The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta keeps its excellent handling and high safety ratings, but it's starting to show its age in a a few ways.
The 2016 Volkswagen Jetta is the best-selling VW in the States. It's a four-door sedan only these days, its five-door wagon having joined the Golf lineup.
The Jetta still has fine handling and safety in its corner, but it's beginning to look quite dated. This year it gets a new, peppy, and fuel-efficient base engine, some infotainment upgrades, and some added active-safety features.
The big stories are in the Jetta's powertrains. A new base 1.4-liter turbo four engine accounts for six different trims—versions of the S, SE, and SEL levels—while the 1.8T Sport and the Jetta Hybrid are their own trim levels. Finally, the Jetta GLI 2.0T has two of its own trim levels, SE and SEL.
For 2016, the Jetta's diesel engine has been withdrawn from the market. VW flouted diesel emissions regulations, and still is working on a solution to fix the problem in new cars and in those purchased over the past decade.
Now in its sixth model year, the Mexican-built Jetta remains one of the most conservative designs in the segment. If you want style and flair in a compact sedan, you'd probably be better served going for a model like the Mazda 3, Ford Focus, or Hyundai Elantra. The Jetta's refresh last year made a few subtle changes to the front and rear fascia, but the square-cut sedan shape and the slab sides are starting to look dated. The inside remains refreshingly straightforward.
It may lack the TDI diesels in the lineup for 2016, but the Jetta still offers three different turbocharged four-cylinder engines—each with a choice of manual or automatic transmission—plus a hybrid model at the very top of the range. Starting below $20,000, the majority of this year's Jettas will be fitted with the new 150-hp 1.4T turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, which accounts for six trim levels. The 1.4T is responsive, produces torque starting at low engine speeds, and is light-years ahead of the archaic fours used in previous years of the same car.
The 1.8T Sport has the same driving characteristics (and only 20 hp more), while the GLI 2.0T is the hot rod of the bunch, offering a 6-speed manual or VW's dual-clutch automatic rather than the 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic used in lesser versions. Then there's the Hybrid, with the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four plus a hybrid system and a high-voltage battery pack—all adding up to a car that's more fun to drive than a Prius, albeit not quite as efficient. Still, its 44-mpg combined rating is impressive. The 1.4T versions come in at either 33 mpg combined (for the five-speed manual) or 32 mpg combined (for the automatic).
This range of models—even without the TDI diesel versions—lets VW's compact sedan be many things to many different buyers, though it has a lot of ground to cover. It must squeeze in what might be the most usable amount of interior space in the compact class; deliver an impressive sweet spot of performance, refinement, and fuel economy; and offer plenty of features, all while keeping the price point in the mid-$20,000 range. Though the price of features can add up quickly, the Jetta seems to accomplish all of that—and its sales reflect that success.
Space for people in the cabin and goods in the trunk remains one of the Jetta's strong points; it's so large inside that it barely squeezes into the compact class. The seats are comfortable in the usual firm German way. A great driving position, rear-seat space that wouldn't be out of place in a mid-size sedan, and obvious German heritage in the on-road behavior are its strong points.
Despite some of its quirks, it remains one of the most livable and refined compact sedans—and one that's always fun to drive. Well-tuned electric power steering is now standard across the range, and four-wheel independent suspension plus German roadholding simply puts the Jetta on a higher plane than more prosaic compact sedans. And that applies to all models, from the base 1.4T through the luxurious hot-rod GLI 2.0T.
Over the last two years, VW has added an impressive suite of active-safety features to the Jetta range. This year, a rearview camera is standard on all but the base Jetta S. Beyond that, in various combinations and trim levels, blind-spot monitors, forward-collision warnings, and automatic braking are all now available. Along with a frontal crash structure beefed up a couple of years ago, the new electronics garner the Jetta an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating, with its top rating of "Good" on every test. it also gets five stars overall from the NHTSA.
Even the base Jetta S now has air conditioning, though it sticks with 15-inch steel wheels, silver plastic wheel covers, and cloth seats. On the other end of the scale, the Jetta Hybrid now comes only as a top-spec model starting at more than $30,000—making the potential savings in gasoline expenses dubious at best.
One final note on the 2016 Jetta range: Last year, a new version of the SportWagen compact wagon gave up its Jetta name, and the all-new model becoming part of the Golf lineup. It had always been based on the Golf platform, and both the Golf and the SportWagen were entirely redesigned for 2015 even as the Jetta soldiers on. So it makes sense to call the wagon a Golf, as it has been in the rest of the world since it launched—even if some Jetta owners are confused.
Fuel economy for the Jetta ranges from the Hybrid's excellent 42 mpg city, 48 highway, 44 combined rating to the 1.4-liter's 28/40/33 mpg rating. The 2.0-liter four isn't as frugal: it's rated by the EPA at 23/33/27 mpg.