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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Bob Golfen
June 26, 1999
Volkswagen's compact Jetta is one of the big success stories of the '90s. Without fanfare, Jetta has become the top-selling European vehicle in North America, as well as VW's most popular model. Formerly, Jetta was little more than a Golf (or earlier
Rabbit) with a trunk. Now in its fourth generation, the completely restyled '99 Jetta has an attractive new body with the aero look of the bigger Passat, becoming more distinctive while retaining its mission as a sophisticated and value-laden small car.
As its "Driver's Wanted" ad campaign notes, Volkswagen aspires to build sporty road cars for spirited driving. In recent years, VW has earned the reputation as a proletariat BMW, bringing to the midpriced car arena something of the solid structure,
precise handling and tactile interiors of the expensive Germanic machines. Therefore, I was somewhat perplexed by the new Jetta GLS. Unlike the taut, precise VWs that I've known and loved, the new Jetta feels too soft, wallowing on its suspension and
leaning heavily in turns. Also, I thought the brakes felt spongy, not at all like the firm and quick acting four-wheel discs that I've experienced in other VWs. The steering was still precise, though, and the solid, rattle-free body felt
familiar. But even equipped with VW's sparkling VR6 engine, the Jetta lacked the driving excitement that I had expected. This is the first year the VW has put the VR6 in any Jetta except the top-end GLX. Our test GLS was so equipped, hooked up to one
of VW's smooth-shifting five-speeds. The V-6's silky power and explosive delivery is loads of fun, but the test car was hampered by too much torque steer - the tendency for a front-drive car to pull to the side under acceleration. This also was an
unexpected phenomenon that I've not experienced in past VWs to any great degree. And that mushy suspension seemed ill-equipped to deal with the engine's potential. Despite my complaints. the Jetta is still a likable little car that I enjoyed
driving and hated to see go away. While the suspension may be too soft, it does provide a luxury ride that some people may find preferable to European-style firmness. Maybe the idea here is to go a bit more mainstream. The styling is a variation on
the handsome Passat, Jetta's bigger sibling, with the rounded modernist shape that has quickly become VW's hallmark. The design evokes everything from the A6 or A8 by Audi, VW's upscale partner, to the unlikely star of last season, the New Beetle.
Jetta also shares some other facets of its Volkswagen/Audi brethren. It rides on the same platform as the Golf, the New Beetle and Audi's upcoming TT sports coupe, as well as several other products sold only overseas. This is a good, rigid foundation
that enhances drivability and ride quality. The interior has taken a big dose of Beetle-mania, with textured surfaces and a rounded-off set of gauges that glow blue at night. Very nice stuff, accentuating the sophisticat
ed aura in a fairly unconventional way. Considering the moderate price tag, there's lots in here to like. The Jetta is roomy and comfortable, with thronelike seating and plenty of headroom front and rear. Front seat legroom is fine, but rear-seat
passengers may feel a bit pinched. In VW fashion, the switches, levers, buttons and controls are simple and solid. Gauges and components are well-integrated, giving the Jetta's interior a feeling of being more expensive than it is. Among its
rivals, Jetta may not possess the towering reputation for reliability of Toyota or Honda, but it has shown itself to be a durable little machine. And its image is just offbeat enough to attract the attention of young people, and appeal to older drivers
who want something that stands apart from the neighbors' Honda Accords, Ford Tauruses or Toyota Camrys. The GLS comes completely equipped for the base price, included all power features, cruise control and air-conditioning . Anti-lock brakes
and side air bags also are standard. The only options on our GLS was the so-called luxury package for $1,000, which includes power sunroof, locking alloy wheels and heated seats with adjustable lumbar. Another $850 added on leather seating and
steering-wheel rim. The Jetta comes standard with a 115 horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine, which gets the job done without fuss. A GLS powered by VW's remarkable TDI diesel engine will soon be available, with its 49-miles-per-gallon fuel
efficiency. Prices start at around $17,000, not cheap for a compact, but not bad when you consider the standard equipment and stylish design. Hopefully, VW will get the Jetta's suspension and brakes back on course, backing up its "Drivers
wanted" slogan with a real driver's machine. 1999 Volkswagen Jetta Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $19,950. Price as tested: $22,325. Engine: 2.8-liter V-6, 174 horsepower
at 5,800 rpm, 181 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 2,994 pounds. Wheelbase: 98.9 inches. EPA fuel economy: 19 city, 26 highway. Highs: Handsome styling. Well-equipped.
Lows: Mushy suspension. Spongy brakes.