Although the Volkswagen Jetta's hatchback counterpart, the VW Golf, has graduated to the Mk 8 generation, VW's compact sedan continues to ride on the Mk 7 platform. That doesn't mean it's been neglected, however. For 2022, the mainstream versions of the Volkswagen Jetta—that is, those other than the enthusiasts' special (and 10Best-winning) Jetta GLI—get a heart transplant plus a few lesser updates.
The standard Jetta comes in four trim levels: S, Sport (replacing last year's R-Line), SE, and SEL. All have a new turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four borrowed from the Taos crossover, replacing the previous 1.4-liter turbo-four. The swap brings a horsepower increase from 147 to 158, while torque remains at 184 pound-feet. The base S and Sport trim can still be had with a six-speed manual transmission. Grander models, including our SEL test car, get an eight-speed automatic.
Despite its growth in engine displacement, the Jetta's fuel economy improves in most measures. With the automatic transmission, the base S version adds 2 mpg in both the EPA city and highway estimates, which are now 31/41 mpg. With the six-speed stick, the Jetta loses 1 mpg in the city but gains 2 mpg on the highway, with estimates now at 29/43 mpg, respectively. Upper trims post the same 29-mpg city rating as before but now hit the 40-mpg bogey on the highway. We did slightly better in our 75-mph highway test, averaging 42 mpg.
In low-speed driving, this new still-small engine feels heavily dependent on its turbocharger, with a fair bit of lag in initial response. Brush the accelerator when cruising, though, and the Jetta easily surges ahead, giving the impression of ready power. And judging by our acceleration testing, the 1.5-liter's 11 extra horses are all descended from Seabiscuit. Stomp on the accelerator and 60 mph appears in 7.1 seconds—0.6 second quicker than last year's car. The quarter-mile passes in 15.5 seconds at 91 mph versus the previous model's 16.0 seconds at 86 mph.
With its larger turbocharged 2.0-liter packing 228 horsepower, the GLI is still quicker, of course. In our most recent test of a 2022 GLI with the six-speed manual, it hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 14.6 at 100 mph. Compare the automatic Jetta and GLI, however, and the gulf widens: A 2019 GLI with the dual-clutch (and no-longer-available Hankook Ventus S1 Evo3 summer tires) scampered to 60 in 5.5 seconds.
What's more, the SEL's braking performance was well off that of its sportier sibling. Stops from 70 mph in our test car took a long 189 feet, and the brake pedal has more travel than we'd like. With its larger front brakes, the GLI chops 15 feet off that distance, even without summer tires. That model also boasts adaptive dampers, a multilink independent rear suspension, plus an electronically controlled limited-slip differential (the latter shared with the base-engine Sport model). The base, non-GLI Jetta has a similar strut-type front suspension yet makes do with a torsion beam at the rear, and its chassis is softly sprung.
Crank through a series of quick curves and the Jetta rolls easily, its body bobbing around on its suspension as you hustle over lumpy pavement. Add overly boosted steering to the mix, and you have a car that's built more for comfort than for speed. Comfort, though, it does deliver, as there's plenty of compliance to sop up potholes with minimal disturbance to passengers. Jetta SEL occupants are also minimally disturbed by noise. We measured just 67 decibels cruising at 70 mph. Ask the wee engine to give its all under full throttle, though, and a substantial 78 decibels makes its way into the cabin—that's 5 decibels more than in the VW Taos with the same engine.
The Jetta's cabin remains plenty spacious for adults in both the front and rear, and the roomy trunk measures 14 cubic feet. Digital instrumentation is now standard with an 8.0-inch unit in most trims but the SEL and GLI get a 10.3-inch display. Even so, the interior design is stark and hard plastics predominate. The good news is that the Jetta hasn't yet been afflicted with the all-touch infotainment setup that GTI and ID.4 drivers suffer with. The Jetta's infotainment system still has a volume knob as well as a tuning knob—the latter requires the radio display to first be in the right mode, however, and switching among the many display options is a needless annoyance. The climate controls, though, are simple and straightforward.
With the Golf lineup now consisting exclusively of the GTI and Golf R, the Jetta serves as the entry to the VW brand. That threshold now stands at $21,360 for the S, which is more than $1000 higher than last year, but that's offset by new standard equipment including forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. At the top of the range, a SEL like our test car costs $29,090. Yet while the SEL is a comfy cruiser, we'd be sorely tempted to stretch another 10 percent or so for the GLI, which at $32,290 to start is far more rewarding to drive. With the Jetta, those three letters after its name make a big difference.
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