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Review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE sedan (fifth place)

The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE feels roomy and solid, and even has the shape and proportions of a bigger midsize sedan.
The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE feels roomy and solid, and even has the shape and proportions of a bigger midsize sedan.
Brady Holt

This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Jetta is ranked in fifth place of eleven.

The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta offers big-car feel at kind-of-small-car prices.
The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta offers big-car feel at kind-of-small-car prices.
Brady Holt

The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta is the midsize sedan of the compact class. From its shape and proportions to its interior volume to its driving dynamics to its fuel efficiency and price, it seems to be one size larger than the other cars in this comparison, despite being within a fraction of an inch of the Toyota Corolla in every dimension.

It feels like a pretty good midsize sedan, to be clear. It rides comfortably and quietly and has decently agile handling by the high standards of compact cars. The rear seat doesn't fit three across easily, but the Jetta otherwise beats even some larger sedans for its passenger space and comfort. And while gas mileage slightly trails the norm of this class, at 29 mpg in mixed driving, it's not that far off. And its price tag of about $2,000 more than most comparably equipped competitors – while not insignificant – isn't unjustifiable, as it still comfortably undercuts most midsize models.

But the Jetta, which dates to the 2011 model year, is showing its age in some areas. Some will find the styling plain inside and out. Cabin trim is nothing fancy, especially given the price. Crash-test results aren't outstanding against today's standards.

And of course if you're searching for a compact car because you like the value and efficiency of a compact car, the Jetta's strengths may not mean the most to you. Despite improved fuel economy for 2014, and despite two years of free scheduled maintenance, this Volkswagen costs more than most competitors to buy and run.

Sometimes feels expensive

Since its release, the Jetta has felt like something more than an economy car, thanks to its smooth, quiet ride; decently sophisticated handling; and spacious cabin. Yet despite its investment in the car's driving dynamics, and its potential market positioning as an alternative to a midsize sedan, Volkswagen spent relatively little on the car's interior.

Part of the issue is Volkswagen's preference for clean, simple design that can border on drab. But the company had made a point of using top-quality materials, indeed helping to pioneer the idea of a luxury feel in the economy class. But as part of the 2011 redesign, that was largely lost as a cost-savings measure. It's not as horrible as some reviewers have made it seem, but the Jetta's cabin trim can be best described as serviceable inside rather than plush or stylish. The gray dashboard is brightened by a few pieces of false aluminum trim, including around the vents, to decent effect.

The instrument panel is ergonomically sound, with straightforward controls. The tested Jetta SE “Connectivity” model includes a touchscreen infotainment system with muted graphics but large, functional displays. Unlike most competitors, Volkswagen makes you to step up to the top-trim SEL model to get a backup camera – which is particularly unusual for a car that already has a suitable in-dash screen.

In another unusual move, most Jettas are sold with vinyl “leatherette” rather than the cloth found on most competitors. For some buyers this will help the Jetta feel upscale, but tastes will vary. The front seats are decently comfortable and supportive but quite firm, too hard perhaps for some tastes. The rear seat offers outstanding legroom for two adults, along with okay head space, but the cushion is a little low and a large center hump makes it a little tricky to fit a fifth passenger.

The class's biggest trunk – 15.5 cubic feet – rounds out the Jetta's versatility. Volkswagen also sells Golf hatchbacks and Golf-based Jetta Sportwagen, which are more practical still and which are also more luxurious than the Jetta sedan.

The 2014 Jetta saw a number of upgrades, including a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine with better fuel economy (especially on the highway) and a revised suspension intended to improve ride and handling. The engine, a 1.8-liter with 170 horsepower, is punchy and sounds pleasant. This reviewer didn't notice a difference in the car's ride and handling in routine driving, but the changes may make a difference closer to the car's limits. It remains composed but less than zippy, and the ride is firm but not overly stiff. The brakes feel a little mushy but work well.

The promise of a 2015 update to the Jetta raised hopes that Volkswagen would spruce up the styling and interior, but the 2015 Jetta will bring only the slightest cosmetic changes and a few new features when it goes on sale this fall.

Not too cheap

Comparably equipped to the competition – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen – it has an estimated out-the-door transaction price of $20,607.

If interior space and/or the driving dynamics of a midsize sedan seem appealing to you, though, the Jetta may well be worth the money for you.

Overall grade: B

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT (4th place)
- Previous review: 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus (6th place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $16,895
Version tested: SE Connectivity
Version base price (MSRP): $20,715
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $24,545
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $22,870
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $20,607
Test vehicle provided by: Darcars Volkswagen; Silver Spring, Md.

Key specifications:
Length: 182.2 inches
Width: 70.0 inches
Height: 57.2 inches
Wheelbase: 104.4 inches
Weight: 3,018 pounds
Trunk volume: 15.5 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Engine (as tested): 1.8-liter I4 with 170 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 25 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 36 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 29 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Mexico
For more information: Volkswagen website

See also:
Review: 2013 Volkswagen Passat SE
Review: 2010 Volkswagen Golf

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.