When I was much younger, I often wondered what to do with all the spare time I had. One couldn’t stay online all day in an era when 56k dial-up subscriptions were sold by ISPs in blocks of hours; cable TV programmes were limited and only marginally more entertaining than free-to-air shows; curfews were actually a thing; and the limited spending power for a school-going adolescent meant there were, well, limits to what we could do. Today, living in a hyperconnected society means having to constantly filter through a deluge of information in whatever time that’s left over after an honest day’s work; the need to juggle responsibilities that accompany adulthood also strips away precious hours across each week. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that many time-poor individuals rely on first impressions and snap decisions to determine if something is worthy of more than a few seconds’ attention.
It was in the same vein that I joined the pool of consumers who casually dismissed the Volkswagen Jetta as a Golf with a boot, when the Mk V model was first introduced in Singapore back in 2007. That was that, until very recently when Volkswagen contacted me about taking the New Jetta for a weekend’s test drive. Being a marketer by training and a communications executive by trade, I tried to figure out where the Jetta sits in a very competitive car market as I was handed the keys to the car before this year’s National Day weekend.
Parked alongside each other, it’s immediately obvious how much longer the Jetta is. This translates into a cavernous boot (510 litres!) which makes the Jetta a car you can take on a weekend jaunt with the family up north across the Causeway. You don’t have to limit the missus’ packing, or worry about how much shopping you can chuck into the back, because it really swallows everything up. I reckon even the newer Hyundais and Mercs of our taxi companies would struggle to compete in boot space.
Despite the Jetta’s exterior dimensions making it practically as long as a Toyota Camry (with very comparable rear legroom even with my recessed driver’s seat position) and BMW 5 Series, the engine is very willing in urban and highway driving, while remaining respectably efficient. In using up nearly two-thirds of the car’s 55-litre fuel tank, I averaged 7.8 litres per 100 km, or close to 13 km per litre of petrol, with an occasionally enthusiastic right foot. In terms of drivability, I’ve often remarked that driving a Camry is like steering a boat, but the Jetta’s handling is really decent even though the two vehicles are similarly sized. Parking the Jetta – both perpendicular and parallel – was straightforward, although some drivers might prefer to equip the car with all-round proximity sensors.
Driven by 121 bhp from a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the Jetta sits assuredly within the Category A segment, where traditional favourites like the Toyota Corolla Altis, Honda Civic, and the increasingly-popular Mazda 3 also reside. Let’s not forget that if you stretch your budget a little, the Volkswagen Golf also wades into the frame. In fact, my family recently switched from a 2008 Honda Civic to a Golf Mk 7.
There are undoubtedly differences in driving characteristics between these Japanese brands’ normally aspirated engines and a European turbocharged motor. Nearly all European automobile manufacturers have adopted turbocharging to varying extents in a bid to reduce engine sizes (and therefore emissions) and improve fuel efficiency, while maintaining an equivalent power output expected of a larger displacement motor. One of the most significant benefits of turbocharging (for me at least) is the relatively high torque that’s available without having to rev the engine beyond 2,500 rpm, which means acceleration comes sooner and with no need to strain the power plant. As a result, you needn’t endure the harsh engine notes as often as with a normally aspirated motor, particularly when driving up a mild incline with a moderate load.
The dual-clutch gearbox (“DSG” in Volkswagen parlance) is another innovation that most Asian manufacturers have yet to adopt in their vehicles. Developed to improve fuel efficiency, these transmissions also provide seamless shifts with no noticeable loss of power during gear changes. The one characteristic I’ve had to get used to is how the transmission takes a moment longer to engage the first gear when moving off from a standstill. There’s currently no way to avoid this comparatively sluggish start when you compare it with a traditional automatic, but it’s like complaining that the ice cream in your cup doesn’t trickle down your fingers when it melts. Long-time drivers of traditional automatics who fuss about this need to see the bigger picture – improved fuel efficiency and seamless gear changes are more important factors given that you’re likely to be in motion much longer than you’d be stationary. Anything to the contrary would warrant a re-think of whether you should actually drive a car in the first place.
In terms of creature comforts for the driver, the Jetta’s multi-function steering wheel with a slightly flat bottom is the same one used in the Golf 7, making it instantly familiar for me when I first drove it home from Volkswagen’s showroom in peak hour traffic. Buttons, switches and the indicator and wiper stalks are similarly well damped, too.
The test car came with integrated GPS navigational features, although the local map saved in its system is due an update. The Highline variant is packed with additional features such as rain-sensing wipers, electrically retractable side mirrors, cruise control (a valuable feature if you regularly along roads with mind-numbing speed limits), and multi-zone air-conditioning. You can include paddle shifters at an optional cost, but I wouldn’t bother with those and it’s probably a good thing that Volkswagen didn’t include it as a standard configuration with an accompanying premium.
What I would seriously consider, though, is optioning the car with bi-xenon headlights, because once you drive with these at night, regular halogen lamps just seem ineffective.
The “corn silk beige” interior provides a nice two-tone contrast on the inside, making the inside feel lighter and brighter, but the first thing I’d do is switch out the beige textile floor mats, which get dirtied too easily by rainwater and any other unwelcome particles that may have dislodged from occupants’ footwear. Across the range, rear passengers get their own air-con vents in addition to very enviable legroom, something that remains a rarity for cars at this price point.
All of which bring me back to this hotly contested segment of compact sedans. Should customers who are devoted ass men (i.e. must have a sedan-sized boot) shopping in this bracket for a family car look up the price scale from their cookie-cutter Japanese or Korean options? It would be presumptuous of me to tell others if spending an extra 10-, 20- or even 30,000 dollars on a compact saloon is justifiable, but having spent a few days in the Jetta and covered some respectable mileage, I’d encourage car buyers to at least test drive the car before dismissing it like I did initially. There’s no better way to make an informed decision in a car purchase than to experience the drive yourself, after all.
Special thanks to Volkswagen Singapore for this opportunity.