It's an SUV world now, even for traditionally car-centric Volkswagen. Its best sellers this year have been its new SUV stars, the Tiguan (Car.com's most recent Compact SUV Challenge winner) and Atlas mid-size SUV (Cars.com's Best of 2018). But automakers still sell a lot of compact cars in the U.S., and the full redesign of the 2019 Jetta shows VW is serious about competing for a bigger share.
The previous generation held its own in terms of driving manners, but it was bland. The 2019 gets up to speed with features, tech, comfort and, notably, better value. If you want more driving grins, Volkswagen has the sportier Golf GTI compact hatchback — a darling of enthusiasts (including me) — just as Honda will sell you a sweet manual-shift Civic Si.
The 2019 Jetta offers S, SE, SEL and SEL Premium trim levels, as a well as a sportier-looking R-Line version that replaces 2018's SE Sport. I spent time in all trim levels for this review. A replacement for the fancier, higher-powered and more expensive GLI trim is expected later.
New Look, Still a Grown-Up
The 2019 is more stylish than the past generation, yet remains more grown-up-looking than, for example, the younger vibe of the latest Civic. The look is sharply creased and more muscular, particularly in front, with an imposing version of the Volkswagen grille and a deeply sculpted hood and bumper. The side is dominated by a sharp character line from the front fender to the taillight, but unfortunately starts with a little fake fender vent.
The roofline, while not as "coupelike" as VW would have you think, is sleeker than the conservative 2018 and slopes nicely into the trunk lid. It does so without making the lid inconveniently small for loading the big 14.1-cubic-foot trunk, which expands via a 60/40-split, folding rear seatback on all models. LED headlights, daytime running lights and taillights are also standard, and even the base model comes with 16-inch alloy wheels (no plastic covers!). The 2019 is slightly bigger in all dimensions, which is most noticeable in the 1.3-inch-stretched wheelbase that moves the wheels closer to the corners.
The Jetta's look is spiced up just a bit for the R-Line trim, which has its own 17-inch alloy wheels, a gloss-black grille and side-mirror caps, plus foglights and a slightly more aggressive rear bumper with dual chrome exhaust tips. Inside, it has a sport steering wheel and R-Line black-and-gray leatherette (imitation leather) seats. The only mechanical change is a higher-performance, brake-based limited-slip electronic differential, but I could tell no difference in normal street driving.
Interior Designed for Drivers (Less So for Backseat Passengers)
The best part of the new interior is the dashboard (it has a bit of Golf DNA), which wraps around the driver's field of vision. The center touchscreen is higher and angled toward the driver (no more fumbling down by the gearshift). All the controls are logically at hand, and the buttons and dials have a higher-quality feel and action.
The interior materials and trim of the previous Jetta have been criticized as downscale since it rolled out in 2011. The 2019 still isn't posh — it's even a bit Spartan in design — but it's much improved regardless, with more soft-touch materials and upscale-looking trim that bring back some of the premium feel of older Jettas. Even the base S trim is much improved.
The seats — cloth for the base, leather at the top and leatherette for most models — are a new design, firmly supportive and comfortable for a long day of driving. Sadly for the front passenger, however, the shotgun chair is no longer height-adjustable. Comfort over a long drive is enhanced by a cabin that, for 2019, is quiet enough for easy conversation at highway speeds.
The new cabin also adds needed practicality, including deep door pockets with big water bottle holders, a larger center console bin and a big soft-surface phone bin at the front of the console. A small but thoughtful detail that others should copy: The console bin has a light-gray interior that makes it much easier to find things at the bottom. Console storage space is helped by a new electronic parking brake, but we thank you, VW, for not adding one of those complicated electronic shifters to save even more space.
The sleeker roofline leaves adequate headroom for a 6-foot-plus adult in the backseat, along with average legroom. Cost-cutting shows, however, in cheaper materials back there. That's not uncommon in compact sedans, but some — notably the latest Honda Civic — do a better job of disguising the rear penny-pinching. Overall, the backseat is adequate, but it won't get a lot of five-star feedback.
The list of upscale extras that can make the Jetta interior more fun or comfortable has expanded to include 10-color ambient lighting that wraps around the front seats, which are ventilated as well as heated, plus a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats and a panoramic moonroof.
Bigger Screen, Better Tech, Beats Sound
The Jetta's outdated technology has gotten a major overhaul, with a base 6.5-inch touchscreen for 2019 that is larger than the 2018's biggest screen (6.3 inches) and an 8-inch upgrade for higher trim levels. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration is standard on all models. The Jetta also has VW's latest-generation, user-friendly multimedia system, which is fast, sharp and — on the 8-inch system — has beautiful color graphics that are as good or better than those of any other mainstream brand. The upgraded screen's technology also allows pinch and zoom, along with no-contact gesture control to switch between menus or screens.
You have to jump to the SEL model, however, to get the 8-inch system. The smaller version on lower trims is just OK — uninteresting and almost black-and-white unless you're using smartphone integration. You also have to jump up to the SEL to get the impressive Digital Cockpit configurable instrument cluster, which is a 10.25-inch display that takes the place of lower trim levels' conventional analog gauges. As with the base multimedia system, these dials seem dull and outdated by comparison.
Standard tech on all 2019 Jettas includes useful and fun personalization that can store up to four drivers' settings to select among when you get in; two also can be attached to the key fobs to be automatic. Depending on trim level and optional equipment, those settings (to which you can attach your own cute names) can include driver's seat memory, driver assistance preferences, climate settings, Digital Cockpit configuration, ambient lighting color, radio presets and navigation view.
On higher trims, the Jetta also has VW's first BeatsAudio premium audio, a 400-watt system tuned to the car with seven speakers, including a subwoofer in the trunk. To my taste, it sounded just OK, not great. It seemed too bass-heavy and less crisp than the Fender-branded premium audio in other VWs, such as the 2019 Tiguan.
