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The new-for-2019 Volkswagen Jetta is good example of a car type that’s unfairly falling out of favor: the practical, everyday, compact non-crossover four-door sedan. Also, it’s one of the few cars like this you can still get with a manual, and that feels good.

(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen wanted me to drive the new Jetta with such a burning desire that it held its launch event about 20 minutes from where I live. That may have been a coincidence. I just drove my Pao over there and ate some free food.) 

I’m pretty sure the Jetta was a car born from America’s weird prejudice against hatchbacks. To be able to sell Rabbits to people who cringe at the idea of throwing their luggage into a convenient rear door, VW grafted a trunk onto the butt of the Rabbit/Golf and thus the Jetta came to be.

Interestingly, the Jetta is known by a bewildering variety of names across the world: Bora, Voyage, Sagitar, Vento, Atlantic, Fox and there’s a sort-of-modified one called the Lavida.

This latest generation of Jetta is the seventh one, and Volkswagen brought out an early ’80s first-gen example so we could see just how huge and sleek the new one is in comparison. I remember these first Jettas very well. My friend in high school had a diesel one, one of the few cars so slow I could easily dust him in my Beetle.

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Those first Jettas are sort of awkward-looking, but in a way I now find charming. They feel so open and airy, and the trunk in those things is bizarrely huge, considering the small size of the overall car. It’s very literally three boxes.

What’s Different?

The 2019 Jetta is no longer a Golf-derivative, but is now built on the same MQB platform that almost all VWs share.

If you’re like most humans, you probably can’t exactly recall what the last Jetta looked like or how much it differs from the newest one, so here’s a handy slide to help!

Ohhh, right! It does look sort of different! That chrome monobrow is new, for example. And, it’s a good bit more aerodynamic, a tiny bit bigger in all exterior dimensions, but a tiny bit smaller in legroom, so, you know, wear thinner socks.

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This isn’t just a facelift; it’s an all-new car. But it’s still an evolutionary all-new car, so don’t be disappointed that it’s not a radical re-thinking of the segment. Volkswagen isn’t trying to make a practical Renault Avantime for America, it just want to sell some damn cars. And I think this new Jetta may be a decent way to do that.

How’s It Look?

The new Jetta is an improvement over the previous generation Jetta, and it’s a fairly handsome car in a sort of normal, restrained way that makes even this newest one pretty easy to lose in any parking lot.

Color selection goes a long way here: the Jetta comes in the usual soporific palette of whites, grays, silver, other grays, blacks, and some grayish colors, but VW is also offering some real color as well: red, blue, a green that, if we’re honest, looks like another gray coated with a bit of algae, and, my favorite one, a nice bold orange color.

I think the car looks much better in a color. Here, look at this picture of a gray one:

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Now look at the orange one:

It feels like the neutrals just push the design to anonymity, but in color it forces you to pay attention and actually look at the details that make the design work.

A strong point of the design is the prominent character line that runs from the upper edge of the taillight units, across the side of the body, incorporating the door handles, and terminating at the little badge thing VW’s people told me is called a “flitzer.”

Here’s a closeup of the flitzer on the R-Line car I drove:

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Look at that flitzer, flitzing away. I suspect in some markets this may be replaced with an indicator repeater lamp.

Like pretty much every other new car in the world, the grille has grown bigger and wider. There are more creases and sharp lines everywhere (most notably on the hood, which has sported almost as many ripples as an early 2CV), but the proportions are good, and I think the car is handsome in an understated sort of way.

The chrome bar across the upper part of the grille, the monobrow-like thing there, is a new design element for VW, though every time I see it I’m reminded of the new Accord:

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Oh, one thing I was pleased to see is that Volkswagen has gone back to using amber for the rear turn indicators in their taillights, something we haven’t seen since my favorite generation of Jetta, the fourth generation.

It’s subtle, but it’s there—that lowest rectangle, beneath the taillight ellipsis there, is an amber rear directional light.

Overall, the look is an improvement. It’s more aerodynamic, but it’s still going to effectively blend into the greater mass of cars, especially if you get it in some boring color.

What’s Inside?

The interior isn’t bad at all; the materials feel decent, in general, the seats (which can now be had both heated, cooled, and, if you’re so inclined to do it yourself, moistened) are comfortable, and most of the controls make sense and are easy to use.

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There are some annoyances, like the lowness of the center vents, which always seem to be blowing in places that make you feel funny, and Volkswagen’s strange insistence on molding into the upper dash rubber a fake stitch line, something I usually associate with mid-’80s Cimarrons and Chevettes.

Look at that fake stitching. Luckily, this looks to be a great part to bite.

One other thing about this rubber hood over the instrument binnacle, though: the leading edge of it is just the right firmness and texture to be really satisfying to bite. The old Volvo headrest may finally have met its match.

Since we’re talking about the instruments, I should mention something about Volkswagen that baffles me. While these cars have a full-panel, full-color LCD instrument panel option that looks quite nice, the base-level instrument cluster has a little center LCD screen that’s just monochrome.

