Jetta comes with a choice of powertrains and those choices affect the character of the car underway.
The Jetta S uses a 115-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine we found slow and inefficient. Fuel economy is only 1 mpg better than the SE with its frisky 170-horsepower 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. Jetta SE costs $2995 more, but then you also get a stack of other good stuff, from leather-like V-Tex interior, to the can't-live-without pass-through from the rear seat to trunk. Also cruise control and heated mirrors.
The Jetta Hybrid features a 1.4-liter turbocharged intercooled engine, combined with a water-cooled electric motor, that together make the same horsepower and a bit more torque than the 2.5-liter, a non-hybrid engine that gets an EPA-estimated 28 mpg Combined; and that's what we got. Jetta Hybrid is rated 42/48 mpg City/Highway; 18 of the world's best hyper-mile drivers drove Jetta Hybrids from San Francisco to Santa Monica, and the winner got 49.9 mpg; Motor Trend magazine drove one from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and got 46.1 mpg. We got 35.0 mpg over 340 miles, half casual city and half freeway at 72 mph. Using cruise control and watching the data instrumentation on our Jetta, it appears that the difference between 65 mph and 75 mph is about 10 mpg. We know how those competitive hyper-mile drivers drive: so slow it's annoying to traffic. It's worth noting the Hybrid requires Premium gasoline, while the 2.5-liter runs fine on Regular.
The Hybrid uses regenerative braking, converting heat to electrical energy. You can feel it in the brake pedal. At very slow speeds the brakes are too sensitive, but at 30 mph the sensitivity goes away; that inconsistency leads to problems, because your foot and brain can't keep adjusting back and forth. You're either bouncing your forehead off the steering wheel in parking lots, or nearly crashing into the car in front of you when slowing for red lights. At freeway speeds the pedal feels normal.
The Hybrid has the same horsepower as the 2.5-liter SE, but it weighs about 300 more pounds, so it's not so quick, even with its low-down torque and standard DSG transmission. Looking at the approximate $7000 difference in price, with the Hybrid you get less quickness, problematic braking, and a smaller trunk; on the plus side you get the DSG, 10 or 12 more miles per gallon, and a fuzzy feeling for enlisting in the war on global warming. We estimate a gas savings of $400 per year, so the Hybrid will pay for itself in 17.5 years, if you ignore maintenance and depreciation, in which case it's more like never.
The five-cylinder, 20-valve 2.5-liter engine is a Volkswagen stalwart, with good acceleration and an impressive top speed of 127 mph, which means 80 mph is a breeze.
We drove a Jetta SEL with each transmission, the 6-speed automatic and 5-speed manual. The automatic is excellent, sharp in Sport mode. In the city it responded crisply to San Francisco hills; and in stop-and-go freeway traffic, it stayed in third gear, using Sport mode. No paddle shifters in the SEL, however.
The 5-speed manual gearbox has long throws and feels numb, plus the clutch pressure is light. The 2.5-liter engine, let alone the 2.0, doesn't have the torque to carry the gearbox, so a lot of downshifting is required.
The Jetta TDI comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct injection engine that makes 140 horsepower and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque, making it strong from a stop. Still, its 0-60 time is an unimpressive 8.7 seconds. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 42 mpg Highway, and that number has held up to experience.
To lower the cost, the redesigned 2011 Jetta had a rear torsion beam suspension and drum brakes in the S and SE. The rear drums have been upgraded to discs in 2013, basically for free. The torsion beam remains, and few notice any loss from the better handling and ride that a multi-link rear suspension might bring. Volkswagen says the advantages of a torsion beam are excellent directional stability when cornering, a smooth ride, and a compact, space-saving design.
We found the ride of our Hybrid smooth, while being firm on the small bumps and freeway expansion strips, but never uncomfortable, more like reassuring, and yes good directional stability when cornering. But because the torsion bar transfers the bumps from one side of the car to the other, on a bad road the Jetta might be a busy ride.
The Jetta GLI is the performance model, with a multi-link rear suspension and the famous 2.0-liter turbo four, now making 200 hp. It goes from 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds with the satisfying DSG twin-clutch transmission. The 6-speed manual transmission is a pleasure, but the DSG built by the House of Audi is the best of its kind, with sharp and perfect shifts in auto or manual mode. Well-placed steering-wheel paddles come with the DSG.