A short while ago, a memory popped up on my Facebook newstream from 16 years ago: a photo of the day I sold my beloved 2000 VW Jetta VR6. It is a day and event I have long regretted. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to an old friend, I felt like I was betraying that friend. It was like sending my dog to the pound. How could I possibly walk away from a friend that went everywhere with me through my most formative years? It was my companion through the last two years of high school, all four years of college and several cross-country journeys along the way. That includes being with me in three of the places most associated with my youth: Indianapolis where I went to high school, Malibu where I went to college, and two summers visiting Toronto, where I grew up. When you live a rather migratory existence, it’s probably not surprising that a car becomes like a friend.
Any way, I’m in the process of moving back to Southern California from Oregon. Specifically, an area not that far from where I went to college slash first tore through the Santa Monica Mountains in a certain Jetta VR6 painted Silver Arrow. The nostalgia feels were already pretty strong as I boarded the plane for a quick trip down to Malibu to drive the revised 2022 VW Arteon. To get me there, the Volkswagen folks left a car for me at LAX. I honestly didn’t look closely at what it was going to be.
It was a silver Jetta. I stood there for a beat to appreciate how fitting it was. “Driving to Malibu in silver Jetta” is probably second to only “sitting on couch watching Star Trek” in terms of quintessential “me” things to do. I nearly called up my college roommate and asked if he wanted me to pick him up and do lunch at Howdy’s.
Obviously, this silver 2022 Volkswagen Jetta is quite different from mine. For one thing, it’s actually cheaper, by about $3,000. And no, not adjusted for inflation. Partly that’s because mine was a loaded GLS (not quite top of the line), while this was a base-as-base-can-be Jetta S trim level. However, the main reason is that Volkswagen transitioned the Jetta from a premium entry in the compact segment to a value-oriented one two generations ago. This Jetta goes for $21,360, including destination. In 1999 dollars, that would only be $12,308. A base-as-base-could-be 2000 Jetta GL went for around $17,000 back then.
That car’s engine was abysmal, however. I distinctly remember Car and Driver at the time pining that Volkswagen’s 2.0-liter inline-four would be better suited to marine duty … as a boat anchor. Quite clever that lot. Naturally, I wanted the 2.8-liter VR6. The 1.8-liter turbo-four hadn’t been introduced yet, but there’s no way I’d want that. Why have 150 horsepower when I could have 174 horsepower? I’m recalling those figures from memory, by the way. No clue what the torque figure was. Probably cause I didn’t know what torque was at all in 1999, but turns out that VR6 had a lot of it and it was enough to plant a deep-seeded love for the stuff in my automotive taste profile. High strung and revvy would not be my thing, as my Jetta’s Acura TLX successor would prove.
I don’t think I’d seek out an upgrade for the 2022 Jetta’s base engine. It brings the torque: 184 pound-feet of the stuff courtesy of a 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four. That’s actually 3 torques more than my old VR6 (I had to look it up), and its 158 horsepower outstrips the old 1.8T upgrade. Of course, matching or surpassing 20-year-old cars is hardly something to be proud of, but remember, this is the base engine not an optional upgrade. It’s a smooth mill with a deep well of low-end grunt that sure seemed reminiscent of the car I remembered. Comparable throttle and brake pedal responses, too. Of course, it gets 29 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 34 mpg combined. My Jetta VR6 got 19 mpg combined, or about what you can expect from a 2022 Lincoln Navigator. But it was 1999 and gas was like $1.20 in Indiana so who cares?
Oh, and here’s the other pleasant surprise of the day: this Jetta had a manual. A six-speed with typical-Volkswagen long throws and a nicely modulated clutch that takes advantage of all that torque to make it especially easy to drive. A first-time manual driver would be well-served with this one. Sadly, I had the four-speed automatic back in the day (that definitely didn’t help the fuel economy) since the dealer made it clear it wouldn’t be getting a manual any time soon. The VR6 was a big enough ask. I also didn’t know how to drive stick yet, but hey, I would’ve learned. And my parents wouldn’t have had to worry about someone else driving my car. Cause that totally didn’t happen in college.
Speaking of which, there’s sure as hell a much bigger back seat in today’s Jetta. It has 37.4 inches of rear legroom, which is basically what you’d get in a 2000 Honda Accord. Mine had 33.5 inches, which meant that precisely no one could fit behind my pushed-back driver seat. Not even my 5-foot-zip future wife. Don’t worry, I was nice enough to scoot up my seat as needed. The trunk has actually only grown by a cube, but that’s as much a testament to ye olde Jetta having a pretty big boot. Came in handy during all those college moves and cross-country trips.
All that extra size is one way today’s Jetta delivers extra value compared to its predecessors sold in the 2000s, but a much lower price is another, and you can definitely see that in the materials. There’s a lot of hard, scratchy plastic inside that’s worse than what you got in the surprisingly upscale A4 Jetta (my generation) and the even nicer A5. My loaded GLS wasn’t that far off in terms of quality and ambiance than entry-level luxury sedans of the time – today’s Jetta, even in comparably ritzier guise, is not. No one is including today’s Jetta in a comparison test with an Audi A4 or BMW 323i (or Saab 9-3! or Infiniti G20t!) as Car and Driver did back in the day. That’s OK, as again, it has a lower price, offers way more space and is therefore a better option for more people. If you want a surprisingly upscale cabin with cramped accommodations today, there’s the Mazda 3.
One of those will definitely handle better than this Jetta, as like 20 years ago, VW’s compact sedan is more about all-around driving dynamics, with an emphasis placed as much on comfort and refinement. At least today’s Jetta buyer can turn to the GLI for some extra zing (it would be a mid-cycle addition to the A4 generation). That said, the 2022 Jetta happily zinged itself through the long, high-speed sweepers of Kanan Dume Road, showing itself to be composed and responsive to inputs. It may have grown a lot, but it’s still smaller than a midsize sedan, and feels like it behind the wheel.
Sure, I’m being rather nostalgic, but I think this 2022 VW Jetta S with the manual transmission would make a terrific first car. It’s easy to drive and not a bore to drive, it’s fuel efficient and well-equipped, and its crash scores are excellent. You do have to pay $995 extra for key safety tech features including forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, but to a parent paying that bill, that’s worth it.
A lot has certainly changed in 20 years, but this was still a silver Jetta. I wouldn’t say it was like reuniting with an old friend, but maybe his son? It’s not the same, but there’s a little glimmer here and there to transport you back in time. This happy little Jetta with the punchy engine and manual transmission helped me do just that.
And thankfully, it didn't come with my '99 wardrobe.