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Preview: 2005 Volkswagen New Jetta


By Carey Russ

With the exception of the Touareg sport-utility, Volkswagen has spent the past few years filling each of its product lines with a multitude of niche vehicles. Now it's time for something different, the all-new 2005 Jetta.

The Jetta is the most popular Volkswagen in the U.S., which makes the coming fifth-generation model the most important Volkswagen in quite some time. Coincidentally, 2005 sees two very important VW anniversaries - it is Volkswagen Of America's (VWOA's) 50th, and the Jetta's 25th in North America.

And the new Jetta is just the beginning of a major product campaign. When it was recently introduced to the press in San Diego, California, executive Vice President Len Hunt promised that it would be the first of nine new models over the next eighteen months, as the Jetta lineup fills out and new versions of the Passat, Golf, GTI, and New Beetle come to market.

What's different in the new Jetta? Everything. No, really. This is not merely advertising hyperbole. The car itself is larger and better-appointed. Volkswagen considers it to have evolved from the premium compact of previous Jettas towards being a premium almost-midsize car. Like all previous Jettas, it is built on the same platform as the Golf, but in this case it precedes the fifth-generation Golf to market in this country. (The newest Golf is already available in Europe.) Besides the increase in size, the new platform allows a considerable increase in rigidity - up 60% in static torsional rigidity, 13% in dynamic torsional rigidity, and 35% in dynamic flexing rigidity. The suspension features MacPherson struts in front, as before, but with revised geometry for improved handling. At the rear, for the first time ever in a Jetta, is a multi-link independent suspension, for improvements in both ride and handling. The steering is, of course, power-assisted; that assist is not hydraulic but electro-mechanical, with a variable assistance ratio based on road speed.

There are more changes under the hood. Gone is the familiar 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, replaced by a 2.5-liter inline five. With 150 hp at 5000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 3750 rpm (with 90% of that from 1750 through 5125 rpm for a broad and strong torque curve), the new five-cylinder is closer to the old optional 1.8-liter turbocharged four than the old two-liter base engine. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic with sport and ``Tiptronic'' manual-shift modes.

New, more grown-up styling makes the most of the fifth-generation Jetta's slightly larger size. Wheelbase has grown an inch and a half, but length has increased seven inches. Width and height are up slightly, as well. The roofline is more formal, with a C-pillar that looks influenced by Volkswagen's ultra-luxury Phaeton. The sleek, noticeably-sloped front fenders and hood and high tail give a sporty wedge look from the side. The new Jetta's most unusual styling feature is at the front, under its conservative Volkswagen-family grille - a large, wide, and bright chrome panel.

The intent of the new styling was to make the 2005 Jetta look like a larger, more substantial car, and in that it is successful. The new Jetta is a larger, more substantial car, particularly in interior and trunk space. The trunk is larger than those of several popular mid-sized sedans, and external struts and a standard 60/40 split-folding rear seat add to versatility. Legroom has increased, especially in the rear seat. Materials and tolerances are first-rate, with cloth, leatherette, or leather upholstery depending on trim level or option package. Form follows function, but not to the detriment of style - it has grown up a touch there, too.

Standard safety equipment is comprehensive, with full airbags - dual front, front side, and front and rear side curtain - active head restraints, improved crumple zones in the chassis construction, and daytime running lights on the passive side and four-wheel antilock disc brakes, ASR traction control, and electronic brake force distribution for all models on the active side. The 2.5L has ESP stability control as standard equipment, an option in the Value Edition.

Trim levels and options have deliberately been kept simple. The ``Value Edition'' is just that, with all of the power and useful equipment of the 2.5L but lacking that model's more upscale features. If you can live with velour cloth upholstery, manual seats (8-way adjustable!) and don't need automatic headlights , wipers and dual-zone climate control, extra chrome trim and convenience lighting, a trip computer, or a CD changer, it's a good deal, especially at a $17,900 base price. The regular 2.5L was announced at $20,390, or $22,350 with the ``Package 1'' option package of allow wheels, sunroof, and premium sound system expected to be the most popular model. Leather and wood, satellite radio - either XM or Sirius - and other upscale features will also be offered. Destination charge is expected to be $615.

Interesting looks and increased space are fine, but Volkswagens are supposed to be drivers' cars. To find out how it worked on the road, we drove a new Jetta 2.5L equipped with the six-speed automatic from downtown San Diego east over the mountains to Borrego Springs and back - a fine and comprehensive mix of everything from city commute traffic to the open twisting and convoluted secondary roads that are the most enjoyable habitat for a sports sedan. And, even in ``base-model'' form, with the five-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, it is indeed a sporty, if not hardcore sports, sedan. Yes, over the mountains the manual transmission would have been more appropriate, but the engine's broad torque spread and the transmission's close, well-chosen ratios and manual-shift ability worked very well. Road manners were very good, with, typically for VW, a relatively soft suspension calibration that gives both good comfort and nimble handling on the street. The chassis can definitely handle more power than is available from the 2.5-liter engine. That will be supplied when the GLI 2.0T model debuts later in the year, with the 200-hp 2.0-liter turbo four also found in the recently-introduced 2005 Audi A4. Having driven that A4, I look forward to the Jetta GLI. But, for anyone looking for the antidote to the boring compact sedan, the 2.5 looks to be a good choice. Like its intended audience, it's grown up a bit, but hasn't lost its desire and ability to have fun.