The Volkswagen Jetta is a compact car offered in a variety of models and body styles. The sedan received a controversial redesign for 2011 that included cheaper interior materials, less sophisticated technologies, and a lower starting price. It adds a sportier turbocharged GLI model for 2012 that reclaims some of that lost content. The wagon soldiers on with the previous design, though ironically that offers some advantages.
The base price is a mere $16,495 MSRP for the 2012 Jetta S, using a single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 115 horsepower, with a 5-speed manual transmission standard and an optional 6-speed automatic. That engine is somewhat archaic, however.
A better value is the 2012 Jetta SE for $18,495, which brings the five-cylinder 2.5-liter engine making 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, while getting almost the same fuel economy.
The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine is a Volkswagen stalwart, providing good power for the Jetta's needs. It accelerates from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds with the 6-speed automatic, and powers the Jetta to a top speed of 127 mph, so there's plenty in reserve. It's EPA rated at a Combined 26 mpg, and we got between 23 and 28 mpg during our two-day test drive of nearly 500 miles in two Jetta SEL models, one with each transmission. We prefer the automatic, because the transmission is so good.
The sport mode for the optional 6-speed automatic transmission is sharp and effective. We used it in city driving, where it responded crisply on San Francisco's hills, and in slow-and-go freeway traffic, where it kept the transmission in third gear rather than upshifting and downshifting all the time. Manual mode can be used for spirited driving times, when you want to do the shifting yourself. It can only be shifted through the gearshift; paddle shifters are neither available nor necessary. In manual mode, the transmission is programmed well, responsive and obedient.