The overall cluster looks and works well, but I don’t understand how VW is still using these monochrome displays. I’ve been in rental Nissan Sentras with full-color displays here; can these really be saving them that much money?

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The VW family has always had a thing for the monochrome display—I remember seeing one in a Bugatti Veyron, even. Maybe the company’s sitting on a few warehouses full of these things. It’s not a big deal, but it is a bit baffling.

The upholstery color in the R-Line car I was in was happily not all black, featuring some nice white accent panels. There’s a good number of usable cubbies and storage pockets, and the child-seat latches are the best possible kind: easy to find, easy to use, even if you had a squirming little toddler in full bonkers mode around.

Also nice is the panoramic sunroof option, which I think should come standard to any country Volkswagen sells to that regularly experiences auroras.

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The trunk is a pretty cavernous volume with a nice flat floor. If you had a 450-pound housecat, I bet it could curl up and sleep in there no problem.

How’s It Drive?

First, and perhaps most importantly for the broad target demographic of this car, this is a very easy car to drive. It’s undemanding and pretty much does what you want it to, with comparatively minimal input. Its handling is decent, with a steering feel that, while not exactly engaging, is communicative of what’s going on on the road.

What I did find I liked about the car in particular is the engine, which is interesting because it’s a good bit smaller than you’d expect for a car of this size: 1.4-liters.

The engine is Volkswagen’s relatively new EA211, a four-cylinder turbocharged machine that makes a pretty ho-hum if adequate 147 horsepower, but a more impressive 184 lb-ft of torque. Those 184 purple nurples of twist come at a relatively low 1,800 RPM, so the car actually feels quite quick.

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This is VW’s new global four-cylinder engine, and it’s pretty interesting. It uses a combined cylinder head/intake manifold thing, there’s versions of it that can do cylinder deactivation, a crazy thing in a four-banger, though that’s not the case in our American Jetta.

That 1.4 does manage to get a very respectable 30 mpg city, 40 highway, 34 combined, though, and it much quieter and smoother than you’d expect an engine like this to be. There may have been some turbo lag, but I didn’t notice anything jarring, either.

Worth The Money?

This new Jetta is cheaper than the outgoing one, and offers a lot more stuff besides. The base model with a six-speed, make-God-smile three-pedal manual starts at $18,545. That’s pretty much on par with the competition like the Honda Civic, though to get the eight-speed automatic, it’ll cost you $19,345.

You do get a lot of stuff for the money, though. Here, you can see for yourself:

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The highlights here are that even the base models come with a decent set of toys, like automatic headlights, post-collision braking system (which sounds like something that’s sort of too late) and Apple Carplay/Android Auto, and going up to the $22,155 SE or R-Line gets you blind spot monitoring, and then going up from there to the $24,415 SEL or the $26,945 SEL Premium gets all the driver’s aid stuff like lane keep assist and adaptive cruise and all that lazy-driver stuff.

Look what I found in the woods

The Jetta looks and feels like a reasonably premium car to people who aren’t necessarily gearheads, and I know that’s important for many of the potential buyers here. It’s a decent value, at least competitive with the segment.

Oh, and a big part of VW’s presentation involved the inclusion of the Beats By Dre audio system. They think that’ll really be the hook to get those sweet, sweet young-people dollars, I think.

The presentation for the Beats integration went on long enough that I felt like VW had made an effective gas-powered transport system for a Beats audio setup, and, if you want, you can take yourself and three friends places in it, too.

After that, I pretty much forgot about it.

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Did I Mention There’s A Manual?

For our readers, this could be the real hook of the car: It’s one of the few non-premium four-door sedans you can still get with a stick shift. VW only had one for us to try, and by the time I got my slot to try it out, something had gone wrong, so I never got to drive it. I’m guessing a fellow auto journalist burned out the clutch, because that’s how we roll, you know.

Even without having had a chance to drive it, a manual Jetta is the one I’d be most interested in. Hopefully we’ll get to try one soon and see if the somewhat staid nature of the car is transformed when you’re working your own gears.

Verdict

It’s better than the last Jetta was, and I think it delivers what Jetta buyers want, at a reasonable balance of price to what you get. Sedans are getting ignored at the moment, so I’m glad to see they’re still around, because for a lot of people, it’s a kind of car that makes sense, especially if they still have the brain problem that makes them not like hatchbacks or wagons.

I like the engine, it’s easy to drive, looks pretty good. I’m not sure I can work up that much excitement about the new Jetta, if I’m honest, but it seems to be a good car for its intended job.

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Full Disclosure

I should say something to put my lack of enthusiasm in perspective. While trying to convince a VW PR person that the MQB platform could be used to build a new Thing/Type 181 and/or a new Fridolin, he told me I’d be one of the worst automotive product planners imaginable.

So, keep that in mind when considering my criticisms.

Correction: An earlier version of this review featured a graphic of a three-cylinder VW engine. The 2019 Jetta has a four-cylinder VW engine. We regret the error.