2021 VW Jetta Review

In just a few years from now, VW says it will only be selling electric cars. Currently, it is one of the few companies selling cars at all.

Most of the rest are selling almost nothing but crossovers and SUVs.

VW also sells a car called the Jetta that has something else that you can’t find anywhere else in a car like the Jetta—a third pedal and a clutch.

What It Is   

The Jetta is a very affordably priced compact-sized sedan that can serve as a family sedan because it is almost a mid-sized sedan in terms of its interior spaciousness and the size of its trunk.

It is also the only sedan left in the class that is still available with a manual transmission, and not exclusively in the more expensive “sport” (GLI) version, either.

Prices start at $18,995 for the base S trim, which comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission and a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. You can opt for an eight-speed automatic, which bumps the sticker price up to $19,795.

But you don’t have to.

The R-Line, which is fitted with larger (17 inch) wheels, dual exhaust tips, fog lights, piano black trim, and an electronically controlled limited slip differential, is also available with the manual ($22,795) or the automatic ($23,595).

SEL ($25,745) and SEL Premium ($28,045) trims come exclusively with the automatic.

There is also the Jetta GLI, which comes with a larger 2.0-liter engine and either the six-speed manual ($26,345) or a seven-speed automated manual ($27,145) that has a clutch but no stick. These also get VW’s Digital Cockpit, which replaces the analog instrument panel with a configurable flat screen, along with a secondary LCD display for the infotainment systems.

What’s New

Base trims come standard with new two-tone wheels; SEL and higher get the latest version of VW’s MIB3 infotainment system.

What’s Good

  • The stick puts some fun back into driving, and some economy.
  • Nearly as spacious as more expensive (and automatic-only) mid-sized cars.
  • Available with higher-end features for not as high cost.

What’s Not So Good

  • This is probably one of the last cars VW will offer with a manual transmission or an internal combustion engine, for that matter.
  • Top-of-the-line Beats radio is excellent, but the tap/swipe controls can be frustrating to use.
  • Some pushy “safety” systems (e.g., headlights-on when the car thinks they should be on).

Under The Hood

Every Jetta except the GLI comes with the same 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

It features and air-to-water heat exchanger (rather than an intercooler) and produces 147 horsepower and 184 ft.-lbs. of torque. That’s a bit less than what comes standard in other models in the class, like the Mazda3, which comes with a larger, 2.0-liter engine that makes 150 horsepower and which you can order with an even larger, 2.5-liter engine that makes as much as 250 horsepower. But you can’t get any of the Mazda’s engines with anything other than an automatic transmission.

It’s the same as regards the other big kahuna in this class, the Honda Civic sedan, which is not only automatic-only it is CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic only.

Many people who don’t mind automatics do mind CVT automatics, which can be noisy, sometimes don’t feel “right,” and have a not-so-great track record for being less reliable than conventional automatics that shift through gears rather than vary through ranges.

The Jetta’s standard available (in more than just one trim) manual transmission also lets you make the most of the power the 1.4-liter engine produces since you control the shifting, not a computer.

Interestingly, the manual-equipped Jetta rates higher gas mileage numbers than the automatic (and CVT automatic) only competition, a very impressive 30 city, 41 highway. This is also as good as and even better than the mileage figures posted by many subcompact-sized economy cars; for example, the current Hyundai Accent sedan, which rates 29 city, 39 highway with its six-speed manual transmission.

Also interestingly, the manual-equipped Jetta’s mileage numbers are higher than the automatic-equipped Jetta’s rated 29 city, 39 highway.

What makes this even more interesting is that manual-equipped Jetta saves you money as well as gas.

You pay $800 more up front, which means (if you buy this version of the Jetta) you’ll have $800 more in your pocket to spend on gas. Since the Jetta takes about 14 gallons of gas, that amounts to about 20 tanksful of gas (at $3 per gallon) that didn’t cost you anything extra.

The manual is also less likely to cost you extra down the road because manuals tend to last longer than automatics (and CVT automatics). This is a function of the manual transmission being a simpler, mechanical device without a lot of electronic devices attached to it.

And if you want a lot more power, there is always the Jetta GLI, which comes with a 2.0-liter, 228 horsepower turbocharged engine.

The six-speed manual is standard. Optional is a seven-speed automated manual.

But the bottom line is, if you simply prefer to shift for yourself, the Jetta is in a class by itself.

On The Road

Cars have never had as much power and been so lacking in personality as they are today. Put it in drive, push down on the gas pedal, and try to stay awake.

Electric cars will accelerate this process because they don’t have engines or transmissions. They have electric motors. And motors are fundamentally all the same. No more difference as between an in-line and a flat four; a V6 and a V8.

