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2008 Volkswagen Jetta SE test drive

Aaron converts to Jettaism

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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2008 Volkswagen Jetta front-right view

2008 Volkswagen Jetta -- SEL model shown

Photo © Aaron Gold

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The Jetta sedan is the best-selling car in Volkswagen's model lineup. I've always admired the Jetta for its family-friendly interior and exceptional safety record, and I love the hot-rod GLI version -- but I've always found the plan-vanilla Jetta a little dull. Has anything changed for 2008? Yes -- just enough, as it turns out, to change my opinion. $16,990 base, $19,904 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 21-22 MPG city, 29 MPG highway.

First Glance: Another ho-hum Jetta... or is it?

Larger photos: Front - rear

My original plan was to write up the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta as a Quick Test Drive. We've reviewed a handful of Jettas since the current model was introduced in 2005, and it wasn't long ago that I heaped praise upon the Jetta GLI as a performance car that excels at family duty. Man, did I love that car. But I've never been a big fan of the least-powerful Jetta variant, which -- up until this year -- was known as the Jetta 2.5. I've driven a handful of them, all with automatic transmissions, and I've never been impressed -- I thought the styling was a bit too dull, the price a bit too high, and the driving experience a bit too lack-luster.

And then Volkswagen sent this particular Jetta to me for testing -- and it was as if they'd ordered my test car with the express purpose of converting me to Jettaism. And you know what? It worked.

For starters, my test car was finished in red -- not some fancy high-tech shade of red with a whimsical name like Sunset Blush Pearlsonic Flakecoat, but plain ol' non-metallic red, which did a beautiful job of showing off the Jetta's chrome grille and alloy wheels (link goes to photo). (Alas, my photos didn't come out so well, hence the VW-supplied photos of the white Jetta.) The Jetta's paint palette includes some very nice grown-up shades of grey and blue, but I think the car looks its best in plain, bright colors like red or white.

In the Driver's Seat: Better value than I expected

2008 Volkswagen Jetta dashboard

Dash isn't very fancy, but it's well laid out and easy to use

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

The next issue the Jetta had to tackle -- in my eyes, at least -- was the value equation. 2008 sees a new model lineup for the Jetta; last year's Jetta 2.5 has been split into S, SE and SEL models. I drove the mid-level SE; for just under $20K it comes with power windows, mirrors and locks, air conditioning, sunroof, 6-disc CD changer, height-adjustable driver's seat, alloy wheels, fake leather, and a tilt and telescope steering wheel. Too spendy? The Jetta S runs $2,800 less and is still pretty nicely equipped.

The Jetta's dashboard is a bit plasticky and austere, but it's functional and easy to use. Size-wise, the Jetta feels mid-way between a compact and a mid-size. It's easy to handle in crowded urban areas, yet it has plenty of space for four adults. And I can't say enough good things about the trunk, which is big, boxy, and easy to load.

The only thing I really didn't like about the Jetta was the optional ($144) iPod adapter, which (theoretically) allows you to control the iPod through the stereo. But the stereo can only access the first five playlists, it doesn't display track names, and the controls are confusing in a way I never imagined possible. I spent ten minutes hunting through the literary epic that is the Jetta's owner's manual just to figure out how to access "shuffle" mode, and I still couldn't make it work right. Unbelievable. The good news: If you don't opt for this electronic abomination, you get a plain ol' auxiliary input jack. For free.

On the Road: More power and a third pedal make a huge difference

I mentioned that I've always found the base-model Jetta a bit dull to drive. So what made this one different? For one thing, Volkswagen has fortified the 2.5 liter five-cylinder engine for 2008 -- output is 170 horsepower, up 20 from last year, while torque rises by 7 lb-ft to 177. Despite the extra grunt, the engine is slightly more fuel efficient than last year's car, though fuel economy is still below average for a compact sedan. VW builds a PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) version for California-compliant states; unlike many PZEVs,which extract a power penalty, the Jetta's PZEV engine puts out just as much power as the non-PZEV version. Way to go, VW!

The extra power definitely upped the grin factor, but what I really fell in love with was my test car's manual transmission. The automatic 2.5 is droning and dull, but the 5-speed manual really wakes the engine up. If you must have an automatic, I'd recommend skipping the 2.5 and buying either the GLI or Wolfsburg Edition, both of which are equipped with VW's stellar 200 hp 2.0T engine. (Of those two, I'd take the GLI, which gets Volkswagen's Direct Shift Gearbox in place of the Wolfsburg's conventional automatic.)

Handling is wonderful; I took the Jetta up to the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road and it seemed to enjoy the drive every bit as much as I did. But the ride quality -- or lack thereof -- came as a bit of a surprise, with the firmly-sprung Jetta jiggling and joggling over LA's sectional freeways. Oddly enough, it was as comfortable as could be on the bumpiest sections of the Curvy Test Road.

Journey's End: So what about quality?

2008 Volkswagen Jetta left-rear view

2008 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

Photo © Aaron Gold

One issue I haven't discussed is build quality. I have several friends who own late-model VWs; one has had no problems, one has her own private parking space at her dealer's service department, and the rest fall somewhere in between. VWs built in Mexico -- like the Jetta -- seem to fare the worst. It's worth noting, however, that all of my VW-owning friends love their cars, no matter how troublesome they are. My test car felt pretty solidly screwed together, but if I bought a Jetta, I wouldn't plan on the same sort of trouble-free ownership experience one can expect from, say, a Honda.

It's hard to come up with a direct competitor for the Jetta -- few cars offer the same combination of family-friendly cabin, fun-to-drive manner, and brand-name chic. The Nissan Sentra offers generous accommodations and legendary reliability, though it's not as interesting to drive. Mazda approaches the VW's driver appeal, but only in a slightly smaller (Mazda3) or slightly larger (Mazda6) size. The Saab 9-3 shares a lot of the Jetta's appeal; too bad it's priced ten grand higher.

As you can tell, I was really impressed with the Jetta. It turns out that the car I'd perceived as a slightly dull, slightly snobbish family hauler does have a soul after all -- it's just a matter of equipping it right. -- Aaron Gold

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