaps even standard, on the 1.8T.
Which suspension and wheels are the best? Id look at and drive any that might work for you, and let your own eyes, rear, local prevalence of potholes, and wallet be your guide.
If you are attracted to the Jettas styling, interior ambiance, and German character, do not mind the German price, and do not require a larger rear seat, then this is the car for you. Combine the smaller package, airier cockpit, and available sports suspension and the Jetta is simply much more fun to drive than the larger, more expensive Passat. The quirks of the chassis at the limit are another weakness, but you may either rarely venture there or actually prefer this sort of entertainment. Overall, a uniquely appealing package.
One especially noteworthy change for 2002 involves the standard warranty. Until this year, VW offered the skimpiest warranty in the business, only two years bumper-to-bumper. This was partly compensated by a ten year powertrain warranty, but that portion of the warranty did not transfer to later owners unless they were family members. And much of the stuff that breaks isn't part of the powertrain.
For 2002, VW has doubled the basic warranty to four years. To somewhat mitigate the extra cost, they shortened the powertrain warranty to five, but since this part of the warranty now transfers to any later owner it actually is better as well. As a result of these changes, VW's warranty has gone from worst to among the best--only the Koreans do better.
Note: I initially rated the 2002 Jetta four stars and recommended it. I have altered my rating and recommendation because of my sister's experience with the car.
To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, or to perform thorough, up-to-date new car price comparisons, visit www.truedelta.com. A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.