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2017 Volkswagen Jetta SEL Premium Review by Carey Russ


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VW Jetta In Top Semi-Luxury Form

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

                • SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Research and Buyers Guide


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Volkswagen has long been known for evolutionary rather than revolutionary product development, with more changes under the skin that to that skin. Back in the 1950s, when American cars changed outside, often radically, nearly every year, VW made its reputation with the Type 1 / Beetle / Bug sedan that changed very little, at least compared to the domestic offerings, from its inception to its final demise twenty or so years later. Unsurprisingly, 2017 models of VW’s most popular offering in the American marketplace, the Jetta sedan, look little different from a 2016, or even a 2011 one, the first model year for the current generation.

The biggest change to the Jetta lineup for 2017 is simplification. Rather than variations within trim levels due to what otherwise would be option packages, choices are simply S, SE, SEL, and GLI. S and SE models get more standard features, as does the SEL. The S gets a rearview camera and LED daytime running lights; the SE now comes with VW’s Car-Net® connectivity suite, a sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, keyless access and pushbutton start/stop, V-Tex leatherette, and alloy wheels standard — almost an SEL. Both the S and SE got a 1.4-liter turbocharged, direct-injected engine last year, replacing the aging 2.0 naturally-aspirated one. The SEL continues with the 1.8-liter direct-injection turbo and gets automatic dual-zone climate control, power driver’s seat, a navigation system, rain-sense wipers, foglights, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking. The GLI adds convenience to its performance with standard sports seats, navigation, LED taillights, park distance control, the blind-spot system, and a Fender® premium audio system.

I was most impressed by the 1.4 TSI engine in a Jetta SE last year, as it has the same 184 lb-ft of torque as the 1.8. Horsepower is less, 150 to 170, but that is only noticeable when accelerating above 50 or 60 mph. I’ve just finished a week with a 2017 SEL. The SE is more expensive; it’s also better-equipped, with much that was found only in luxury cars not long ago — at a more reasonable price point. If you must have leather upholstery and wood trim and a “prestige” name, it won’t work. But if a well-appointed, comfortable, conveniently-sized car with good performance, sporty handling, and a fun-to-drive character is on you wants list, the Jetta SEL fits the description well.

APPEARANCE: True to its roots, VW has done no major changes to the Jetta this year. None really needed, as its simple lines are aging well, and should continue to do so. The minor changes last year included more underbody cladding, redesigned rain gutters, and a small ducktail at the trailing edge of the trunk lid — minor but significant for reducing aerodynamic drag and so improving fuel efficiency.

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COMFORT: Interior styling is recognizably Volkswagen, simple and clean, with a look a class or two above the price point. Materials and fit and finish are very good, with close tolerances and textured, soft-touch synthetics on the upper instrument panel and metallic-look trim and binding. The leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel has cruise, audio, and information system controls and is manually adjustable for both tilt and reach. Courtesy lights are a welcome feature after dark. The V-Tex leatherette front seats offer a high degree of comfort and support, and the driver's is power-adjustable. Both are heatable. The MIB II infotainment interface to the Fender sound system has AM, FM, and Sirius/XM radio, USB and jack connections, a CD slot, two SD card slots (one for the nav system), and Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, and MirrorLink via a suitable Bluetooth phone. It’s lighter and sounds better than a Twin Reverb in the back seat. Dual-zone automatic climate control is convenient and works quickly. There is a good amount of interior storage, with bottle holders and storage in all doors, open and covered console spaces, a large, two-level glovebox, and even overhead sunglasses space. The rear seat offers very good room for the car's size. As is usual, the rear bench is contoured for outboard passengers, but the moderate center tunnel helps center space. The back folds 60/40, and the trunk offers plenty of capacity. A space-saver spare in found under the trunk floor.

SAFETY: The Jetta's unibody structure is designed and built for optimum safety, with controlled deformation in a collision. Frontal, front-seat side, and full-length side curtain airbags add further passive protection. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes plus electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), hydraulic brake assist (HBA), and electronic stability control (ESC) add further protection. A wide-angle backup camera makes backing safer, aided here by side blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts. Front Assist, a combination of forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, lessens the chance of an accident. If a crash does happen, the Intelligent Crash Response System (ICRS) unlocks the doors, shuts off the fuel pump, and activated the hazard lights.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Ride quality and handling far above the class norms are longstanding Volkswagen characteristics. That hasn't changed. Spring and damper rates are well-matched, giving a supple, comfortable ride with good grip even on poor surfaces. Body roll in hard street-driving cornering is not excessive and the electrically-assisted steering is not overly light. It's more "sport-touring" than "sports", but those who want sport in their Jetta will get the GLI, so no problem.

PERFORMANCE: Most other automakers are touting their new smaller-displacement turbocharged, direct fuel-injected engines as amazing new technology. To them, maybe… VW did this first, back in 2006. The advantages of less weight (from a physically smaller engine), greater efficiency (direct injection allows a higher compression ratio, for improved efficiency and power production), and lower fuel consumption, from the smaller engine and because the turbo only adds power when needed, as under acceleration, with no wasted excess at cruising speed, were noted by the competition. The SEL’s 1.8-liter engine, code-named EA888, is a development of the previous-generation 2.0-liter. It's lighter and more compact, and built for turbocharging, with the exhaust manifold cast en-unit with the head. The result here is maximum 170 horsepower at 5300 rpm, with torque peaking at 184 lb-ft at 1500 rpm and not dropping off until it no longer matters, 4750 rpm. (Kudos to VW for admitting that this is using unleaded premium, not regular. Power output will be a bit less on regular.) My first experience with it was with a manual gearbox a few years ago. In that form, it didn’t feel much different from the just-previous 2.0T. American buying habits being what they are, the manual is no longer offered. For the semi-luxury position of the SEL, no problem. The six-speed automatic works very well. There is a Sport mode that holds lower gears longer and shifts a bit more assertively as well as regular, economy-oriented D. Sport worked well enough that in twisty-road or short-onramp situations I had no need for manual-mode shifting, with D used in normal driving. With little highway driving, I got a 28 mpg average for my week. EPA estimates are 25 mpg city, 35 highway, 29 overall. No complaints.

CONCLUSIONS: In a class better known for transportation appliances, Volkswagen’s popular Jetta combines fuel economy and comfort with a pleasant driving experience.

SPECIFICATIONS

2017 Volkswagen Jetta SEL Premium

Base Price $ 26,995

Price As Tested $ 27,815

Engine Type turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with direct fuel injection

Engine Size 1.8 liters / 110 cu. in.

Horsepower 170 @ 4800 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 184 @ 1500-4750 rpm

Transmission 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase / Length 104.4 in. / 183.3 in.

Curb Weight 3177 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 18.7

Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline for best performance, 87 octane unleaded regular acceptable.

Tires 225/45 R17 91H m+s Continental Pro Contact

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, ESC standard

Suspension, front/rear independent strut / independent multilink

Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 25 / 35 / 28

0 to 60 mph 7.5 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Destination Charge $ 820