CARS.COM — Volkswagen has impressed us recently with wins in our compact and three-row SUV Challenges, with models that should become big sellers if U.S. buyers know what's good for them. But for now, the brand's best-seller in America remains the Jetta compact sedan. For cars, Americans tend to prefer trunks to hatches, and the version currently on sale was developed for the 2011 model year to suit U.S. tastes.
For 2019, VW has developed an all-new, seventh-generation Jetta on a newer platform, known internally as MQB, that somehow is flexible enough to underpin everything from the wee Audi TT coupe to the hulking Atlas three-row SUV. Thanks to newfound autonomy after Volkswagen decentralized into five global regions, the North American region welcomed journalists to its Arizona Proving Grounds south of Phoenix for the first time since its construction in 1992 to drive early builds of the 2019 Jetta. The cars I drove were wrapped in zebra print on the outside and fairly covered up on the inside as well, but VW sources said they are American-spec vehicles and essentially preproduction — off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico — meaning they're not hand-built prototypes. Many of the all-new models Cars.com tests before they hit dealerships fit the same description.
Specifications aren't available yet, but the 2019 doesn't seem to have gotten much larger — I'd estimate less than an inch or two in any dimension — but if you look past the zebra-print wrap, the grille suggests a slightly bolder look.
Truth be told, drivability isn't the current Jetta's main weakness. As we've reported since 2011, VW's effort to broaden the Jetta's appeal and lower its price resulted in a lower-quality interior right when the competition was finally stepping up its game. Though the dashboard, instrument panel and center console were covered, I got a glance at the console and latest-generation touchscreen while switching driving modes, and it seems clear that VW Jetta has addressed some of the worst gripes. The multimedia system is one of our favorites, and there's every reason to believe the 2019 will have the full suite of advanced safety and convenience features of other recent redesigns, such as lane departure prevention and all-speed adaptive cruise control with full stop-and-go functionality.
I drove a few laps on the facility's banked high-speed track, where the Jetta felt admirably stable up to its electronically limited top speed of about 125 mph (according to a passenger's smartphone, as the speedometer was covered). Owners have complained of road and wind noise in the current generation, and while my test wasn't the perfect real-world examination, the wind noise was very well controlled at such excessive speeds.
I knew immediately the mystery engine wasn't VW's 1.8- or 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and VW confirmed the car was equipped with a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, which is going to be the primary engine. As we've noted in the past, its power exceeds expectations, and for 2019 it gains the advantage of two additional gears — an eight-speed automatic transmission in place of the current generation's six-speed. A six-speed manual will also be available. The extra gears seemed to give the car decent passing performance at legal speeds, and though my drives were brief, the transmission was responsive and smooth. In our recent Compact Sedan Challenge, judges complained of abrupt shifting by the 2017's six-speed.
The most illuminating driving happened on a modest road course with several off-camber curves, designed for evaluating fuel-system performance, where it was clear upond the first drive that the Jetta has lost none of its handling chops. Our Challenge judges had decried the traction of a 2017 Jetta's Bridgestone Ecopia efficiency tires in an otherwise well-handling car. Though the 2019 also uses Ecopia tires, my experience was very different. It's possible the tires have improved — or that the very coarse, grippy pavement on which I drove made all the difference. I had to push the car rather hard to break traction, and it always did so in a gradual, controllable way.
The 2019's body roll is in check, and the steering has a good feel, but it doesn't quite live up to the VW Golf. An engineer said the Jetta is tuned for more comfort than the hatches and relies on the driving modes to tailor its performance to different preferences. As in other up-to-date VWs, the 2019 Jetta's modes vary accelerator sensitivity, the transmission's shift program and the steering assist level. The Sport mode did a nice job of keeping the transmission in the right gear for spirited driving; I wasn't able to trip it up badly through erratic application of the accelerator and brakes, which bodes well for the eight-speed in light of our objections to the six-speed it replaces.
In response to owner surveys, VW endeavored to improve braking performance in the 2019, and the new brakes do indeed slow the car with more authority than the previous generation. Linearity is good on application and fair on release.
The MQB platform underpins many models we regard highly, including the Golf, Passat, Tiguan and Atlas. Our first exposure to the 2019 Jetta suggests it will continue the trend. Expect to see it uncovered within the next month or two, ahead of sales to begin in spring of 2018.
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