Instead, a shaft that spins inside a housing. Bigger or smaller. The power output varies but their characteristics not much. And in electric cars, the motors usually drive the wheels directly, without any intermediary, without a transmission of any kind–so there’s nothing much for the driver to do except increase or decrease speed, like you do with a variable speed electric drill.

It is almost a shock to see a shifter (not a gear selector, which is a button of some kind that you push) standing proudly at attention in between the seats. And it is a reminder once you’ve fired ‘er up and are shifting through the gears, yourself, you remember how fun it is to drive when you have something to do, besides put it in Drive and push on the gas pedal.

It is particularly fun in a car with a small engine that makes whatever power it makes at higher RPM, because you can more finely control the engine–revving it into and keeping it within its powerband. And with this engine, you also have an abundance of low-end torque because of the close-coupled turbo, which breathes life into the little engine such that its peak output of 184 ft.-lbs. is at your command at just 1,400 RPM. You must drive the Jetta to appreciate what the numbers don’t convey.

It punches above its weight.

It also gets even better gas mileage than the numbers say.

This, too, is something you must drive to experience and believe. If you know how to shift, you can exceed the advertised 41 MPG on the highway. I know because I did. Not hugely, but still. It’s damned impressive. This car achieves near-hybrid highway mileage without the hybrid ‘Ing.

I’s also a lot of fun!

There is another item worth mentioning about driving the Jetta, which is the view from behind the wheel, which is expansive, because of the Jetta’s long but downward sloping hoodline. The road ahead is much more “there” and that makes dancing through the curves even more fun.

That’s the standard Jetta with the 1.4-engine. With the GLI engine, you can also make tracks in the straights while chirping the tires on the upshifts.

At The Curb

By the numbers, the Jetta is a compact-sized sedan. Well, by some of the numbers.

It is 185.1 inches long, which is about the same length as rivals in the class like the Mazda3 sedan (which is 183.5 inches long). But have a look at some more relevant numbers:

The VW has 37.4 inches of backseat legroom and a 14.1 cubic foot trunk as opposed to the Mazda’s 35.1 inches of backseat legroom and its 13.2 cubic foot trunk. The Honda Civic, which is smaller overall than either of them and has a little bit more backseat legroom (37.4 inches) and a slightly larger (15.1 cubic foot) trunk, but it costs significantly more ($21,050 to start) and it costs you the fun of shifting for yourself.

The more relevant statistics stack-up may be Jetta vs. a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, or other mid-sized family sedans. The Camry, for instance, is a much larger car in terms of its length (192.7 inches) but not appreciably more spacious inside (38 inches of backseat legroom) and has a trunk only nominally larger (15.1 cubic feet). But the Camry’s base price is $25,045, which amounts to a difference of $6,050.

Now, the Camry is a very nice car. There is a reason it has been one of the best-selling cars, ever. But this Jetta makes a very persuasive case for itself, if you’re looking for a more affordable car that’s not a much smaller car — and that’s also a more fun-to-drive car than an automatic-only car like the Camry (and Accord, which is no longer offered with a manual, either).

The Jetta also offers some expensive-car amenities in a less expensive package. For example, the full LCD Digital Cockpit, which include both the main instrument panel and the secondary panel for the (excellent) 400-watt, 9 speaker Beats audio system — both of which you can get in the more affordable SE and R-Line trims as opposed to being limited to the more expensive SEL and SEL Premium. And even those trims both sticker for well under $30k, which is about $5k less than the average transaction price paid for a mid-sized family sedan like the Camry or the Accord.

Of course, like all new cars, the new Jetta comes standard with pretty much every amenity and feature that is necessary for civilized driving, including (of course) AC, power windows and locks, plus modern necessities such as multiple USB ports, Bluetooth wireless and a good stereo to play your music through, wirelessly.

But what makes it exceptional is how inexpensive it is, and how much more fun it is, for less than the rest.

The Rest

VW is generally good regarding ease-of-use of controls and there are easy-to-use knobs for things like the climate controls, volume control and the radio tuning control. But in the case of the higher trim Jettas with the Beats system you must work your way through a Byzantine touch/tap/swipe system that’s not the easiest-to-use until you get used to using it and even then, it could be easier to use.

Technology can dazzle in the showroom, but it sometimes doesn’t work as well as simpler, if less dazzling, technology like a knob you turn or a button you push. On the other hand, the glass-facing is handsome and the ability to shift for yourself, priceless.

The Bottom Line   

VW won’t be making cars like this Jetta for very much longer and almost no one else is making them, right now.

So, if you’d like to own a new car like this before they stop making cars like this, make a beeline for the last place that’s still selling them.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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