Seat-Of-The-Pants Review: NCS Volkswagen Jetta

Last week, I had to take my 2007 Rabbit in to the dealership for some warranty work to replace a failing headliner. While I was there, I got my free rental car (since I bought the car there) and for once it wasn’t a run down Mazda 6 or an ultra beige Altima, but a relatively brand new Volkswagen Jetta. Seeing as how I’ve been curious about this car since it came out, it being the first of the newer, cheaper Volkswagens, I decided to seize the opportunity by doing a review. This being an unscientific seat-of-the-pants review, I didn’t do any measuring or take down numerical data on the car, but approached it more as a hands on critique.

When my wife originally persuaded me to make a Volkswagen our then-second car, I was totally against it. I’d always thought of European cars as being too heavy, too complex for their own good (that one I was right about), and worst of all, in my mind, too softly sprung. The Rabbit changed all that. She originally wanted a GTI, but at nearly $30k, we couldn’t afford that. Besides, the Rabbit has some nostalgic value, since my father in law used to own one of the original Rabbits. He now owns the light blue B5 Passat in these pictures and a more recent B6 Passat, in metallic gray.

The Rabbit turned out to be a much more fun car, even just being stock, than I had ever imagined. It corners almost as well as the Mitsubishi Lancer that I recently sold, and that car had Tein coilovers and a Progress rear sway bar with thicker autocross sway bar perches! And the interior, the seats especially, have really won me over as well.

Anyways, you get that I like my Rabbit, on to the review of the newer car. This being based on the Golf, I expected it to live up to the same sort of driving enthusiasm that I’ve grown to love with the Rabbit (which is the same thing as the Mk V Golf in Europe, but with different engine options).

Starting on the outside, when this new Jetta was announced, I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed when I saw the concept. The back end, in particular is just plain butt ugly to me, and there still seems to be no getting around that, other than the fact that if you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re not looking at it.

When I originally saw photos of the front, it seemed a bit dull, but in person, it seems to have grown on me. I still wish the lights had more of a purposeful look to their layout, rather than seeming like an afterthought. The general shape of the front end however, is pleasantly aggressive in person. It’s got quite a bit of overhang. This became immediately obvious when I was backing the car up my driveway and heard the plastic underneath the front end scrape the ground a little.

Little things, like the paint and the door handles seem to still be of high quality. One area that I believe has suffered in the cost cutting is the factory tires. My Rabbit came from the factory with a nice grippy set of Continentals that held a corner very well, despite their relatively short life span (about 35k miles). The new Jetta has Hankooks that don’t really inspire the same confidence in braking and turning ability that the Conti’s did. They take off well, possibly better in fact, although I’m not certain whether that’s the tires or the newer 2.5 liter engine that seems to accelerate a little bit smoother than the earlier generation 2.5 in my car. The steering still feels precise, but the tires just don’t feel like they’ll brake or turn the car as well. I get the feeling that the overly active stability control program would be tripped even more frequently in this car to make up for the tire’s shortcomings. And all of the Golf and GTI owners know what that means, even more frequent rear brake pad changes! Yay… I feel certain that if I were to buy one of these new Jettas, the first thing I’d purchase for it would be a better set of tires.

Once inside the car, the differences from my previous generation Rabbit become much more apparent. The familiar red glowing display has been replaced with a white display that’s more stylish than the previous dot matrix type, but less informative as well. I couldn’t tell you the mileage on the Jetta I drove, because it only displayed the trip odometer. No matter if I pushed what looked like a cheap-feeling reset button or not, it would not display the total miles. I’m sure it’s there, but intuitive it isn’t. Visibility out of the front remains good as it is in the Rabbit and Golfs, but looking out that back window is like looking through a mail slot. The head rests bugged me a little in that they didn’t collapse down onto the seat, like they do in the Rabbit, but just sat there, taking away more rear visibility.

It wouldn’t really be fair for me to compare the basic stereo in this new car with the premium unit in the Rabbit (different trim levels), but I will say this. The sound quality within the cabin has suffered due to the change in interior materials. The dashboard still somewhat looks like it’s made of the same material, albeit a tiny bit shinier, but it is much harder. This hardness amongst the various plastics within the cabin seems to have caused this newer car to have a little bit of an echo inside. I’m not sure why, but Volkswagen has also gotten rid of the lower grab handles that were part of the center console (at least that’s what I used them for). It took me a couple of days to figure what exactly was wrong with the interior materials, other than the hardness, and then I realized that it all reminded me of my old base model Lancer’s interior, which would now be eight years old, not a good benchmark to follow.

