PowerSteering: 2016 Volkswagen Jetta Review
Variety is the spice of life, or so the saying goes. And if that’s true, then the 2016 Volkswagen Jetta lineup must be quite spicy, because it offers no fewer than four different engine choices, and that doesn’t include the TDI turbodiesel engine the automaker was forced to shelve until it finds a way to rectify emissions problems.
Sized between traditional compact and midsize models, the Jetta is a roomy car equipped with a large trunk. For 2016, a new engine debuts in the basic S and popular SE trim levels, while the sport-tuned GLI model receives a mild freshening.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this compact sedan and what they liked most and least about it.
J.D. Power research shows that, compared with the compact car segment average, Jetta owners are slightly younger (43 years vs. 49 years segment average) and earn more money ($80,000 vs. $72,719). Additionally, Jetta owners are more interested in performance (15% vs. 9% segment average), preferring a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration (49% vs. 39%). Jetta owners are also less concerned about buying a vehicle from a U.S. company (6% vs. 14% segment average); less concerned about high maintenance costs (56% vs. 64%); and less concerned about fuel economy (28% vs. 34%). They are also less likely to agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (13% vs. 19% segment average).
J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study,SM the Jetta ranks fifth among 19 compact sedans in terms of overall appeal. Owners indicate that their favorite things about the Jetta are (in descending order) exterior styling, driving dynamics, fuel economy, interior design, and the engine/transmission. Owners indicate that their least favorite things about the Jetta are (in descending order) infotainment system, climate control system, visibility and safety, storage and space, and seats.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2016 Jetta performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2015 U.S. APEAL Study.
While the Jetta might not be exciting to behold, the clean and conservative styling certainly has aged well. Add some extra chrome detailing and the larger, more expressive wheel designs of the Jetta’s upper trim levels and this simple sedan takes on a more upscale appearance.
The racy Jetta GLI has altered styling, red trim, and different wheels to set it apart from other Jettas, and it looks great, closer to an Audi than a Volkswagen.
Purposeful and tasteful, the Jetta’s interior takes on a simple and functional appearance, similar to its exterior design.
Fabric-wrapped windshield pillars in material that matches the headliner is one example of VW’s attention to detail, as is the softly padded center armrest, which slides and raises in order to adjust for maximum comfort. Chrome accents, gloss black trim, and additional soft-touch surfaces provide an upscale look in higher trim levels, and buyers benefit from a richer, 2-tone cabin appearance when choosing gray or beige interior colors.
Comfortable and supportive even after hours of driving, the Jetta’s seats impress in comparison to many compact cars. The Jetta SE test vehicle had cloth upholstery with a simple appearance and durable feel. The Jetta GLI test vehicle had Volkswagen’s V-Tex leatherette, which does a good job of mimicking leather. On hot days, however, the leatherette can trap sweat, leading to discomfort and wrinkled clothing.
Climate Control System
Both test cars had a simple 3-dial climate system that proved easy to understand and use. Volkswagen also designs the Jetta for cold-weather climates, offering all but the Jetta S with heated front seats, heated side mirrors, and heated washer jet nozzles. What the car could really use, though, when equipped with leatherette seating, is a seat ventilation system for hot summer days.
New infotainment systems debut for 2016 and could help Volkswagen improve in terms of owner satisfaction and appeal. One is equipped with a 5-in. touch-screen display, the other includes a 6.3-in. touch-screen display. The latter is equipped with App-Connect smartphone-projection technology, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Mirror Link.
A Fender premium sound system is standard for certain Jetta trim levels, including the GLI. It delivered excellent sound across a variety of music types.
Storage and Space
Large door panel bins, a tray forward of the shifter, and a big glove box are the main spots in which to stash your stuff inside of a Jetta. I found the space to be adequate; however, it would be nice if a center storage console were also a part of the standard offering, but not if it would mean losing the sliding and height-adjustable center armrest.
