In Canada, where affordable small cars of Japanese and South Korean origin are thick on the ground, the Volkswagen Jetta has been a popular choice among consumers wishing to drive something a little different.
With its precise road manners, robust construction and boffo interior, the Jetta has long provided a step up in breeding and character compared to other affordable compacts. The tradeoffs have been a higher price and, as previous-generation Jettas have shown, questionable reliability.
According to J.D. Power’s vehicle dependability studies, which survey some 40,000 original owners of three-year-old models, Volkswagen perennially ranked near the bottom of the quality index along with other stalwarts of lumpy quality, including Jeep, Mini and Land Rover.
It’s sobering news for an automaker that touts German engineering as some kind of panacea. The corporate boast didn’t escape the wrath of some owners.
“At 19,000 km, the high pressure fuel pump blew up. That was bad enough for a one-year-old car, but then it did it again at 37,000 km,” wrote a fretful owner online, noting the warranty claim to rebuild the turbodiesel engine added up to $7,500.
Assembled by Mexican robots, the fifth-generation Jetta went on sale in the U.S. prior to any other country in spring 2005, highlighting the importance of the American market to the model’s success.
The new-for-2006 Jetta was 17 cm longer overall, 3 cm wider and had a wheelbase 7 cm longer than the outgoing model – almost all of it dedicated to enhancing rear legroom.
One major change to the front-drive sedan was the introduction of a multilink independent rear suspension that was almost identical in design to the one used in the Ford Focus (VW reportedly recruited the same Ford engineers).
Playing its safety card to competitive advantage, every Jetta came with standard antilock four-wheel disc brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, front side airbags and curtain airbags.
Nowhere did the Jetta telegraph its upmarket aspirations better than in its furnishings. The new interior featured tight tolerances and low-gloss plastics. The nicely sculpted seats were mounted high and the classy cabin showed off a two-tone instrument panel and eye-pleasing lighting.
Choice of powertrains
Unfortunately, the enlarged Jetta had gained 130 kg. To lug that extra mass around, VW specified an inline five-cylinder engine for the base model – essentially one-half of Lamborghini’s 5.0-litre V-10.
But if drivers were hoping for half of the Lambo’s 493 horsepower, that’s where the similarities end. The Jetta 2.5 made a measly 150 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque.
For the high-zoot GLI model, engineers tapped the corporate 200-hp, 2.0-litre turbocharged four with direct fuel injection. The gasoline spray’s cooling effect on combustion permitted a relatively high compression ratio of 10.3:1. The TDI retained its familiar 1.9-L turbodiesel four-cylinder engine, good for 100 horsepower.
A five-speed manual transmission was standard, while a six-speed automatic with a manual shift gate was optional. The TDI got Volkswagen’s Sequential Manual Transmission, a manual gearbox with no clutch pedal that could also emulate an automatic. A six-speed manual stick accompanied the 2.0T.
The TDI model went on hiatus in 2007 as the U.S. government tightened its diesel emissions standards and VW had not yet released its urea-based NOX scrubber.
The 2008 Jetta 2.5 squeezed more power out of its five-banger, gaining 20 horses for a total of 170 horsepower, and Volkswagen released a wagon version that proved popular.
VW unveiled its common-rail 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel in late 2008, a spinoff of the BlueTec joint venture with Mercedes-Benz. It made 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of stump-pulling torque – 40 more horsepower and 59 additional lb-ft of grunt compared to the previous 1.9-L diesel.
The 2010 models earned a refreshed instrument panel and cabin trim, a new climate control system and a new radio and interface with Bluetooth connectivity.
Driving the Jetta
Most drivers found the Jetta’s ride to be firm and well controlled. Handling is its strong suit, with quick and precise steering and minimal body roll.
The base 2.5 model was scarcely a ‘bahn burner, with a zero-to-97 km/h time of 9.2 seconds with the six-speed Tiptronic automatic (it was a second quicker with the five-speed manual).
The GLI with the 2.0-litre turbo gasoline engine was considerably swifter, taking just 6.8 seconds to reach highway velocity.
The old-tech TDI took 10.3 seconds, thanks to its prodigious 177 lb-ft of torque and optional six-speed, dual-clutch direct shift gearbox.
Where the Jetta fell down, at least in base form, was its disappointing fuel consumption. The oddball five-cylinder engine was fond of gasoline, owners griped.
Drivers praised the Jetta for its class-leading steering, braking and handling, which largely outshone its competitors. The fifth generation Jetta had upped the refinement and appointments to entry-luxury-car levels.
But it’s reliability that was always top of mind for second-hand buyers. The most unsettling find in our scan of owners’ posts was the Jetta 2.0T’s tendency to consume oil.
“I recently realized it guzzles oil like crazy. I added over two quarts of oil before finally getting a reading on the stick,” posted an owner who got reacquainted with the dipstick. Those who have pushed the issue with their dealer have had their piston rings replaced under warranty.
The Jetta was also hard on its brakes, say owners, with pad-and-rotor replacement coming early, and sometimes at the rear wheels before the front, a function of the car’s stability program.
Other complaints centre on the Jetta’s troublesome electrical system, errant sensors, bad transmissions and turbos, poor paint and lousy radios. Don’t skip timing-belt replacement.
The 2009 and newer TDIs have a high pressure fuel pump that ends o disintegrates due to contaminated diesel fuel, requiring thorough rehabilitation of the engine. In addition, diesel owners grumble that the fuel savings are eaten up by the TDI’s pricey maintenance schedule.
“The diesel needs servicing every 10k and the DSG needs servicing every 60k,” wrote an owner online. “The money I saved in fuel economy is given back to VW in the form of outrageously expensive service calls.”
2006-2010 Volkswagen Jetta Summary:
Pros: Crisp handler, Audi-esque interior; European badge value
Cons: Thirsty five-cylinder, smallish back seat, expensive parts and maintenance
Watch out for: Oil consumption by 2.0T, HPFP failures in TDI, lurchy auto transmission, electrical faults, poor air conditioners