This Jetta was a 2.5SE mid range model, with black “leatherette” seats. I had to look that up, because I’d never heard of leatherette. It’s a very realistic leather-like material that supposedly wears better than the real thing. These seats taught me a valuable lesson. Prior to this rental, I’d always scoffed when my wife told me that leather seats were a bad idea. I always thought that it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Well, it turns out that yes, it can be pretty awful, especially in the middle of a record setting summer heat that reaches tripple digits. These seats were so hot in fact, that when I got out of the car, my back felt like it was actually cooler outside than it actually was! Refreshingly cool, in fact.

Back when I was driving the Lancer, I got used to holding myself into the seat by bracing against the door with my leg, in high speed corners. I didn’t really notice that I did this until I drove the Rabbit for a little while and switched back, causing me to nearly fall off the seat in the Lancer while going around a corner. The Rabbits seats really hold you in place, similar to a racing seat, and they are very comfortable and adjustable, which is great on long trips. The Jetta’s thrones however, were another thing that reminded me of the old Lancer. They didn’t look that different in shape from the Rabbit’s seats, but they didn’t deliver anywhere near the planted, comfortable feeling that the Rabbit provided. I’m not sure if it was just the difference in the slipperier leatherette surface vs. the Rabbit’s cloth or the lack of lateral support in the newer seats, maybe both.

My other driving impressions were that despite this newer car having a newer and supposedly higher powered 2.5 liter in line 5 cylinder (170hp vs 150hp in the Rabbit) it doesn’t feel faster at all. Maybe a little smoother, but that was about it. The steering, having a power steering pump rather than the more expensive electric power steering found in the Rabbit, was heavier. I don’t know that I would have noticed that if I didn’t drive a car with electric power steering regularly, but coming from the Rabbit it was a bit of a drag. I’m not sure if it was placebo effect or not, but the drive by wire throttle on the newer car seemed to be smoother and more responsive. The automatic transmission was even more so.

When we got the Rabbit, it was to be used for daily driving status and my wife doesn’t yet know how to drive a stick, so an auto box was needed. Two things that have always bugged me a little with the Rabbit was that the e-throttle was just a little bit slow in launching the car, similar to the old 1.8 Passat’s turbo lag but not as bad, and that made for some harry moments in rush hour traffic when I was first getting used to the Rabbit. The other small gripe being the transmission in the Rabbit is a little bit slow to downshift when you need a little more punch, tiptronic included. I have to double tip the tiptronic to really get it to downshift in a hurry.

The transmission in the Jetta however, seems almost too responsive. It would jump down in gear at the slightest little nudge of the throttle. Half the time it didn’t really feel like it needed to. All things considered, I think I like the slower trans better, despite the added tips. It feels more in control than the “why are you shifting?” feeling I get in the Jetta.

I shot the Jetta, not next to my Rabbit, being that it was in the shop, but next to the older B5 Passat to show how very large this new Jetta is. It’s nearly as large as the old Passat. In person, I thought it was larger, but measurements on the internet disagree, stating that it is ever so slightly shorter (less than 2 inches) in length, about equal in height, and wider than the Passat by about an inch. I also noticed that the trunk in the NCS Jetta appears to be larger than the B5 Passat’s. The size comparison made me wonder why there was a Passat if the Jetta was this large, but then I remembered that in this country there are people who like large cheap cars. They’re not the type to buy Volkswagens, not right now at least (Ford Crown Vic more likely) but this Jetta is the first step in VW’s plan to change that.

In closing, the NCS Jetta is not a bad car, but it’s not necessarily a good one either. Volkswagen seems to have thrown away some of their out-of-the-box handling chops in favor of more sales and that makes me sad. What’s left makes for a very nice rental car, but to own? I think I’d rather look into either a new Focus or something from the Koreans (Kia and Hyundai have caught up). If you’re cash strapped enough to only be able to afford the base Jetta, I’d start looking into either a used one or a used Golf instead. I’m leaning towards the Golf, not because that’s essentially what I drive, but because I’ve heard of far fewer quality problems in the past few years than I have with the previous Jetta. But, that said, I am not a Volkswagen employee, so do not take that as being solid truth, just what I’ve gleaned from what I’ve heard from the owners that I know.


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