There are few things more stressful than playing the hire car lottery. When I arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to begin a week-long road trip around the Great Lakes, I approached the hire car desk with trepidation. To my delight, I was given an option: ‘Would you like a Chevy Cruze, or a Volkswagen Jetta?’ A General Motors vehicle today is probably satisfactory, but I have memories of GM products from 10-15 years ago, and they are not good. ‘Jetta, please.’
Not yet sharing the MQB platform – the upcoming Mk7 Jetta will do so – this 2017 model is the final iteration of the PQ35 platform. Though dated now, having driven several Golfs built on the platform, I have high expectations for this car. If anything, I anticipate the Jetta to drive even better, given it’s longer wheelbase and its new powertrain.
After collecting the car, I load up in preparation to set out on the trip. With two small children, there is quite a bit of stuff to take along – a car seat, booster seat, three large suitcases, and various other small things. The Jetta impresses at this point already, the sizeable boot easily swallowing our luggage. Prior to installing my youngest’s car seat, I sit in the back seat and am surprised to find it providing ample room. At 6’4″, there is enough space for my legs to entertain the prospect of a longer drive back there, although the sloping roofline means headroom is an issue. But for young children and smaller adults, comfort is not going to be a problem.
In the driver’s seat, you notice the typical Volkswagen build quality, which stands out all the more after spending some time in American vehicles. Fit and finish is good, and the materials are pleasant to the touch. Volkswagen does switchgear well, and things are well-laid out, with only a few minor niggles (try figuring out how to make the instrument panel read miles per hour!). For a family road-trip, the Trendline+ comes well-equipped, with USB inputs, a decent infotainment unit with good sound, and heated seats. The latter are firm, but supportive and comfortable. Again, my only complaint has to do with height – owing to the presence of a sunroof, I have to put the seat all the way down, and even then, my hair still brushes the roof.
We set out on the trip, and with 350 miles of motorway ahead of me, I have very little to worry about. Get up to speed, engage cruise control, and the Jetta soaks up the miles with ease. I am immediately impressed by how quiet the car is. At 70mph, the engine is turning just a tick over 2000rpm, and is nearly inaudible. On this first leg of the journey, the weather is not cooperating – lashes of rain, and 40+mph wind gusts (hence the condition of the car in the photos), and yet wind noise is minimal. What’s more, the car remains stable and planted, even through the strongest of gusts. So many North American roads are straight, which makes handling less of an issue for many people, but on the few twists and turns I find, the Jetta complies willingly. It’s not a GTI by any means, but you can throw it into a corner with some confidence. Roll is minimal, and it never really feels off balance.
Under the bonnet, the 1.4L TSI ticks away without a complaint. I’ve driven a few cars with the new TSI engines, and each time I’ve been impressed. That is no different here. The 1.4L engine for the North American market makes 150bhp and 184 lb.-ft., and as is characteristic of the TSI engines, provides most of that torque between 1400 and 3500rpm. That means power is always right where you want it for daily driving, whether you’re accelerating away from a start or passing at higher speeds. Whilst sounding strained near the redline, keep it below 5000rpm and the engine always feels responsive and smooth. Is it fast and sporty? Of course not. But it is more than adequate, and for a daily driver, I could see myself being perfectly happy with this engine.
Less impressive is the 6-speed automatic gearbox, which regularly seems confused about which gear it actually wants to be in. This is especially noticeable if you adjust the throttle position when accelerating. Let’s say you press the accelerator, the gearbox shifts into second and then third, but then you let off the accelerator a little because of a slower car in front. The car will hold third, but once you increase pressure again, suddenly thinks you want second. And so it downshifts, and you’re now accelerating faster than you intend to. Let off the accelerator, and now it assumes you’re ready to cruise in fourth. At other times, it is slow to respond to prods from your right foot, as if it’s contemplating the benefits of downshifting before deciding to actually downshift. Even selecting sport mode and shifting by hand, the gearbox is slow in responding to your inputs, particularly on upshifts. In the end I discover that to get the smoothest acceleration, you need to drive in a relaxed manner – fine for empty rural roads, but a bit of an irritation around town. In my opinion, a manual gearbox is the better option to make the most of this engine, but depending on what you want from a car and your driving style, you may be perfectly happy with the automatic.
One nice feature of the gearbox, however, is automatic downshifts. I know that many automatics do this these days, but the downshifts are particularly pronounced here, and if you let off the accelerator early enough approaching a traffic light, you only need to touch the brakes at the last moment. Drive more spiritedly, and when you let off approaching a corner, the gearbox will downshift and hold the lower gear as you accelerate out of the corner. And when descending a hill, if the increase in speed is rapid, especially when using the cruise control, the gearbox will downshift to help slow the car down.
Long distance trips are a chance to be impressed by how efficient these TSI engines are. Most of my driving on the trip is on motorways and long, straight, empty North American rural roads, which means my average speed over the whole 1500km is 58mph. Official figures put the Jetta’s fuel consumption at 5.9L/100km (47.9mpg). I know onboard computers can be inaccurate, but on one 300-mile trip the car is telling me we’ve done 5.4L/100km (52.3mpg), a significant improvement over the stated figure. At the end of the trip, which concludes with some shorter trips and stop-and-go traffic, we still come in at 5.8L/100km, and that’s in a car loaded down with people and luggage. That kind of economy will make anyone second-guess a diesel option, especially when the TSI is so much more responsive and engaging than an equivalent TDI.
Even on this increasingly antiquated platform, the Jetta Trendline+ is an attractive package. It drives and handles well, it is efficient, quiet and refined. The 1500km I spent behind the wheel were anything but a chore, and I walked away thinking that, if you have to buy a car for everyday use in North America, this should be on your top 5 list (with a manual gearbox, of course). If you’re going to buy new, I might suggest you wait for the next MQB-based Jetta, because I can only imagine it will be even better. But this model is a well-rounded and polished package, and considering the Trendline+ has an MSRP of $20,795 CAD, you can hardly ask for more.
2017 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline+
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 150bhp, 184lb.-ft.
Fuel economy: 5.8L/100km (claimed: 5.9L/100km)
Mileage on collection: 29,849km
Total distance driven: 1463km
MSRP: $20,795 CAD
Official Volkswagen Jetta website