Base-model cars can be pretty miserable — anyone who's been down to a rental agency can attest to that. They lack features and technology, and oftentimes it seems like they only exist so that a carmaker can claim that a model "starts under [insert dollar amount here]" when the models that you would actually consider buying cost thousands more.
This holds true in the cars our review staff typically test at Cars.com. Much of what comes through our offices is fully loaded; we're talking top trim levels with options lists as long as your arm. Automakers want us to get a full sense of the car's capability — after all, how could we test the newest safety system or upgraded multimedia screens if they aren't equipped in the review car? Automakers are competitive, too, so if rival companies are sending out fully loaded Herbies for testing and they aren't, they run the risk of being left behind.
The catch, though, is that these cars aren't normally what consumers buy. The most popular models for most cars are the mid-tier trim levels, since they are more affordable and still come with enough equipment to be better than bare-bones. After that comes the base models with the lowest price tags. I generally advise folks against buying base models — in part because the lack of features hurts resale value, but also because they lack safety features and some other modern amenities like navigation or automatic climate control.
Given all that, though, is there a base model out there worth buying? One with enough features that it can stand up to competitors? Out here in Los Angeles, a base model of Volkswagen's newly redesigned 2019 Jetta compact sedan was available for testing. I spent a week in one to see if it can escape the base-model basement.
What We Tested: 2019 Volkswagen Jetta S
- Powertrain: 147-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder and 184 pounds-feet of torque; eight-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
- Fuel economy: 30/40/34 mpg EPA estimated city/highway/combined
- Key features: Backup camera, one USB port, cloth seats, Bluetooth connectivity, 6.5-inch touchscreen, 16-inch alloy wheels, foldable power side mirrors, LED headlights, daytime running lights and taillights and a six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty
- Price as tested: $20,195 (including an $850 destination charge)
This wasn't as basic as the VW Jetta can get; the automatic transmission is an $800 option (a six-speed manual is standard). My fellow Cars.com reviewer Fred Meier had a chance to test out a manual version of the car, and his strenuous warning on that vehicle was to stick with the automatic. I am inclined to heed the imperative.
Not a Base-Caliber Powertrain
One thing that I appreciate Volkswagen doing right out of the gate: The powertrain on the base Jetta isn't neutered. You don't get an automatic gearbox with fewer speeds or a less powerful engine. For example, the Honda Civic's turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder grabs all the headlines because the 2.4-liter four-cylinder that it comes with standard is a mushy pile that should be measured in "gerbil power" instead of "horsepower."
The Toyota Corolla doesn't skimp in this way, but its engine is a dud, too. The new 2019 Corolla Hatchback gets a better engine, but the sedan remains underwhelming for 2019; its combo 1.8-liter four-cylinder and continuously variable automatic transmission drives like it needs a cup of coffee.
But the Jetta S? It's torquey and approaches something I'd call fun. Volkswagen still saves its better engine for the Golf, but the Jetta is no slouch. The engine and gearbox are responsive, and with its redesign, the Jetta rides on Volkswagen's solid MQB platform — and that means it has solid dynamics and some handling acumen to boot. This surely doesn't drive like a base model.
What You Get
There are a few surprising inclusions with the Jetta S, starting with the exterior, which features LED headlights, taillights and daytime running lights, a feature usually reserved for more expensive vehicles. It's also got automatic headlights and a backup camera, but that's about as far as safety features go.
Inside the Jetta, there's a 6.5-inch color touchscreen (but the menus and graphics are basically grayscale). Bluetooth connectivity comes standard, as does Volkswagen App Connect which includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Charging options include a single USB port and a 12-volt charging port, both of which are located in front of the gearshift.
The Jetta's cabin is also more spacious after the redesign, the backseat especially. The last-generation model was a little stingy with the head- and legroom for backseat passengers, but both feel improved here, and tall windows all around provide excellent visibility from any seat.
The most important thing you get with the VW Jetta now might not even be a feature — in fact, it's not even part of the car. Coming out of all of that negative press from Dieselgate, Volkswagen started to offer a big warranty — like, six-years-or-72,000-miles big, including bumper-to-bumper coverage. And it comes on all models of the Volkswagen Jetta, including the base model. That's quite a boon for right around $20,000.
What You Don't
Here is where things get more interesting, because the new Jetta S is still a compromised vehicle. The biggest omissions come on two fronts: safety and technology. The seats are cloth, but you can deal with that in this price range. What bugged me more was the multimedia system: Volkswagen offers a beautiful, high-resolution touchscreen on SEL and SEL Premium models, that makes the screen on the base-model unit looks old and pixelated by comparison.
There's also a lack of charging options. That single USB port and 12-volt port will have to do the heavy lifting — no extra ports in the center storage bin and no ports for backseat occupants. This is an area in which the Jetta generally lags, as even the top-level SEL Premium only comes with one more USB port in the bin, but its omission is still felt on the base model. The backseat is also quite spartan with its lack of visible air vents — and on the base model, there isn't even a fold-down armrest when the center seat isn't in use.
The 2019 Jetta S is also the only trim level of the Jetta to not get automatic forward emergency braking and blind spot warnings standard, features that come as such on the other trim levels. The SEL and SEL Premium also add adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, but those features aren't offered on any of the other of the three trim levels (S, SE and R-Line).
How It Stacks Up
To start with, this version of the new Jetta S isn't the one I would get. I would have to add the Driver Assistance Package ($450), which includes automatic forward emergency braking and blind spot monitors; those are features that pay for themselves with one avoided fender bender. Beyond that, I think the Jetta S offers pretty solid value, especially when you put it up against the rest of the Jetta lineup.
It would be different if the higher trim levels — especially the SE and the R-Line, which sit right above the S — were better outfitted. Both the SE and R-Line have the same disappointing multimedia screen that's lacking connectivity options and charge ports. You have to jump up to the SEL and its $25,310 price tag to get the good screen, as well as Volkswagen's digital cockpit, which sticks a 10.25-inch display into the instrument panel.
A quick comparison of the S and the SE shows about a $2,000 price gap between them, and closer to $3,000 between the S and R-Line. What do you get for that extra money? The aforementioned safety features are standard, as are imitation leather upholstery, heated front seats, a moonroof and dual-zone automatic climate control.
The 2019 new Jetta S definitely drives above and beyond its base-model pedigree, though I do wish that it had more charging options. Still, I think it's a viable option on the whole, which makes the answer to our titular question — a base model worth buying? — a yes. It drives better than a base car, and the equipment differences between the S and the SE don't extend to the multimedia system, so there's not as much impetus to upgrade. Plus, that big-time bumper-to-bumper warranty is just as standard on the Jetta S.
And once more, I can't recommend enough to those who are considering a base Jetta to find one with the safety package attached. A modest $450 for the added piece of mind and accident prevention is a bargain.
Editor's note: This article was updated July 19, 2018, to reflect that all Jetta models come standard with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, regardless of screen size.
Cars.com's Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com's long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don't accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com's advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.