Visibility and Safety
Thin windshield pillars and sizable rectangular side mirrors make it easy to see out of the Jetta. Reversing almost requires the back-up camera, which is optional for the Jetta S and standard on other trim levels. This car needs one because the trunk is tall, making it tough to gauge distance to objects when reversing without the camera.
The Jetta SE includes Car-Net subscription services. Safety-related features include automatic collision notification, emergency SOS calling, and both vehicle-speed and boundary alerts. Also, depending on the trim level, a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert is available.
Notably, the Jetta is heavier than most of its competitors, and heavier vehicles do a better job of protecting their occupants in a collision. As far as official safety ratings are concerned, the Jetta earns a 5-star (out of 5) overall rating from the federal government and a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). When equipped with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking, the IIHS rating improves to a highest-possible “Top Safety Pick+.”
For 2016, Volkswagen has replaced its aged, 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with a new turbocharged, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. The difference between the two engines is dramatic, and makes choosing the most affordable versions of the Jetta appealing for more reasons than simply price. Standard in both the Jetta S and the Jetta SE, the new engine makes 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 184 lb.-ft. of torque starting at just 1,400 rpm. A 5-speed manual gearbox remains standard, with a 6-speed automatic transmission an option.
Exclusive for the Jetta GLI, a turbocharged, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generates 210 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 207 lb.-ft. of torque beginning at 1,700 rpm. This engine is paired with a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which is an automated manual transmission.
Both engines supply a broad torque curve that helps to make them feel powerful and responsive through the rev range. These traits are also characteristic of the turbocharged, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine used in the Sport, SEL, and SEL Premium versions.
A relatively sophisticated gas-electric hybrid powertrain is also offered for the 2016 Jetta, but only in the most expensive SEL Premium trim level. That gives the Jetta Hybrid the highest base price of any Jetta variant, at $31,940.
According to the EPA, the 2016 Jetta SE with a 6-speed automatic transmission should return 32 mpg in combined driving. During my test drive on a short, hilly test route, the car averaged 28.4 mpg.
Similarly, when driven on my standard test route, the Jetta GLI fell short of estimates. The EPA predicts 27 mpg in combined driving with the standard manual transmission, and the GLI got 23.4 mpg. To be fair to the car, though, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and wringing the engine for all it was worth.
Unquestionably, the Jetta’s new base engine represents a huge improvement over the previous 2.0-liter. Some turbo lag is evident right when launching the car, but it doesn’t take long for the torque to kick in and produce decent acceleration. With the 6-speed automatic transmission, a Sport driving mode further enlivens response.
While the Jetta SE delivers a fairly soft and compliant ride, the car nevertheless handles with a nimble, confidence-inspiring, Euro-inspired feel. Over the past several years, Volkswagen has been steadily improving the Jetta, especially the more affordable versions, which now include 4-wheel-disc brakes and a 4-wheel-independent suspension.
Release the GLI’s clutch, and once the tachometer needle swings past 1,500 rpm, this version of the Jetta feels like it has a limitless well of smooth, eager, abundant power. The shifter is a pleasure to use, and while Volkswagen could stand to dial back on the GLI’s excessive vertical body motions when traveling rumpled roads at a substantial clip, this car is a delight to drive hard and fast. After all, it is basically a VW GTI in a 4-door sedan body style.
Volkswagen infuses Germanic driving dynamics into all versions of the Jetta, helping appeal to drivers who value such things. The new standard engine resolves the single most significant dynamic flaw of the car, and should certainly help the Jetta to continue winning car buyers who love to drive.
Though this car is aging—its design is now half a decade old—Volkswagen has continuously updated the Jetta. For 2016, the automaker adds new infotainment and safety systems, addressing two areas where owners believe improvement is necessary. If Volkswagen could find a way to carve out more interior storage space and upgrade the climate control system, Jetta owners would have little left about which to complain.
Volkswagen of America supplied the vehicles used for this 2016 Volkswagen Jetta review.
For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.