Oddly stingy in the otherwise tech-savvy new Jetta is the sparse availability of USB ports and other power outlets. There's just one USB port and a 12-volt outlet until you get to the SEL, which adds one more USB in the console bin. That's also the only port available for the rear seat.
How It Drives
The seventh-generation 2019 Jetta improves overall on a predecessor that ranked among the more fun-to-drive compact sedans. Much of that improvement owes to better bones, with the Jetta now on VW's excellent MQB modular platform, which underpins several newer models, from the agile Golf hatchback to the big Atlas SUV.
The Jetta's no Golf GTI, though, due in part to a cheaper torsion-beam rear suspension. The redesigned Jetta's ride is softer, which might displease fans of the firmer 2018 but will likely please a lot of compact sedan shoppers. Still, it can rival the handling of the regular Civic sedan, and both of those can dance around the 2019 Toyota Corolla. Cornering is stable, with some lean but good body control and predictable nose-heavy understeer. The steering could use more feel, though; it's soft on center, but it firms up nicely as you pick up speed.
All 2019 Jettas use a revised 147-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder whose punchiness belies its size and numbers; the 2018's 1.8-liter and 2.0-liter options have been dropped. The 1.4-liter remains, but it now benefits from the well-spaced ratios of a new eight-speed automatic transmission that replaced the 2018's six-speed. The new transmission shifts positively, with no missteps, and willingly downshifts without excessive nudging from the accelerator. It offers a satisfyingly crisp manual mode, as well. A six-speed manual gearbox is available only on the base S model, where it's standard. The clutch is smooth and linear, but the shifter throws are long and stiff, so it's not a performance choice.
The redesigned Jetta's ride is softer, which might displease fans of the firmer 2018 but will likely please a lot of compact sedan shoppers. Still, it can rival the handling of the regular Civic sedan, and both can dance around the 2019 Toyota Corolla.
Overall, the Jetta is peppy around town, with 184 pounds-feet of peak torque coming at just 1,400 rpm. It's also fun on backroads and more confident than I expected in highway situations, though the limitations of the small turbo engine are much more apparent during highway passing and with cruise control response. Reponse is best in the Sport driving mode that comes with higher trim levels. Driving modes alter throttle and transmission settings and adaptive cruise control response, as well as (in the Eco mode included on all Jettas) climate system operation. Sport is not very aggressive; I treated it as my go-to mode on models that had it. By contrast, Eco dulls things to the point where you can't see why anyone would use it except for EPA mileage testing.
While the 2019 Jetta gets new low-rolling-resistance tires to improve mileage, they didn't seem to sacrifice much in cornering and grip until taken to limits few compact sedan buyers are likely to approach.
The new Jetta's EPA rating rose to 30/39/34 mpg city/highway/combined for automatic-equipped versions, up from the 28/38/32 mpg of the best-rated 2018 automatic version. Mileage is now more competitive with rivals such as the 2019 Civic, rated 32/42/36 mpg (with the available turbo 1.5-liter engine and continuously variable automatic transmission) and the 2019 Corolla (28/36/32 mpg with CVT). Modifications VW used to squeeze out the extra mileage, beyond the new automatic and tires, include a standard engine stop-start system (thankfully with an on-off switch that lets you decide if you want to use it).
Safety Tech Available on All, Standard on Most
The 2019 Jetta does not yet have crash-test ratings; when available, they'll replace the 2018 results here.
Improvements on the tech front go beyond infotainment to new and more widely available driver assistance and safety systems. Volkswagen has made key features — a front collision system with automatic braking, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert — standard beginning with the SE trim; it's available as a $450 option on the base model. A longer list of features for the SEL and SEL Premium includes adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, high-beam assist, lane departure warning and lane keep assist. That's a big safety tech improvement over the 2018 Jetta, but it's still a step behind the Corolla — which makes basic automatic braking standard on all models — and a couple of steps behind the Civic, which has the excellent Honda Sensing suite standard for 2019, including most of the safety and driver aid tech you can get only in the more expensive Jettas. The 2019 Jetta also has a standard post-collision braking system designed to help prevent a second collision after an initial crash.
A Better Value Proposition
The 2019 Jetta's pricing better matches rivals — not something it has done well in the past. It's now configured to have competitive features for the dollar against comparable rival trim levels, particularly the Civic and Corolla. Compare them here for trim-level features and prices.
The base Jetta S starts at $19,440 (all prices include destination) with a manual transmission and $19,845 with the safety tech option. That compares with the base 2019 Civic LX, at $20,345 with a manual transmission and all its standard safety tech, and the automatic-only 2019 Corolla L, at $19,620 with standard emergency braking. Notably, the Jetta S is a base model worth buying, not a fleet offering. You can see Cars.com editor Brian Wong's detailed evaluation of the value of the Jetta S here.
Meanwhile, the Jetta's all-in SEL Premium tops out at $27,840, compared with $28,195 for the similarly loaded Civic Touring. The top Corolla XSE stops sooner, at just more than $24,000, but it also stops short of the VW and Honda in terms of premium goodies, such as leather seats.
In terms of features for the buck, however, the Jetta SEL may be the best value, with a starting price of $25,310. That's $1,830 less than the 2018 SEL and includes LED projector headlights, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, interior ambient lighting, a digital instrument display, Beats audio, the much better 8-inch multimedia screen and the full suite of safety and driver assistance features. If the package and price sound a lot like the well-equipped Honda Civic EX-L, that's surely no coincidence. Compare all Jetta trim levels here.
Adding value, the 2019 Jetta, like all 2018 and newer Volkswagens (except the e-Golf), comes with VW's six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that can be transferred to a subsequent buyer.
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