Compact cars comprise the largest passenger-car segment in the country in terms of both sales and number of competitors. The Volkswagen Jetta has always been a player in the class and it's the most popular model from the VW brand.
It may reside mid-pack in terms of sales but, when equipped with a diesel engine, it's among the chart-toppers, including hybrids, in terms of fuel efficiency.
Introduced in 2011, the current Jetta got a mid-cycle refresh for 2015 with some minor visual and feature updates as well as a new diesel engine.
Plenty of choice
The 2015 Jetta is available in three trim levels with three engines and three transmissions. The price progression from $15,000 to twice that amount spans Trendline, Comfortline and Highline models with normally aspirated 2.0-litre, turbocharged and supercharged 1.8-litre gasoline engines, or a 2.0-litre turbo diesel available.
They are paired with a five-speed manual or one of two six-speed automatics a conventional torque-converter version or a dual shaft unit.
The front and rear clips – the visible panels and pieces that make up the bumpers and incorporate the grille, head- and tail-lights – are new.
No new metal was bent in this mild transformation and only hard core VW followers and current Jetta owners will be able to tell the difference. But when parked alongside one another the new model does appear wider and more contemporary.
All trim levels get LED running/daytime lights as has become common throughout the industry. Upper trim levels also get bi-xenon headlights for additional sparkle during the day and visibility at night.
Spruced up interior
The interior has been spruced up with a new instrument panel and the use of piano black (shiny plastic), brushed aluminum or chrome trim in some locations.
Bigger changes reside where you can't see them, including Bluetooth connectivity which is standard across all trim levels, as are a rear view camera and touchscreen satellite radio. VW has lagged the industry in terms of connectivity and electronic features so these are welcome additions.
Additional technical features include an array of safety items including blind-spot, front collision and rear cross traffic alerts and park distance sensors – most of which appear on higher trim levels.
On the convenience and enjoyment my top-level test vehicle also boasted a navigation system and Fender audio systems. The screen for the navigation is very small but the sound from the Fender system is crisp and clean.
The front seats feel slightly stiff at first, but I came to appreciate them after lengthy sessions at the wheel. The rear seat is especially roomy for a car in this class and in addition to plenty of comfort and space for four, the Jetta has an exceptionally large trunk.
New diesel engine
We are looking at the TDi model so the new diesel engine gets the prize for the biggest year-over-year improvement. Diesels comprise almost one-third of VW sales in Canada and much more in other global markets so changes here are big news.
While it shares the same bore, stroke and displacement as the outgoing engine, the new EA288 2.0-litre unit has come in for some serious re-engineering in search of even greater efficiency.
Torque remains the same at 236 lb-ft but power has climbed from 140 to 150 horsepower. Those numbers may not impress, but the devil is in the details.
This turbocharged, intercooled, direct-injection four-cylinder gets a host of enhancements aimed at improving efficiency – burning the fuel more completely and leaving fewer emissions behind.
A number of the changes are aimed at reducing friction. They include low-friction bearings for the cam and balance shafts as well as changes to the piston rings and oil pump.
The intercooler is now closely integrated with the intake manifold for improved throttle response and the exhaust after-treatment components are integrated with the exhaust manifold to reduce cold start emissions. Injection pressure has been boosted from 1600 to 2000 bar through new injectors.
Thanks to all those things and the addition of an AdBlue exhaust treatment system, this new diesel now exceeds North American Bin 5 and Euro 6 emission requirements.
Smoother and quieter
One would have to drive new and old engines back-to-back to notice the ten additional horses but the refinement of this new engine is instantly recognizable. It is smoother and quieter but emits the same gravelly sound when pressed.
The instant grunt at the merest mention of throttle input, a common characteristic of turbocharged diesels, remains its biggest single bragging point. Climbing hills and passing are effortless maneuvers and, because maximum power arrives at just 1,750 rpm, changing gears to put the engine into its power place is rarely necessary.
On that front, the six-speed DSG automatic is a perfect companion to the torquey four, always in the right gear for the occasion.
Frosting on the cake
The frosting on this cake, the feature that makes it so terrific for long-distances in addition to the fuel sipping engine and spacious interior, is its suspension.
Gone are the brittle ride and rudimentary beam-type rear suspension of the past. Planted yet nimble, the new Jetta remains supple under most conditions, absorbing imperfections with ease, but without feeling too soft.
Long distance is the key to ringing the maximum out of diesel ownership. The uber-tough engine is more expensive to produce and thus more expense to buy and diesel fuel is (sometimes) more expensive than gasoline so both these factors mitigate against the compression-ignition engine.
But it does get remarkable fuel economy. I averaged 6.3 L/100 km over several hundred kilometres of mixed highway/city driving, witnessing 4.8 and 4.9 on occasion on the highway in extreme cold winter conditions.
Those numbers can't be matched with most hybrids, which tend to be more expensive to purchase and least efficient on the highway.
Volkswagen has sold more than 14 million Jettas globally since it was introduced in 1979. A few minutes or kilometres with 2015 model will tell you why.
Model: 2015 Volkswagen Jetta Highline TDI
Price: $29,690 base; $32,185 as tested, including freight.
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged, four-cylinder diesel, 150-horsepower, 236 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch automatic
Fuel consumption (city/highway): 7.5 /5.3 L/100 km
Length: 4,659 mm
Width: 1,778 mm
Wheelbase: 2,651 mm
Mass: 1,470 kg
Competitors: Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla